Growing up in Pittsburgh during the 1970s was a pre-teen boy’s dream. The Steelers won four Super Bowls, the Pirates two World Series, and the University of Pittsburgh won the NCAA Division I championship. The team was coached by Johnny Majors, who was considered Knoxville, Tenn.’s favorite son. I idolized him.
Majors left Pitt right after that historic win and returned to coach the University of Tennessee Volunteers for 16 years. During those years, the state had three Democratic Senators, Jim Sasser, Al Gore, and Harlan Mathews, and moderate Republican Howard Baker, who was the first Republican elected to the Senate from Tennessee since Reconstruction. The state also had two Democratic governors, with one interlude by another moderate Republican, Lamar Alexander.
Tennessee State Rep Gloria Johnson, Democrat of Knoxville, is best known as being one of the “Tennessee Three” who faced expulsion from the state House for trying to get their colleagues to address gun control. Johnson barely escaped expulsion, because she was white — her words.
When I called her, I told her about my admiration for Majors, “Knoxville’s Favorite Son.”
“Johnny Majors was one of my biggest supporters before he died,” she exclaimed. “I have a hilarious video of him introducing me during a fundraiser. I will send it to you.” She did, and it brought back great memories.
“Too bad, politically, things aren’t the same in Tennessee as they were when Majors was coaching there,” I said. “You can say that again. Boy, times sure have changed.”
When I said to Johnson that Tennessee is quickly becoming the next Texas, she came back with, “Becoming? I think we are beating them,” she pointed out. “We’ve passed more anti-LGBTQ+ laws this year than any other state. And our gun laws are as bad as they are in Texas. We both received a failing grade from the Giffords Law Center.”
She and her two “Three” colleagues, Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis, were punished for disrupting the decorum rules in the state House when they protested for tighter gun laws after the Nashville school shooting earlier this month that included three 9-year-old children as victims. Johnson escaped expulsion by the State house Republicans, because she was white.
Pearson and Jones were reinstated by their districts, and together with Johnson, will visit the White House on Monday to meet with President Biden.
“I supported the Justins because our only recourse was to be extremely vocal in the state House,” Johnson explained. “The three of us all agree on the issues that are important to our communities, and that includes more gun control laws. So we spoke up, because we could not be silent. The overwhelming majority of the state House, which is composed of older, white men, shut off our mics. They wouldn’t allow us to speak, and then they expelled the Justins, and not me, for obvious reasons.”
“We saw what happened in Nashville, we heard from our constituents, and we showed them that we cared about them, and for that, we were punished. The first action, the very first action that our Republican colleagues took after the Nashville shootings was to expel two members who wanted to talk about it. However, it backfired mightily, and the Justins were reinstated by their districts, and vindicated to some degree.”
Did Johnson think the saga was over? “Since the Justins have been back, things are pretty much the same as it was. The Republicans are angry they lost the battle, and they don’t like it. They are a very retaliatory body, so they will retaliate in some way. “
For example, Johnson pointed out that after the city of Nashville voted against hosting the 2024 Republican convention, the Republicans in the state House slashed the city’s number of councilmembers (an effort currently blocked by a judge). “This is a very petty group we are talking about. When I was the only vote in the state House against the Speaker, they gave me a closet for an office that was directly across from a member’s office that was empty. So, I don’t think they are done with me, Pearson and Jones."
She’s also disgusted with how the State house has attacked the LGBTQ+ community. “Arguably, we’re more anti-LGBTQ+ than any other state, passing something like 24 bills against the queer community so far. Just this week, we passed an anti-trans sports bill. It shouldn’t be up to a bunch of white men deciding who should participate in high school and college sports, it should be up to the sports authorities, like the NCAA, to decide the rules, not us,” she stated emphatically.
“These bills are all politically driven by hate and extremists. These issues didn’t even exist a year ago, but bloggers and commentators started going after trans people and drag queens and making it an issue. I’ve been knocking on doors campaigning for years, and not once have I ever heard a voter voice a concern about trans children and adults or drag queens. Not once.”
Johnson said that drag queens in metropolitan and blue areas like Knoxville and Nashville are standing strong, and she expects the same type of reaction in red communities as well. “The law is terribly written. It’s subjective. And this drag law was based on erroneous and false information. The members who supported this relied on videos that were manipulated or had nothing to do with the subject. The members who supported it have never seen a drag show, never been to a drag brunch, or bingo, or reading hour. It’s just so ridiculous.”
To Johnson, the next generation will be a huge help in making the changes needed. “They are smart, passionate and well-organized, and they can tell right from wrong. Just look at how they’re keeping the pressure on guns. They show up at the state capitol every day since the shooting in Nashville. And its multi-generational and multi-ethnicity. They are demanding serious action on gun violence to save our democracy.”
As for her and the two Justins, they’re going to keep pushing forward. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep amplifying the message. Same thing I’ve always done, and that’s lift up messages people care about. We’re not going to let the Republicans keep us from talking about gun violence. They also need to know that majority of Tennesseans care about Medicaid expansion, improved public education, family leave, in addition to gun legislation. And, that a majority people in the state want discrimination to stop against people of color and our LGBTQ+ community.”
And I know one thing for sure, Johnny Majors would be proud of Johnson, heretofore known as Knoxville's Favorite Daughter.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate.
Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.