The ground-level, on-site resistance to the proposed ouster of three duly-elected Tennessee House Democrats was fortified by individuals and forces from Memphis and Shelby County as a rigid Republican supermajority chose to double down on decorum.
Wedged among an array of people, who flowed into and around the Capitol building in Nashville from varied parts of the state, they voiced support for Reps. Justin Pearson (Memphis), Justin Jones (Nashville) and Gloria Johnson (Knoxville).
The outcomes – the ouster of Pearson and Jones with Johnson surviving by one vote – do not signal the smothering or their fire, said some of the participants, who declared their readiness to continue as change agents.
“I have to be honest, it was emotionally, spiritually, and just mentally tough. It felt like a crucifixion to me. It felt like lynching and to know that the world was watching, and this is a place that I have to call home, a state that I call home, made it even more difficult,” said Antoine Dandridge, the Black Organizer Program Manager for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi.
Along with the group’s Community Organizer Regina Clarke, Dandridge arranged to bus supporters of the “Tennessee 3” to Nashville. Part of what he witnessed left him hopeful.
“I was very proud to see two amazing Black men stand up for what they believe was right. They had a chance to say so many things so many of us don’t and so many others can’t in some spaces,” said Dandridge.
“I have to just know, based on what I experienced, that they have inspired so many people that were there before them. They will inspire so many people that will be there after them … they definitely inspire many of us who work, live and play in the communities. …
“I think that this is just a great opportunity for us to get organized and get some new momentum and come even harder for our people.”
Everybody needs to be very afraid
As the Tennessee House, under the governance of Speaker Cameron Sexton, moved on to oust Johnson after voting to throw out Jones, Pearson stepped out onto the balcony a few feet from the House chamber.
“We are losing our democracy. This is not normal,” said Pearson, who overwhelmingly won the House District 86 seat after the death last October of Rep. Barbara Cooper. He spoke at the funeral of Cooper, who represented the district for 26 years.
“We broke a House rule because we are fighting for kids who are dying from gun violence and (for) people in our communities who want to see an end to the proliferation of weaponry in our communities and that leads to our expulsion. …
“Everybody needs to be very afraid and very worried that there are people in positions of power who are using and wielding that power to expel people that are duly elected to their seats. “
Emphasizing that he, Jones and Johnson were elected to fight for their constituents and “lift up the issues of people that are suffering,” Pearson referenced the mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville and then added his view of why the trio of legislators faced expulsion.
“We said we cannot do business as usual. No one should be wanting to operate as though this is not happening, as though we are not living in a gun violence epidemic in the state of Tennessee.
“And the solutions that are being offered is actually to reduce the first-amendment right of people who speak up on behalf of their constituencies, speak up on behalf of people who are tired of the guns, tired of legislation being passed that lowers the age for you to carry, tired of legislation being passed that says you don’t need a permit, tired of legislation passed that says if we give teachers guns that somehow is going to fix the problem.
“People are tired of these non-real solutions.”
Pearson said in the last year he had lost a classmate and his mentor to gun violence. He detailed the need for just legislation such as red-flag and good-storage laws and maintaining a fight for democracy.
Instead, he said, those needs were being lost in the push to expel him, Jones and Johnson.
“Every Tennessean needs to be very concerned that we are not in a democracy. Across the United States of America there have been no House members that have ever been expelled for exercising their first amendment rights in a peaceful protest….
“We are losing our democracy to white supremacy … patriarchy … to people who want to keep a status quo that is damning to the rest of us … our children and unborn people.”
Moments later, Pearson headed back into the House chamber, where Johnson, a veteran legislator, was being grilled by GOP lawmakers about her role in the House-floor protest.
“Color of our skins”
Johnson was elected to represent District 13 in 2012. Two years later, she lost a reelection bid and another attempt in 2016 before returning to the House in 2018 and winning reelection in 2020. Redistricting put her residence in a district with a Democratic incumbent, which prompted her to run for the District 90 seat in 2022. She won.
After surviving Thursday’s ouster move by a single vote, Johnson stepped out into the foyer outside of the Chamber and a sea of supporters.
“They didn’t stifle our voices at all today,” Johnson said. “I can’t feel too good because my colleague, Justin Jones, who is an amazing human being who carries so deeply about his community, (was ousted). I hope everyone one of you will do everything you can to help make sure he comes back here.”
State law lays out that the county commissions in Jones and Pearson’s districts pick replacements to serve until a special election in several months. Both are eligible to run in those elections.
Later, as she moved to return to the House floor for the vote on Pearson, Johnson was asked to assess why she survived ouster and Jones did not.
“I’ll answer your question,” said Johnson. “It might have to do with the color of our skins.”
Back inside the chamber, Pearson stood in the well, made his case and withstood questioning by House Republicans. He was backed by the House Democrats, notably the Tennessee Black Caucus, which had declared its objection to the ouster move earlier in a statement that included this reference:
“This political retribution is unconstitutional and, in this moment, morally bankrupt.”
Of the four Memphis-area House Republicans (Tom Leatherwood, Kevin Vaughn, Mark White, John Gillespie), only one (Gillespie) voted against the expulsion of Pearson.
Did I really just hear that?
Back in Memphis after making the bus trip to Nashville, local activist Theryn C. Bond said the House spectacle was a Tennessee Nightmare.
“I had to question if what was happening in front of me was really happening, if some of the language that was being used, some of the ways to describe, the Democratic legislators from the other side of the aisle. Like, did I really just hear that? Did I see that? Is this how we’re operating?”
Appreciated that one of the three Democrats held her seat, Bond said the world has a fresh picture of “just how racist Tennessee is” with the removal of Pearson and Jones.
“We have the two youngest legislators, who also happen to be black, that were now booted from their dually elected positions. What does that say to other young people who have an interest in running for office, who may think they have a steep hill to climb, who think that it is impossible and that there are too many hurdles and obstacles in the way so they don’t even want to try?”
Bond said a good thing was “We saw a bit of this coming. So, we were able to at least prepare the foundation of what it’s gonna mean to go forward. What we’ll need to do to get them back in place. …
“I think we’ve got some good things working. I think people have had enough preliminary conversation. Now it’s just about hitting the (ground) and … to move forward and making sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
That, she said, is “gonna require even more people organized, even more people to become engaged and even more people to become an intricate part of the electoral process so that we can shift out some of these bad leaders and get in some of our better leaders.”
Elected officials can’t do it all by themselves
Pearl Eva Walker, a local activist, talk show host and Memphis City Council candidate, traveled to Nashville via chartered bus hosted by Lexi Carter, the new chair-elect of the SCDP (Shelby County Democratic Party).
“As a mother of a 24-year-old son (who is a registered and active voter), I’m particularly concerned about how all this has and will be resonating with our young people moving forward, knowing that both Justins (before being removed) have engaged and inspired a new generation to vote and be active in the political process many of them have not wanted to have anything to do with.”
Moving forward, she said, “What do we tell them after convincing them that they should be a part of this process, that it should mean something to them, starting with a minimum of being a registered and active voter?”
Echoing the sentiments of Pearson, Jones and Johnson, Walker said, “Democracy as we know it and understand it is under attack, and all citizens must be concerned and willing to prepare to get involved however they can. Our elected officials can’t do it all by themselves.
“It was the largest gathering of public outcry that I have ever participated in and I’m so glad that I was a part of it.”