NASHVILLE, Tennessee — The second of two Black Democrats who were kicked out of the Republican-led Tennessee House followed his colleague back to work at the Capitol on Thursday, a week after their expulsion for participating in a gun control protest propelled them into the national spotlight.
State Rep. Justin Pearson, of Memphis, was sworn in Thursday outside the Statehouse. The day before, Shelby County commissioners unanimously voted to reinstate him.
“Yes indeed, happy resurrection day,” Pearson said as he signed paperwork for his return.
“There will be a new building of this building, with a foundation built on love,” Pearson said during a fiery speech outside the Capitol after being sworn in. “With pillars of justice rising up. With rafters of courage covering us. With doors that are open to everybody in the state of Tennessee. Not just rich somebodies, but everybody. Not just straight somebodies, but everybody. Not just Republican somebodies, but everybody.”
After delivering his speech to supporters and reporters outside the Capitol, Pearson walked into the House chamber as debate on bills was underway. He pumped his fists and silently mouthed, “This is our House.” Those in the gallery pumped their fists back and mouthed “Our House” as Pearson circled around the floor.
Before Pearson returned to the chamber, lawmakers cheered and applauded as the police officers who responded to the deadly March 27 mass shooting at a Nashville elementary school shooting — the event that prompted the gun control protest — were honored in the chamber. Democratic state Rep. Bob Freeman praised the officers’ bravery but also stressed to his fellow lawmakers that “inaction is not an option” on how to respond to the tragedy.
Republicans banished Pearson and state Rep. Justin Jones last week over their role in the protest on the House floor over the shooting, which left three children and three adults dead.
In his address outside the Capitol, Pearson read the names of those killed and referenced another mass shooting on Monday at a bank in Louisville, Kentucky, in which five people were killed and eight others were injured.
“Our law enforcement, which many people praise, are being forced to go to war when they just are going to work,” Pearson said. “Kids are told to go to fortresses, instead of to go to school and places of learning. We’re told to go to church, carrying the status quo’s thoughts and prayers, while we must be in fear that somebody will walk in with an assault weapon.”
Upon Pearson’s return to the House floor, lawmakers debated legislation that deals with the teaching of “divisive concepts” regarding race, gender and sex on college campuses. After a brief spirited debate involving Pearson and Jones, Republicans used procedural rules to immediately halt discussion and force members to vote on the bill. The move exasperated Democrats, who immediately pointed out that cutting off debate and silencing dissenters was what led the so-called Tennessee three to break House rules after being cut off from previous debates.
The Nashville Metropolitan Council took only a few minutes Monday to restore Jones to office. He was quickly reinstated to his House seat that day.
The appointments are interim, though both Jones and Pearson plan to run in special elections for the seats later this year.
The House’s vote to remove Pearson and Jones but keep white state Rep. Gloria Johnson drew accusations of racism. Johnson survived by one vote. Republican leadership denied that race was a factor, noting that Johnson’s role in the protest didn’t involve some steps that Jones and Pearson took, including speaking into a bullhorn.
Banishment is a move the chamber has used only a handful times since the Civil War. Most state legislatures have the power to expel members, but it is generally reserved as a punishment for lawmakers accused of serious misconduct, not used as a weapon against political opponents.
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 raised thousands of campaign dollars and the Tennessee Democratic Party received a new jolt of support from across the U.S.
Political tensions rose when Pearson, Johnson and Jones, from the House floor, joined with hundreds of demonstrators who packed the Capitol to call for passage of gun control measures.
As protesters filled the 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.
In Tennessee, Republican lawmakers have been supportive of the idea to strengthen school safety, but they have largely rejected calls for stricter gun controls with only weeks to go in the legislative session.
The shooting and aftermath have pushed some, including Republican Gov. Bill Lee, to support some changes.
Lee has since called on the General Assembly to pass legislation aimed at keeping dangerous people from acquiring weapons. It’s unclear how successful he will be at drumming up support from lawmakers within his party at the tail end of the legislative session.
Lee, meanwhile, has avoided commenting on the lawmakers’ expulsions, saying the controversy is a House issue.