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VOL. 41 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 10, 2017

‘Every generation must carry on the struggle’

Protest movement finds a leader in Fisk’s Justin Jones

By Linda Bryant

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Over its storied history, Fisk University has nurtured and educated leaders who eventually left the iconic halls of the 150-year-old school and entered intrepidly into the wider world to make history by challenging the status quo.

Fisk senior Justin Jones, who will graduate in two months, could very well be on his way to becoming yet another Fisk graduate who makes a lasting difference in the culture at large.

He has already made a big impact as a student.

Jones is arguably the most politically active student on a campus already renowned for attracting and supporting politically engaged students. Throughout his four years at Fisk, the lissome 21-year-old is frequently seen at the Tennessee State Legislature standing up for issues such as access to quality healthcare, voting rights and police accountability.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon at the Tennessee State Capitol, a young man and a small group of protesters tried to talk with a state legislator. The issues on the protesters’ minds had to do with First Amendment, voting rights, health care and gender.

The lawmaker, Sen. Mae Beavers, was disturbed that they were outside her office. She asked them twice, “Are y’all my constituents?’’

“We’re Tennesseans,” the young man answered.

Beavers countered she was only seeing constituents that afternoon. The young man continued to ask questions.

“I’m going home. Y’all get them out of my office and keep them out of my office,” Beavers said to state troopers as she got on the elevator.

“Senator Beavers, we’re not animals to be kept out! We’re citizens,” said the young man, a senior at Fisk named Justin Jones.

Here is his story, the story of an activist for a new generation.

Jones grew up in Oakland, California, and he chose to attend Fisk because he was “enthralled by the school’s civil rights history.”

He was offered an endowed scholarship to study social justice and activism after showing leadership potential by organizing events in the San Francisco area after the Trayvon Martin shooting.

“Before learning about Fisk, I didn’t even know what a HBCU (Historically Black College and University) was,” Jones says. “It has been a great environment for me. Civil rights is actually integrated into the curriculum here.”

Jones laughs when he points out “you don’t have to go that far” to find a place to engage politically in Nashville.

“You can see the Legislature from Fisk,” he explains. “We can walk down there, make it a march, and we have many times, and come back for the next class. Whether it’s about health care, living wages or voting rights, we don’t have to go to Washington, we can act right here in Tennessee.

“We can decide to use what we’re learning about the history of civil rights in the classroom and apply it right here in Nashville.”

On shoulders of heroes

Jones is devoted to studying and emulating Fisk’s famous political and civil rights activists.

“I heard stories about activism and escaping from Jim Crow laws from my grandmother. They really had an effect,” Jones says. “I don’t think any generation is ever done fighting (to make sure Jim Crow-style laws never gain a toehold again.)

“We are one month away from celebrating Dr. King’s last speech,” Jones continues. “He said we may not see that final victory, that dream in our lifetime, but what we are doing is for generations yet unborn.”

Fisk also has given Jones the opportunity to not only study but meet – and be mentored by – several of his civil rights heroes, including Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia), famed activist Diane Nash and two Nashville-based civil rights leaders, Dr. Charles Kimbrough and Dr. Matthew Walker, Sr.

As students at Fisk in the early 1960s, Lewis and Nash organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. They both risked their lives as Freedom Riders, who were activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated South.

Lewis was beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation.

As a civil rights leader, Nashville resident Kimbrough introduced hundreds of African-Americans to the mission and purpose of the NAACP. And Matthew Walker, Sr., a distinguished physician who died in 2016, also was a Freedom Rider.

“I have felt embraced by my mentors,” Jones explains. “They uplift me, and I feel like I can always reach out to them.”

He also understands those mentors have endured many more hardships than he.

“I’ve never been arrested, but I have been pepper-sprayed,” he says.

Vencen Horsley, a high-profile leader of Nashville’s civil rights movement in the1960s, has become a close confidante of Jones’. Horsley says the young student reminds him of himself when he was young activist.

Jones with one of his heroes, Congressman John Lewis, one of many civil rights movement legends he has met while at Fisk.

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“If you want to speak on behalf of a community you have to be connected to that community, you can’t just stand aside and give marching orders,” Horsley says. “Justin is a strong leader, but he’s also part of the group. I really appreciate that about him.

“I used to try and boast and give myself credit for Justin’s leadership, but he’s gone beyond my expectations,” Horsley adds. “When I was active (in civil rights marches in Nashville) I was able to do it because my faith exceeded my fear. Justin’s faith definitely far exceeds his fear.”

Tough political landscape

After the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, Jones helped to organize the “March against Fear” at the Tennessee State Capitol.

He has also participated in or organized dozens of events – mobilizing young people to vote, to fight barriers at the ballot box, testifying at the Tennessee Legislature, coordinating rallies and challenging the inability of students to use college photo IDs as identification to vote.

Most recently, in February, Jones organized a group of protesters who pressed Sen. Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) about legislation she is sponsoring.

It includes the so-called “bathroom bill,” which would require public school students to use the bathroom consistent with the gender listed on their birth certificate, and the “Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act, which claims that same-sex marriage is unlawful and all efforts to implement it in Tennessee should be considered unlawful.

Jones also was a plaintiff in a lawsuit for student voter’s rights in Tennessee. Students can’t use their student IDs to vote in the state, a situation that Jones calls “one of the most restrictive in the country.”

Although, a judge dismissed the case in late 2015, Jones says there are plans to resurrect the lawsuit with new plaintiffs.

