It was a powerful moment when over 1,000 high school and college students marched to the Tennessee State Capitol, demanding gun reform in the wake of the tragic shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville. Chanting “Ban assault weapons” and “We don’t want your thoughts and prayers,” the students were joined by three Democratic representatives – Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson – as they took their protest to the State House of Representatives.
Shockingly, the Republican supermajority in the House voted to expel Jones and Pearson, both of whom are Black, from their seats. Johnson, who is white, kept her seat by a single vote. However, Jones and Pearson are set to retain their seats, as they were unanimously reinstated by the Nashville Metropolitan Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, respectively.
The expulsions have generated outrage and accusations of racism, as this marks only the third time since the Civil War era that Tennessee House legislators have been expelled. Critics argue that the expulsions reflect the state’s increasing anti-democratic tendencies under Republican control. Both Jones and Pearson have made significant contributions as community organizers, fighting for social justice and environmental causes.
In an impassioned speech before the expulsion vote, Jones called out the blatant racism, saying, “A state in which the Ku Klux Klan was founded is now attempting another power grab by silencing two of the youngest Black representatives and one of the only Democratic women in this body.” Pearson, speaking at a Memphis church, referred to the expulsions as a “political lynching.”
The case echoes past incidents where elected officials were targeted for their political beliefs or activism, such as the historic case of John Wilkes in the House of Commons, the expulsion of Adam Clayton Powell from Congress, and Julian Bond’s disqualification from the Georgia House of Representatives. These incidents underscore the importance of protecting the democratic rights of both elected officials and their constituents.
Senate Democrats have now called for a Department of Justice probe into the expulsions to determine if any violations of the US Constitution or federal civil rights laws have occurred. In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, the senators stated, “We cannot allow states to cite minor procedural violations as pretextual excuses to remove democratically-elected representatives, especially when these expulsions may have been at least partially on the basis of race.”
As the situation continues to unfold, it serves as a stark reminder that democracy remains under threat, and that the fight for justice and equality is far from over.