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Sharon D. Wright Austin

May 22nd, 2023

Tennessee’s Two Justins show how Gen Z and Millennials are fighting for gun reform.

0 comments | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Sharon D. Wright Austin

May 22nd, 2023

Tennessee’s Two Justins show how Gen Z and Millennials are fighting for gun reform.

0 comments | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

In April 2023, following a mass shooting at a Tennessee school, two Black Democratic state legislators, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson were expelled from the legislature following a protest calling for gun reform. Sharon D. Wright Austin writes that the experience of the “two Justins,” illustrates how a new generation of often African American former activist Generation Z and millennials in the South are becoming increasingly prominent and important in the fight for common sense gun reform. 

A Memphis, Tennessee native, I interned for the Tennessee legislature while in graduate school many years ago. I am also the author of a book on Memphis politics and have written extensively about Southern politics for 30 years. As a professor of political science at the University of Florida since 2001, I know how intimately Gen Z is connected to gun violence. Many of my own students here have connections to and/or attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. At this Parkland Florida school, students lived through a 2018 school shooting resulting in 17 deaths, 17 injuries, a tragedy which began the #NeverAgain movement.

Recently, a national media firestorm occurred following a mass shooting at a Tennessee school which took the lives of six people, including three nine-year olds. State Representatives Justin Jones, Justin J. Pearson, and Gloria Johnson addressed the need for gun control legislation with protesters while the remaining Assembly members said nothing.

While the majority-Republican legislature expelled African American representatives Jones and Pearson in response, Johnson, a White female, escaped expulsion by one vote. Both men were later reinstated, but Johnson replied, “It might have to do with the color of my skin,” when asked why she had not been ousted. Looking at the experiences of the Tennessee Three (especially Representatives Jones and Pearson) can teach us important lessons about millennial elected officials in Southern legislatures and the progressive activism of younger citizens. The “two Justins,” as they are referred to, and other progressive young African American representatives are now serving in Southern legislatures. Before entering the political arena, they were community activists and now focus on an issue of great concern to the Generation Z and millennial generations – the issue of gun violence.

Young, Black, and Progressives in a Southern Legislature 

A growing number of Generation Z and millennial political officeholders are winning in state legislatures. While the members of Gen Z were born after 1996, millennials were born between 1981 and 1996. At 27 and 28 respectively, both Jones and Pearson are millennial representatives serving in their first year of office. Both were also campus and community activists before their elections.

One should not be surprised at their more confrontational style of politics considering their backgrounds. Pearson is from an impoverished background in Memphis and a Bowdoin College graduate. He received notoriety as a high school sophomore when protesting the lack of books at his high school, and later led a successful battle to stop the Byhalia Connection crude oil pipeline from expanding and contaminating water in predominantly Black and working-class Memphis neighborhoods, including the one where I grew up. Jones is of Black and Filipino descent, grew up in Oakland, California graduated from Nashville’s Fisk University, is currently a divinity student at Vanderbilt, and participated in several activists efforts before winning office, including a protest to remove a Confederate general’s bust from a governmental building. Voters elected these men with full knowledge of their role in confrontational protests.

Each man also follows the tradition of earlier young Black activists who first challenged injustices in their communities and later pursued social change as elected officeholders. During the civil rights movement, Black high school and college students challenged racial segregation in the deep South. San Jose State University students and Olympiads Tommie Smith and John Carlos were two of the many college athletes protesting racial and economic discrimination during the late 1960s. Students have also protested issues as diverse as America’s involvements in wars, the need for campus diversity, and the fight against apartheid in South Africa. While these young protesters were sometimes met with angry backlashes, they inspired other activists in the decades to come. Many, such as Barbara Jordan of Texas and John Lewis of Georgia, also won state legislative (and later congressional) positions to evoke change from within the political system.

Antony-22, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward to the present. Gen Zers and millennials are now collaborating across partisan lines to address important policy issues. There is both a nonpartisan Congressional Future Caucus as well as State Future Caucus Networks so that these young officeholders can work collectively to address important issues. 

Are they more likely to be activists, younger, something different about millennials in Southern legislatures?

The two Justins aren’t the only young African American millennials in Southern legislatures. Others like Jeramey Anderson (D.-MS), Jasmine Clark (D.-GA), Jeremy Gray (D.-AL), Shevrin Jones (D.-FL), Natalie Murdock (D.-NC), and Jamie Scott (D.-ARK) have either succeeded or replaced legislators representing the old guard. Many of these young candidates won by landslides. In 2020, Senator Natalie Murdock won with over 73 percent of the vote. Florida Senator Shevrin Jones won with over 68 percent of the vote in his 2022 re-election bid. In a January 2023 District 86 special election to replace late Representative Barbara Cooper who died while in office at the age of 93, Justin Pearson won by an 81 percent margin. In 2018, Jamie Scott became the youngest African American female elected to the Arkansas legislature and won re-election in 2022 unopposed. 

