By Adrian Sainz
The second of two Black Democrats expelled from the Republican-led Tennessee House will return to the Legislature after a Memphis commission voted to reinstate him Wednesday, nearly a week after his banishment for supporting gun control protesters propelled him into the national spotlight.
Hundreds of supporters marched Justin Pearson through Memphis to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners meeting, chanting and cheering before entering the commission chambers, where officials quickly voted 7-0 to restore him to his position.
“The message for all the people in Nashville who decided to expel us: You can’t expel hope. You can’t expel justice," Pearson said at the meeting, his voice rising as he spoke. ”You can’t expel our voice. And you sure can’t expel our fight.”
Afterward, a throng of jubilant supporters greeted him outside in a churchlike celebration. Pearson adopted the cadence of a preacher as he delivered a rousing speech with call-and-response crowd interaction. Accompanied by his fianceé, mother and four brothers, Pearson pumped his fist, jumped up and down and hugged relatives.
“They’ve awakened a sleeping giant," he said, as a drumbeat and roaring cheers echoed his voice.
Pearson is expected to return to the Capitol in Nashville on Thursday, when the House holds its next floor session, and plans to be sworn in there.
Republicans expelled Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones last week over their role in a gun control protest on the House floor after a Nashville school shooting that left three children and three adults dead.
The Nashville Metropolitan Council took only a few minutes Monday to unanimously restore Jones to office. He was quickly reinstated to his House seat.
The appointments are interim and special elections for the seats will take place in the coming months. Jones and Pearson have said they plan to run in the special elections.
Marcus DeWayne Belton said he attended the rally outside the Shelby County government building after the vote because he supports Pearson’s call for gun law reform.
“It’s not even a Black thing anymore,” he said of gun violence. “This is Black and white. Any time you go inside a school and you’re killing kids, Black and white, it’s serious. Things are getting worse.”
The House’s vote to remove Pearson and Jones but keep white Rep. Gloria Johnson drew accusations of racism. Johnson survived by one vote. Republican leadership denied that race was a factor, however.
The expulsions last Thursday made Tennessee a new front in the battle for the future of American democracy. In the span of a few days, the two had raised thousands of campaign dollars, and the Tennessee Democratic Party had received a new jolt of support from across the U.S.
Political tensions rose when Pearson, Johnson and Jones on the House floor joined with hundreds of demonstrators who packed the Capitol last month to call for passage of gun control measures.
As protesters filled galleries, the lawmakers approached the front of the House chamber with a bullhorn and participated in a chant. The scene unfolded days after the shooting at the Covenant School, a private Christian school. Their participation from the front of the chamber broke House rules because the three did not have permission from the House speaker.
Pearson grew up in the same House district he was chosen to represent after longtime state Rep. Barbara Cooper, a Black Democrat, died in office. He quickly gained a reputation as a skilled community activist and gifted public speaker.
Before he was elected, Pearson helped lead a successful campaign against an oil pipeline that would have run near wells that pump water from the Memphis Sand Aquifer, which provides drinking water to 1 million people.
In their return to the Tennessee Capitol, Pearson and Jones still face the same political divisions between the state’s few Democratic strongholds and the Republican supermajority were already reaching boiling point before the expulsions.
GOP members this year introduced a wave of punishing proposals to strip away Nashville’s autonomy. Others have pushed to abolish the state’s few community oversight boards that investigate police misconduct and instead replace them with advisory panels that would be blocked from investigating complaints.
Lawmakers are also nearing passage of a bill that would move control of the board that oversees Nashville’s airport from local appointments to selections by Republican state government leaders.
Particularly on addressing gun violence, Republicans have so far refused to consider placing any new restrictions on firearms in the wake of the Nashville school shooting. Instead, lawmakers have advanced legislation designed to add more armed guards in public and private schools and are considering a proposal that would allow teachers to carry guns.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s office confirmed this week that a Republican lawmaker was stripped of a top committee assignment more than a month after he asked during a hearing if “hanging by a tree” could be added to the state’s execution methods. The speaker’s office declined to specify the reason for removing him from the committee.
Rep. Paul Sherrell was taken off the Criminal Justice Committee and transferred to another, and was “very agreeable” to the change, Sexton spokesperson Doug Kufner said.
Sherrell, who is white, later apologized for what he said amid outcry from Black lawmakers, who pointed to the state's dark history of lynching. Sherrell said his comments were “exaggerated” to show "support of families who often wait decades for justice."
Pearson has referenced Sherrell's comments throughout the expulsions and their aftermath. On Wednesday, Pearson said Sexton should resign his post, saying the House speaker is "more willing to expel people who are asking for the end of gun violence than expel a member of the House who advocated for lynching.”
Reporters Jonathan Mattise and Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville contributed to this report.
UPDATES: Adds scene outside, quote about sleeping giant, plans to be sworn in in Nashville.