In April, the Republican-led Tennessee State House voted to expel Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones, two Black Democratic members of the House, for speaking out on the House floor as part of a gun control protest following a school shooting in Nashville that left three children and three adults dead. A third member, Gloria Johnson, escaped expulsion by one vote. A week later both Pearson and Jones were reinstated by local government panels and sworn back in to the legislature. Director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government Archon Fung talked to Representative Pearson ahead of his visit to the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on April 26, 2023.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Fung: There are people who really support you and think that your expulsion was outrageous, but then there are also people who supported your expulsion because they couldn't understand why people would protest on the floor of the House. It felt like a low point for democracy for both sides who really disagree with one another. What would you say to them to explain why democracy is really important and why they shouldn't be tuned out and disengaged from it?
Pearson: The reality is that after a tragedy in Nashville that was covered by the press about a school shooting where six people were killed, three of them just nine-year-old children, thousands of people showed up to the State Capitol. They went to the place of government. They could have gone to a church. A coffeeshop.
But no, they went to the place of government, the place of democracy to demand that the people in positions of power do something. We went to the floor of the House, to the well of the House, to listen to the voices of our constituents who we represent, and also to speak up about this issue that is prevalent all across our communities, due to the proliferation of guns, but also the bad policies that are being passed in state legislatures that allow for people to have guns without permits, to lower the age of having guns, even to get armed teachers.
And instead of doing something about gun violence, our supermajority Republican legislature silenced House representatives and others who wanted to speak. The reality is the antidemocratic behavior of our state legislature in expelling me, Representative Jones, and nearly expelling Representative Johnson should be worrisome for all of us.
Why does this issue of the “Tennessee Three” matter for our democracy? It is because if we are going to address the real issues of gun violence, poverty, health care, accessibility, all of the ills that we know we face as a society, it is going to require a synergy of different ideas that are sometimes divergent in the voices that they come from, but are respected in the House and in the institution where people send us to represent.
Fung: What does this say about the politics of race and the politics of guns in your home state of Tennessee?
Pearson: What it is showing in our state is that there is a very big divide in the places that believe in a multiracial democracy and this institution that is built on white supremacy and patriarchy that does not want to change. What is equally important for everyone who believes in justice and who believes in democracy is there are always those who are pushing against that status quo.
What the Metro Council and the County Commission are saying in sending both of us back with unanimous support is that these unjust, antidemocratic behaviors of that institution would not be accepted. The disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of people will not be accepted.
Fung: Are you in a better place now to move forward on the gun violence agenda?
Pearson: I think we are in a movement moment. The movement to prevent gun violence from happening is being catalyzed in a way that few people could have ever anticipated or expected. It was difficult to be persecuted by a government quite literally in front of the entire country for advocating for the end of gun violence and for common sense gun legislation, particularly in the wake of the Nashville shooting.
What makes me hopeful is that the governor of the state of Tennessee, who has oftentimes received support from the National Rifle Association, is a Republican who has spoken up about the need to have expanded universal background checks. And he supports a law similar to the red flag law, which is something that we've advocated for.
I do think there has been a change in perspective of the Republican Party and the governor to see what's on the horizon, which are many young people who are refusing to accept the way that things are and are not only saying that things need to change, but they're marching for it, they're protesting for it, they're calling legislators for it.
Fung: What are your priorities in the legislature now that you're back in?
Pearson: The first thing we did when we got back was to write 15 pieces of legislation related to gun violence prevention and necessary and sensible gun reform. We’re hoping that the governor calls a special session so that we can work solely on this issue.
And then in our district, in Memphis, we're going to have a lot of meetings with young people, particularly in schools going into the fall, to learn about what it is they would like to see to ensure their schools are safer. We also want to meet with a lot of members of the community, who are being deeply impacted by gun violence, to think through what preventative measures exist. We are learning a whole lot, but we know that we are part of a movement of people across the state of Tennessee and across this country who are ready and wanting to see change. And I'm just fortunate to be a part of that.
Banner image: HKS’s Archon Fung, Representative Justin J. Pearson, and David Hogg at the JFK JR. Forum event. Photos by Bethany Versoy