Rep. Justin Jones, left, and Justin Pearson, right, were expelled from the Tennessee House. (Photo: John Partipilo) Credit: John Partipilo for the Tennessee Lookout

by Anita Wadhwani, Tennessee Lookout

The reactions have been swift.

A day after Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives took the extraordinary step of expelling two Black freshman lawmakers, Vice President Kamala Harris quickly scheduled a trip to Nashville to meet with the men, Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, who was spared from ouster.

State and national faith leaders announced a “Moral Monday” rally, calling on thousands of clergy across the nation to come to Nashville on April 17 and join the former lawmakers’ fight “against extremist attempts to subvert democracy and silence the voices of legislators standing up for dead children.”

Members of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators  denounced the expulsions, which took place over a six hour marathon session at the state Capitol Thursday as a “kangaroo court.”

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, called the days’ events “horrific” and “inexcusable.” He said the NAACP is “prepared to take whatever legal action is necessary to ensure that this heinous attempt to silence the voice of the people is address in a court of law.”

“It is inexcusable that, while they upheld their oath to serve Tennesseans who are grieving the loss of last week’s mass murder, their colleagues decided to use racial tropes to divert attention from their failure to protect the people they are supposed to serve,” he said.

Nashville NAACP leaders called the expulsions discriminatory and tragic. Pearson, a Democrat who represented a district in Memphis, and Jones, a Democrat whose district was in Nashville, were expelled for violating the rules of decorum after they spoke from the main lectern on the House floor in favor of gun restrictions, using a megaphone. They said they had not been allowed to speak from the floor and noted that all but a few seconds of their remarks took place during a recess.

The incident took place days after a shooter killed three children and three adults at the Covenant School in Nashville.

“It feels like these lawmakers were used as a scapegoat because our Tennessee General Assembly didn’t have the courage to pass strong gun laws and stand up to the NRA,” said Brenda Gilmore, a former state senator and representative, speaking at a news conference held by the Nashville NAACP.

Gilmore said the incident illuminated deeper problems within the state legislature that are getting rare national scrutiny. The proceedings Thursday attracted an international media scrum and reports of the often contentious House floor discussions were broadcast on cable news channels.

“This is the Tennessee General Assembly who just a few weeks ago wanted to bring lynching back,” Gilmore said, referring to a failed effort brought by GOP lawmakers to add hanging by a tree as a form of capital punishment. Gilmore said her fear is that the actions will be copycatted by state legislatures across the country “who will expel particularly African American members for speaking truth to power.”

National civil rights advocate Bishop William J. Barber II and Tennessee clergy on Friday called for clergy members nationwide to come to Nashville for a rally on April 17.

“As clergy, as prophetic voices, we can no longer just do the pastoral work. We must do the prophetic work of changing policy,” Bishop Barber said. “When it comes to our people, our lives and our children, there’s too much death from poverty, too much death from denial of health care, too much death from guns. None of these deaths have to exist. They are policy murder. We can stop it.”

Jones, who joined the video conference with Barber, called Thursday’s actions a “dangerous precedent.”

“It wasn’t about expelling us, it was about expelling the mutli-racial coalition we represent,” said Jones, who noted he represented one of the most diverse sections of Nashville.

Tennessee Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, who presided over the expulsions, told Fox News Friday the pair “deserved expulsion.” Responding to a statement previously made by Rep. Gloria Johnson that she was spared expulsion only because she is a white woman, Sexton said, “that’s a false narrative on her part.”

“It’s unfortunate,” Sexton said. “They were all given due process.”

Late Thursday, members of the Nashville Metro Council signaled they planned to send Jones back to the legislature. The council, by a simple majority, can appoint Jones back to his seat to serve on an interim basis until the next election. The Tennessean newspaper reported Friday that 26 of the Council’s 40 members planned to vote to appoint Jones.

The Commercial Appeal reported that most Shelby County Commissioners they contacted about Pearsons’ possible appointment back to his seat did not respond. The report noted the commission has a ​​nine-member Democratic supermajority.

This story was originally published on April 7, 2023 by Tennessee Lookout. Republished with permission.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence.

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