The Nontraditional and Traditional Politics of the Gun Violence Generations

Gen Z and millennial elected officials are more likely to engage in non-traditional political activities, such as through having an online presence and engaging with social media. Civil disobedience is another powerful avenue of political engagement. According to one study, adults younger than 40 are 14 percent more likely to prefer informal political activity, such as protesting, than those older than 40.

In Nashville, young voters and other youths are fired-up at what they see as an injustice and inaction by the Tennessee House on gun violence legislation which they refuse to go away. Gun violence is an issue that plagues America and specifically school shootings plague American Gen Z which is referred to as the generation characterized by lockdowns, gun violence, and school shootings. Between 1999 (the year of the horrific Columbine shootings) to 2017, there were about 11 school shootings a year. Since then, more than 30 have occurred every year. As a result of the rise in the number of shootings, many states require “lockdown drills” in schools to prepare students for possible violence. A March for Our Lives poll found that 53 percent of voters under 35 reported that the “frequently or occasionally worry about gun violence” and 52 percent that they will be affected by a mass shooting. 62 percent of young students who are eligible to vote report that they are fearful of mass shootings. 70 percent of young voters believe that there is at least a 50 percent chance that they will be victims of gun violence.

It is hard to deny the disproportionate impact that gun violence has on Black Gen Zers and millenials. Black men between the ages of 18 to 25 are 19 times more likely to die from gun-related incidents in the nation’s 20 largest counties. For over 50 years, more Black men between the ages of 15 and 44 have died as the result of homicide than for any other reason. Gun violence has also been the leading cause of death for Black children since 2006. Also in 2021, one study reported that Black children were 13 times more likely to be killed in a gun-related incident than White children.

Many Gen Zers aren’t eligible to vote yet, but they have good reasons for their engagement in the power of protest. Civil disobedience remains an incredibly powerful form of political engagement. When hundreds of protesters demanded gun control legislation after the Covenant School shooting in Nashville, many young students were among them. The shooting, which occurred on March 27th was the 130th American mass shooting in 2023. Three days later, when protesters halted legislative proceedings with chants for justice, Jones and Pearson used a bullhorn to chant with them. Speaker of the House, Cameron Sexton, and other legislators believed their actions warranted their expulsion for a violation of “House rules of decorum and procedure.”  Jones and Pearson were unanimously reinstated by the Nashville Metropolitan Council and Shelby County Commission respectively within days after their expulsions. But, both men must also compete in special elections to fully reclaim their seats.

Gen Zers and millennials are using the politics of civil disobedience, but many are also voting in larger numbers. Because of these millennial voters (who mostly are Democrats), the 2022 red wave failed to occur to the extent many predicted it would.

The Need for Common Sense Gun Reforms

In 2021, Mississippi state representative Jeramey Anderson, who was elected at 21 as the youngest African American ever elected to any state legislature in the US, voted against HB 634. It would not have allowed “state agencies, cities, and any other governmental entity” to prohibit firearms on their premises. Jasmine Clark (D.-GA) works with the Moms Demand Action group to strategize about gun legislation and supports raising the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21. In 2022, Representative Jeremy Gray (D.-AL) opposed a bill that would, among other things, no longer require persons carrying concealed funds in public to have permits. In 2019, Florida State Senator (then Representative) Shevrin Jones (D.-FL) filed legislation (HB 201) to create an “Urban Core Gun Violence Task Force” to study gun violence in urban communities. In 2022, North Carolina state senator Natalie Murdock (D.-NC) introduced legislation that would make it harder to open gun shops within 1,400 feet of schools and introduced the Gun Violence Prevention Act in March 2023. Finally in 2021, Arkansas representative Jamie Scott (D.-ARK) voted against a bill that would have established a statewide Stand Your Ground law.

These young legislators support common sense gun reforms in their legislative bodies, but at times are opposed by legislators from different age, ideological, and sometimes racial backgrounds. As the experiences of the two Justins show, our society is demanding that something be done to address gun violence. Gen Zers and millennials are at the forefront of these demands, but their main dilemma will be in finding a common ground with older citizens and politicians who are often resistant to the changes they desire.

  • University of Florida students Lucca Carlson, N’Jhari Jackson, and Cody Paddack assisted with this research. The author would like to acknowledge the Preston Haskell Scholars Program of the Bob S. Graham Center for Public Service and the Department of Political Science Junior Fellows Program at the University of Florida.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics. 

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About the author

Sharon D. Wright Austin

Sharon D. Wright Austin is a University Term Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida and is the author of five books, including Political Black Girl Magic: The Elections and Governance of Black Female Mayors (Temple University Press 2023) and Beyond Racial Capitalism: Cooperatives in the African Diaspora with Caroline Shenaz Hossein and Kevin Edmonds (Oxford University Press 2023).

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