“Tennessee has one of the most extreme voter ID laws in the nation,” he points out. “Even in Mississippi and Alabama you can use your student ID (to vote). The case will come back up again with different students.”

Jones has been able to meet with and be mentored by many of his heroes from the civil rights movement.

Jones says although the political climate in Tennessee – and the nation as a whole – has meant that some of the causes and issues of interest to him face an uphill battle in the Republican supermajority in the Legislature.

A recent case in point: the attempts to protest at Sen. Beavers’ office, and attempt to have a dialogue with her, have been unsuccessful.

In fact, recently Beavers was so upset by the presence of demonstrators, including Jones, in her office she hired private security to patrol the hallways of Legislative Plaza.

Jones doesn’t take it personally with people who disagree with him or call him names such as “outside agitator.”

The tradition of Dr. King

Jones is not deterred by Beaver’s reaction and is adamant that his activism contains no threats of violence.

“The Voting Rights act of 1965 came up 11 times before anything was done with it,” he points out. “You may not win these temporary victories, but you are making victories in raising consciousness, especially among students.

“We have to come to what we do in the tradition of Dr. (Martin Luther) King,” he adds. “When you protest, you are trying to create dialogue, but that dialogue often needs the step of negotiation.

“If people refuse to negotiate, then (you use) direct action. The purpose of direct action (in protest) is to get a place at the table and be seen as a human being.

“We aren’t trying to shame them (legislators and others who are protested against), but to get them to come to the table, to get them see us as human beings worthy of dignity.”

Jones says he gets inspiration and motivation from Fisk’s legacy as an incubator for activism and social change – and from his faith.

“Growing up I learned everything we do we have to do for others and to better our community,” he explains. “I was taught to do it for those who come after me. I was taught that every generation must carry on the struggle.

“I can’t abandon my faith or activism,” Jones says, adding that he’s a practicing Methodist.

“Your faith is what allows you not to retaliate into hatred. It’s especially in this era, because it’s easy to become angry and imitate the behavior of hatred. We have to find ways of keeping our own hearts from becoming hardened by hatred.

“We may not have the votes right now for all the issues we are about, but we won’t allow some of these important issues to go on unchallenged,” he adds.

Beyond left and right

In 2015, Jones walked 273 miles from a town in North Carolina to the U.S. Capitol to advocate for access to health care and bring awareness to Gov. Bill Haslam’s now-defunct Insure Tennessee program.

The alternative plan to expand Medicaid, which would have expanded medical coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans was defeated in the Legislature in late 2015, despite polling that showed the measure was supported by 64 percent of Tennesseans.

The 20-mile-a-day healthcare trek took two weeks and saw Jones walking through some rural areas where some people weren’t altogether friendly toward marchers and protesters.

“A lot of people came out and said thank you,” Jones says. “But there were some people that weren’t too welcoming, so much so that I just smiled, said have a nice day and kept walking.

“Some of the people (encountered during the march) didn’t understand that rural constituencies are impacted by their decisions,” he explains. “They didn’t want anything to do with the Affordable Care Act because they connected it to President Obama.

“I am concerned about health care overall but very concerned about access (to health care) in our rural communities,” he continues.

“Our rural hospitals are being forced to shut down, and it becomes a life or death issue for people who have to drive to a hospital a few hours away. Denying people health care isn’t left or right, it’s extremist.”

Future of student activism

Jones plans on attending either law or divinity school when he graduates in May, and staying in Nashville is a possibility.

He says he’s “pulling back a little” from his typically frenzied schedule of political activities to be a resource for younger Fisk students, who he hopes will continue the dynamic politically-active environment that has fired up over the past couple of years at Fisk.

“I want to focus on approaching and mentoring underclassmen,” Jones says. “I want to be available to them as a resource so that they continue the fight.”

What does Jones think of the future of party politics, and does he think student activism will increase and affect the 2018 and 2020 elections?

“I absolutely think you’ll see a lot more young people challenging status quo politics. But I think for a lot of young people politics is not really as party oriented. It’s much more issue oriented, more principle oriented.

“We really don’t focus on personalities or party as much as previous generations,” he says. “So many students I know weren’t fighting for Hillary or Trump so much as they were fighting for issues like affordable college, good jobs or protecting the environment.

“I also think we’ll see more young students voting and more running for (political) positions,” he adds. “You’re going to see a lot more diversity, too.”

Jones says the most emotionally charged and meaningful moments, the one’s he’ll remember the most from his four years of student activism at Fisk, have occurred when diverse racial and cultural crowds have joined together to sing well-known folk songs such as “We Shall Overcome.”

Millennials and politics

Silas Deane, president of the Belmont University College Democrats and director of political affairs for the College Democrats of Tennessee, agrees with Jones about the nature of student activism.

“Our generation tends to think about issues more than party,” Deane says, adding that he believes young millennials display “much less” of the bitter polarization that has come to characterize traditional politics.

“I do think (student activism) is going to keep rising,” Deane says. “Right after the election a lot of us needed a break, but I’m seeing a surge again. We really do believe we are the future (of political parties in America.)”

Deane adds that Jacob Sykes, one of his best friends, is the leader of the College Republicans at Belmont.

To show respect and civility, the two friends have a hatched a plan: Deane is set up to run for student body president and Sykes is slated to run for vice-president.

Even though the country is deeply divided and seemingly teetering on the edge of crisis, both Deane and Jones think there’s hope that politics and activism evolve in positive ways.

“Especially as our generation (matures), I believe you are going to see policy changes when it comes to issues like health care, voting rights and the environment,” Jones says.

“It’s just a matter of enactment, a matter of time.”