tennessee-three via cnn

Letter from Tennessee: License for Civility in Uncivil Times

Making explicit connections between architecture or urban space and the maintenance of a civil society has been an increasingly dicey proposition since the 18th century. Today there’s a tendency to associate such discussions with post-colonial arguments to historicize public spaces into images of a past that never existed, or to presume that the argument itself excludes a majority of the minority population. Yet if we believe that in a republican democracy, public space remains a construct made by free people, peacefully empowered to gather under the laws by which they are governed, regardless of station or standing, then how can we be indifferent to any presumption to separate the architecture that brackets those actions from the actions themselves?

If civic architecture is simply the buildings that we wrap around our public actions, then we’re made of poor stuff indeed. If, however, there is something more to be said of such works, then what is it, and how do we put it right? It’s a question worth considering, even in a society that often seems to have forgotten that there can be a role for public space, let alone civic space in the workings of society, its function, value, and heritage. 

The nature of civic space invariably leads to questions of how the spaces are used, enacted— how one behaves in them—what was once referred to as decorum. It’s a term, recently exhumed from the depths of history’s sedimentation by Tennessee’s supermajority Republican House of Representatives, that may seem an even more remote concept now. Its associations are with an era in which humans were enslaved, women had no voice in matters public or domestic, and wealth moved along a singularly male genealogical path. Nonetheless, owing to the state of the state of Tennessee, decorum—the term as well as the loss of it—has been disinterred. 

Simply put, it’s a preference or expectation of socially acceptable behavior. In 18th century French architectural theory, it, along with “character,” were de rigueur. The former regarded the proper design of domestic interiors; the latter was a more overarching concept. Both have long been expunged from architectural discourse, much as they are absent from quotidian conversation. Manners, in general, seem more readily associated with colonization and imperial dominion than maintaining a tranquil civic accord.

A day after the murder of three children and three adults at Nashville’s Covenant School, Governor Bill Lee (R) recommended as a remedy that armed guards be placed in every school.


America has always been an extreme example of this, a place where individual rights are paramount, except in a legislative body or court of law, as Democrat state representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson discovered much to their chagrin on April 6, 2023, in Tennessee’s House of Representatives. Decorum was the flame set to the tinder of an uncivil house that continues to make international news. A day after the murder of three children and three adults at Nashville’s Covenant School, Governor Bill Lee (R) recommended as a remedy that armed guards be placed in every school. Responding to Lee’s ham-fisted slow writ of gun reform, thousands of protesters massed outside the state Capitol; inside, three Democratic representatives made their way to the Well of the House, without being recognized. As the three joined those in the House Gallery calling for gun reform, outside the protesters chanted, “Fuck Bill Lee.” 

At the time of this writing, Jones (52nd District, Nashville) and Pearson (86th District, Memphis), have been sworn back in, a matter of days after they were expelled from by their Republican brethren due to a presumptive lack of decorum and the Republican Speaker accused them of fomenting a riot and yet was unable to cite a single incendiary act on their part.

The third member of what is known as the “Tennessee Three,” Gloria Johnson (my former representative before she was gerrymandered out of the district by the Republican supermajority) escaped expulsion by a single vote. Making matters less civil still, Elaine Davis, the Republican who replaced Johnson in my district, Tennessee’s 18th, voted to expel her. As has been well-reported in the media, both Jones and Pearson are Black, while Johnson is white. The 75% of the house (Republican) members who took license to oust Pearson and Jones claim to have been “color blind” in their decision making. Blind, certainly; of color, no.

It’s rare that the dark underbelly of an uncivil society is laid bare so egregiously. But these are, for many, uncivil times in an unprecedented epoch: this revolution was covered live on TV. Many have been the signposts that Tennessee would stoop so low to conquer. They’re found in such bellwethers as the hyper-politicizing of mask-wearing during the pandemic, the legislative banning of books in public school libraries and classrooms, limiting the legal recognition of gender to time of birth, and the virtual outlawing of a woman’s right to choose. 

Not all civil portent is writ as large. It sometimes comes in small places, hidden in plain sight. Take, for example, something that until recently was as neutral as it was innocuous: automotive license plates. Curiously, they can reveal much about the civil state of a state, or the uncivil conditions under which Jones and Pearson were expelled from the People’s House. 


Specialty plates should not be conflated with vanity plates where one chooses a collection of letters and/or numbers to signify a personal message. Some specialty plates raise money for good causes; others honor veterans of all stripes. States use specialty plates as a form of self-taxation; Tennessee offers a little over 180. Among them, two stand-out as unworthy of any state or commonwealth: “The Sons of Confederate Veterans” (SCV) and “Don’t Tread on Me”. They return us, in varying ways, to the Tennessee Three, and the continuing concern for how we come together, civilly, in public spaces today. 

In the greater scheme of things, it’s easy to write off specialty plates as minor eccentricities. Yet, as several court cases against the Sons of Confederate Veterans plate demonstrates, this is not a question of protected First Amendment free speech, but rather state sanctioned speech, making it more worrisome still. As such, even Texas (second only to Florida for its retrograde social legislation) has banned the SCV plates owing to the inclusion of what’s popularly known as the Confederate Flag, aka the “Confederate Battle Flag” widely considered a symbol of hate speech, white supremacy, and the MAGA cult. 

It’d be bad enough if the SCV’s exploits were limited to the nation’s roadways, but they’re not civic places, merely public ones. As the nation has rethought the decorum and normalcy of displaying statues valorizing the Confederacy in civic spaces (including a hotly contested recent battle to remove the founder of the Klan from the Tennessee Capitol), the SCV has sued in several locales—most recently in support of the Gov. Zebulon Vance monument in Asheville, N.C.—to stop this widely praised practice. Vance was a white supremacist. The leader of the Tennessee SCV branch is on record as referring to those behind the Vance removal as “Taliban.” 

Many who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, carried either the Confederate Battle Flag or the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, also known as the Gadsden Flag. Christopher Gadsden was a member of the First and Second Continental Congress. As a South Carolinian rice plantation owner, he also owned a yet-to-be-tabulated number of enslaved peoples. That said, he left the Second Continental Congress to assume his post as colonel in the 1st South Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army; his invention of the flag was as a symbol of independence over a foreign subjugating power. 

Rosanne Boyland died at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, from an acute amphetamine intoxication, while her confederates attempted to stop the counting of Electoral College votes in the U.S. House chambers. When found, a Gadsden Flag was discovered beneath her, tucked in her pocket. Its use today is largely associated with right-wing “patriot” movements that are tracked by the FBI. 

As of last year, 12 states permit the Gadsden Flag on specialty license plates; eight are former slave states, Tennessee included. That either the Battle Flag or the Gadsden Flag should be endorsed as a form of state speech is incomprehensible. Tennessee has many civil specialty plates among its many offerings; what it needs is a greater license for civility. Representatives Jones, Pearson, and Johnson seem a good place to begin.

Featured image via CNN.



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