Wearing a purple and white clerical robe, the Rev. William Barber II is seen from the back moving among a large crowd of protesters at a church.
The Rev. William Barber II addresses Moral Monday protesters gathered at McKendree United Methodist Church before an April 17 statehouse rally in downtown Nashville. Photo by Thomas Goldsmith for MLK50

Vanderbilt student activist Kayla Prowell, 22, sent a message to state Republican legislators at the Moral Monday rally in Nashville this week. 

“Me, my friends, my community — we’re coming for that house!” she said, ending a fiery speech.  

The alumna of The Equity Alliance, a Black-women-led grassroots organization, was among the hundreds of protesters who gathered across from the state Capitol, later entering its halls in their battle against gun violence and entrenched power. 

Like “the Justins,” many of those at the forefront are civil rights leaders in their 20s.

The startling stories of Memphis Rep. Justin Pearson, 28, and Rep. Justin Jones, 27, of Nashville, their activism in, expulsion from and reinstatement to the state Legislature, were front and center at Monday’s rally. However, increasing numbers of informed young people had already put their shoulders into the movement before the news from the legislature emerged, leaders said.

Veteran civil rights leader and Moral Monday founder the Rev. William Barber II gave fiery speeches at a nearby church and at the rally, calling on the crowd to take the “front line” of engagement. That’s the sort of movement, he said, it would take to change the balance of power that enabled the expulsion from the legislature of Jones and Pearson. 

“I want to see all of these Joshuas and Joshua-ettes rise up and stand up and be supported,” he said in an interview before the rally: “But I also want to warn them in the midst of it. People will want to make it about you in the movement.”

Ultimately, though, it’s the power of issues, not the force of young personalities, that will compel needed change, said Barber, a North Carolina minister and a national figure. 

“And in the movement, we used to say, ‘It is not what I can do, but what we can do.’ They are the most important words in the justice vocabulary.”

The expelled legislators had also said this from day one of their protests: “This is not about me.”

That issues-driven approach isn’t only happening at the statehouse. Amber Sherman, an Official Black Lives Matter Memphis organizer, said young people, including college students, came together following the death of Tyre Nichols, 29, three days after his brutal beating on Jan. 7 by Memphis police officers. His death, with its origins shown in horrifying detail in videos that she said she refused to watch, outraged and threatened people in their 20s.

“I’m in my 20s. I’m young and we had a coalition of students named Students for Tyre who really led a lot of activism around calling out how important it is to end these systems that are essentially killing them,” she said. 

A white man stands in the doorway of a meeting room blocking the entry of Amber Sherman. In the foreground are several people seated with their fists in the air.
Amber Sherman stands at the door of the Memphis City Council chambers while being prevented by security from observing the April 11 meeting. Sherman was banned from a month of city council meetings after expressing outrage during the March 27 meeting about an ordinance that would have scaled back the community’s work toward police reform. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

“So there’s a large group of college students who feel like this is their future on the line.”

Cardell Orrin, 49, executive director of Stand for Children Tennessee has seen first-hand Pearson’s development as a community organizer and warrior. His best-known action before his selection for office came as co-founder of the advocacy organization Memphis Community Against Pollution, which successfully fought the planned Byhalia Connection Pipeline because of projected environmental harm to Black neighborhoods.

“He’s the real deal,” Orrin said in a phone interview. “I’ve been involved in politics for 18 years. And he’s one of the best candidates I’ve seen. He is devoted, committed, passionate and focused. 

“I saw that from him as a leader in the environmental justice movement. I saw him as a candidate. And so I expect similar things as an elected official.”

Like those of Pearson and Jones, insistent young voices go back decades in the history of the nation’s fight for equal treatment, equal protection and equal opportunity. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 when he led the Montgomery bus boycott and a year older when he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. LeMoyne College graduate Marion Barry, later a controversial mayor of Washington, D.C., was 24 when he helped found the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee, soon becoming its chairman. 

And in Memphis in 1960, students from LeMoyne College and Owen Junior College took part in sit-ins at McClellan’s Variety Stores and at two public libraries, part of local and national efforts to overturn public-facilities laws and practices.

Pearson gave honor to those generations of people who have spoken out, during a video interview with Kelly Brown Douglas, a dean at Union Theological Seminary. It seemed like a summation of the “Power to the People” incantation he and Jones delivered on the day they were cast out of the legislature.

“When those voices of disempowered people wake up, and those voices of disempowered people are starting to be heard by those who have been privileged in our society, we can change the way that we operate, to move those who’ve been excluded and those have been pushed to the margins to the center of our decision-making,” Pearson said.

In fighting power at Memphis City Council meetings, among many settings, Sherman says she has also witnessed a deliberate push to drown out young activists. 

“We’re seeing attacks on young Black leaders who aren’t gonna take the status quo,” she said, citing King’s conception of a “beloved community” and the causes he fought to advance. 

“I’m seeing young Black leaders take up that mantle to make that happen. In turn, they’re being silenced by the people who are the old guard.” 

Thomas Goldsmith has worked as a reporter and editor in Tennessee and North Carolina for 40 years. He prizes the time he spent at The Tennessean in Nashville, where his reports included the fiery young reporter Wendi C. Thomas. Reach him at tommygoldsmith@gmail.com.