Robert Reich
The Coffee Klatch with Robert Reich
Meeting Justin Jones

Meeting Justin Jones

Passing the baton


On Sunday I experienced the perfect antidote to the resurgent Trump and Trumpism. I met with Tennessee Representative Justin Jones right after he gave an inspiring talk to our graduating UC Berkeley public policy students.

As you may recall, Jones and another young Black Tennessee legislator, Justin Pearson, were expelled last month from the state’s General Assembly for protesting Tennessee’s failure to enact stronger gun controls after a shooting at a Christian school in Nashville took the lives of three nine-year-olds and three adults.

Now, he and Pearson are back. And their expulsion has caused a groundswell of support for them and the causes they’re fighting for, in Tennessee and elsewhere around America.

A half century separates us. He’s 27, at the start of his career. I’m about to be 77, nearing the end of mine.

He’s a young Black man. I’m an old white guy.

He’s tall. I’m very short.

We grew up in radically different times.

But I came away from our discussion profoundly optimistic about the future of this country. In talking with him I felt as if I were passing a generational baton to someone who will be fighting the good fight for the next half century — a new generation that will be more successful than mine in achieving social and economic justice, that will lead the nation toward a strong multiracial, multiethnic democracy.

He and Pearson, who took office in November and January, respectively, are community organizers and social justice advocates. Jones has described himself as an activist.

“I think our presence as young Black voices for our constituencies, people who will not bow down, those who will not be conformed, that’s what put a target on us the day we walked in the Tennessee General Assembly. … I mean, this is the first time in Tennessee history we had a completely partisan expulsion by predominantly white caucus — all but one member of their caucus is white out of 75 members — and we are the two youngest Black lawmakers in Tennessee. … And so what we saw was a system of political hubris. This was not just an attack on us, it was an attempt to silence our districts.”

He believes the biggest challenge his generation faces is the growing assault on democracy.

“The Tennessee House Republicans’ attempt to crucify democracy has instead resurrected a movement led by young people to restore democracy, to build a multi-racial coalition … . The message is that we will continue to resist, that this is not the end. Their decision to expel us is not the ultimate authority, but the people will hold them accountable.”

Jones is optimistic.

“We have an old saying in Tennessee that a mule kicks hardest when it’s dying. They’re fighting us so hard because they realize their power and their systems are dying.”

I was also impressed by his candor about the psychological toll the fight was taking on him and others. “Your generation went through the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement,” he told me backstage,

“but you didn’t talk about what those fights demanded of you, how the hate they aroused hurt you. Some of you burned out. My generation is different. We recognize the pain, and we find solace in communities that are engaged with us. The opposite of oppression is community. We know the fight will be long. We can’t burn out.”


[With thanks to Tom Lofthouse and Michael Lahanas-Calderón]

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