Chants and cheers swelled over a crowd of more than 500 at the National Civil Rights Museum Wednesday (April 12) as supporters of Justin Pearson rallied to regain his District 86 seat in the Tennessee House.
The expulsion of the two African-American House members, Pearson of Memphis Rep Justin Jones of Nashville, riveted the nation.
The super-majority House GOP members voted to expel the pair on April 6 after they led a March 30 protest, along with state Rep. Gloria Johnson, in the House chamber, demanding lawmakers pass tougher gun-control legislation. The protest, which also included citizens, came after three staffers and three 9-year-old students were fatally shot at their private elementary school in Nashville by a woman wielding an assault-style rifle.
Johnson, who is white, escaped expulsion by one vote. Jones was returned to the House after a unanimous vote by the Nashville Metropolitan Council.
Pearson, Jones, and Johnson are now known nationally as The Tennessee 3.
“You are on the right side of history,” Pearson told supporters early Wednesday afternoon. “This is what democracy looks like.”
The multi-racial, multi-generational gathering flanked a raised platform set up on the terrace of the historic site.
A dynamic spectacle of community leaders representing a number of organizations and causes fired the crowd up before the Tennessee 3 offered words of encouragement.
Rev. Regina Clark, representing Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, was one of the first to address the crowd.
“Whosoever will be great among you shall be your servant,” said Clark. “And whoever is chief among you shall be servant of all.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a drum major instinct, and Justin Pearson has that drum major instinct. He has not forgotten that people are human, and we must not forget the humanity of people, of all people…People matter, our lives matter, our children matter.”
Speakers stepped to the podium in rapid succession, building the crowd up to hear remarks from the Tennessee 3.
One speaker promised that “when they roll back our freedoms, we’re going to roll up…”
Another marveled that “The Tennessee 3 reignited the flame in all of us, and today, I am confident we will send Justin Pearson back to Nashville…”
Johnson said she was “so happy to be here in Memphis.
“I am so happy to be here with my new friend Justin Pearson, who is doing an amazing job lifting up your voices in Nashville at such a critical time,” Johnson said.
Johnson continued, “…We need to lift up the voices of these amazing young people…Reps. Jones and Justin Pearson…these young voices are critical…I am so honored. The teacher has become the student. I am learning so much from these young men…”
Jones gave compelling words of determination to continue the fight for tougher gun-control legislation.
“They shut off our mics, so we had to use a megaphone,” said Jones. “We had a message last week. After crucifixtion comes resurrection. And I want you to know that when we walk back onto the House floor tomorrow, we are going to demand that (Tennessee House Speaker Cameron) Sexton resign.”
Pearson closed the rally before the crowd organized to march to the Vasco A. Smith County Administration Building, where commissioners voted 7-0 to give Pearson an interim reappointment to the House district.
The four Republican members of the commission did not attend the specially called meeting.
“This is what democracy looks like,” Pearson said. “This is the democracy that they are afraid of. This is the democracy that changes the status quo. I just wanted to let you know that the status quo needs changing…
“Dr. King said the movement lives and dies in Memphis…and we want to let everybody know that the movement is alive and well today.”
Jeri Ledbetter came with her sign, reading, “Go, Justin, Go!!!”
“I thought it was important to be here,” said Ledbetter. “This is such a small thing to ask of us, that we come down and show our support. And if I can do anything at all to help, I will. I wanted to do something.”
Shepardess Jannie Foster with the Church of God in Christ also came with her sign, displaying a front-page news photo of Pearson speaking before expulsion votes were taken.
Retired Shelby County Veterans Director Joseph Kyles is a resolute volunteer at the NCRM. But he thought participating in the rally was important.
“This is just beautiful to see,” said Kyles. “Just looking around, there are so many young people, people of all races and ages. If Dr. King could see us today, I think he would be so proud.
“We are still battling issues, but we’ve come such a long way. We are moving off the scene, and these young people are stepping up to meet the challenges. It gives me a feeling that we are leaving the future of our grandchildren in good hands.”