On Sunday, I awoke to the messages of friends and family to check the official Facebook page of one of Tennessee’s candidates for Governor ― former State Senator Mae Beavers. In the midst of natural and political crises facing our nation, I was shocked and a bit unsettled to discover that the post was specifically condemning my personal involvement in the ongoing movement for human rights. The idea that an elected official would publicly target and monitor any citizen is disturbing ― but it is becoming an all too normalized reality in our current political climate. From the White House to the state house, we are seeing those who hold offices of power threatening, isolating, and bullying those who dare dissent against the wave of extreme policies hurting our communities.
It is no coincidence that Senator Beavers is the same person who earlier this year responded to peaceful protests in the Capitol by telling the press, “To try and scare our staff, for us to be escorted out of the building; read the Tennessee Constitution. It says anybody that disrespects a legislator when we’re in session is to be imprisoned.” This is unfortunately the situation we must now face together, but it is not limited to one politician or moment. From a presidential campaign marked by threatening protestors with bodily harm to the wave of anti-protest legislation introduced in this year alone, we face a time of harsh push-back. While we strive to move forward together, we are coming face-to-face with the forces of regression seeking to maintain the racial and economic status quo. They have made clear their intention “to take this country back” and it is time we believed them as we go back to a time reminiscent of America’s darker days.
In the midst of this reemergence of extremism and meanness, we must also go back to our own roots and take heart from the long line of justice-seekers who acted regardless of any personal consequences. “If I fall, I will fall five-feet four-inches forward in the fight for freedom,” Fannie Lou Hamer declared, having faced the beatings and bomb threats of white supremacists for trying to register to vote. The politically powerful most fear the people who themselves are no longer afraid, and the people who are unrelenting in their challenge to the legitimacy of business-as-usual. This moral resistance transcends partisan politics and is active regardless of who is in office. The gravest mistake of Senator Beavers’ post condemning these protest activities, was a refusal to acknowledge the interconnectedness of the struggles from indigenous rights at Standing Rock, to health care access, equal protection under law, and the tearing down of white supremacist idols. What neither she nor those who espouse her ideology understand is that we no longer have the luxury of focusing on a single issue. We do not have the convenience of just showing up when our communities are being harmed on numerous fronts simultaneously. Our vision must be expanded far beyond that which effects us personally. Moral dissent and witness must be a way of life in such a time as this, when power-holders are so intoxicated by their own authority.
The act of protest is saying the politics of hurt can no longer operate in the comfort of silence."
During my time as a student at Fisk University, I was moved by a rich legacy of alumni like civil rights leaders Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, and John Lewis who talked to us about the power of nonviolent struggle and the call to be active against injustice ― not necessarily for ourselves, but for generations yet unborn. I was convicted by the experiences of my own grandparents and elders who rose up in the face of Jim Crow inequality, were beaten down, and still chose to get back up again. No longer can these just be fables we lean on to celebrate where we’ve come from. We ourselves are in a breakthrough moment where our generation must respond to actively shape where we are going. When Senator Beavers uses the racially-coded and fear-mongering rhetoric claiming, “...they are there to destroy our history, our way of life, our freedoms, liberties, our values, and everything good about our country,” we must recognize the spirit of those who have always thought that this country belongs only to a few. For them, maintaining this very limited and narrow vision is what “Make America Great America” really means.
We now have to decide how we will respond with our own narrative, speaking our own vision for the soul of our nation. In his last speech, standing right here in Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to similar repression, saying, “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” This is the challenge and legacy we are a part of today. As we constantly hear the false-truths of “Great Again” we must take heed of what Dr. King reminded us about in that same final speech, on the “challenge to make America what it ought to be.” Despite the fears raised by Senator Beavers and others, the foundations of old are not being destroyed, they are crumbling because no structure built on the degradation of human dignity can stand forever. The act of protest is a response to that brokenness. The act of protest is about our collective redemption. The act of protest is saying the politics of hurt can no longer operate in the comfort of silence. In the streets and halls of power, we are coming together to fortify a more just and sustainable future. With each protest, we lift up another building block and we lay out a blue-print for an America yet in the making.