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Both Black Tennessee lawmakers have been reinstated after being expelled by GOP

Justin J. Pearson stands with state Rep. Gloria Johnson during a rally in Memphis, Tenn., before a vote to reinstate him to the Tennessee House on April 12, 2023.
Katie Riordan
Justin J. Pearson stands with state Rep. Gloria Johnson during a rally in Memphis, Tenn., before a vote to reinstate him to the Tennessee House on April 12, 2023.

Updated April 12, 2023 at 2:46 PM ET

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Less than a week after being expelled, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners has reappointed Justin J. Pearson to his seat representing Tennessee House District 86.

Shelby County is home to Memphis, the area Pearson represents. Wednesday, in a 7-0 vote, the board decided to reinstate Pearson while six of the 13 members, including Republicans, were absent from the meeting.

While talking with reporters after the vote, Pearson says he will head to the Capitol in Nashville Wednesday night to be in place for Thursday's House session.

Chairman Mickell M. Lowery of the commission, who put forth the resolution to reinstate Pearson, said he had heard from people across the country who disagree with the expulsion.

"I think that it's important that the people of District 86 are represented by the person that they voted overwhelming to have in the office," he said in an interview.

Wednesday afternoon, Pearson led a march from from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to the Shelby County Commission building telling the rally-goers to "show me what Democracy looks like."

"This is the Democracy that is going to transform a broken nation and a broken state into the place that God calls for it to be," he said. "This is the Democracy that is going to lift up the victims of gun violence instead of supporting the NRA and the gun lobbyists."

Expulsions put a spotlight on race in Tennessee

Pearson's reinstatement is the latest twist in a political battle that ignited accusations of racism and toxic partisanship: Republican House members, largely white and male, employed a disciplinary tool little used since the 1800s to expel Pearson and another Black Democrat, Rep. Justin Jones, while sparing Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white.

The Republican supermajority voted to punish Pearson and Jones, of Nashville, after they — alongside Johnson of Knoxville — broke procedural rules to lead a protest from the House floor calling for gun law reforms.

When asked about the differing outcomes, Johnson replied, "It might have to do with the color of our skin."

Pearson and Jones are returning to the legislature on an interim basis, but they can both run in a special election to regain the seat until the next general election, in 2024.

Pearson and Jones were kicked out of the House on April 6. Jones was reinstated to his seat on Monday.

Commission leader says expulsion was hasty

As he announced Wednesday's special meeting, Lowery said he understood the Republican leadership's desire to send "a strong message" to Pearson and Jones. But he also said it was a hasty process that brought an "unfortunate" outcome.

The commission meeting is the second time Pearson has faced a vote on his political future in just three months. He won office in January, in a special election to replace state Rep. Barbara Cooper — who won reelection despite dying two weeks before Election Day.

Pearson and Jones now have high profiles

"It is a throwback to our racist past," political analyst Otis Sanford, a professor at the University of Memphis, said of the expulsion vote, speaking to member station WKNO in Memphis.

But Sanford predicted the expulsions would lead young people in Tennessee to get more involved with their state's politics. He also said the lawmakers who were singled out could have bright futures.

"On a more positive note, both Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, I think, showed the voters in their districts exactly why they should be reelected," Sanford said. "But also, it seems like they made themselves look like future political stars nationally."

Calls for gun laws sparked lawmakers' protest

Pearson, Jones and Johnson, whom supporters call "The Tennessee Three," took to the House floor days after a 28-year-old assailant shot and killed six people at the Covenant elementary school in Nashville. As crowds of students and parents amassed at the legislature to urge new gun controls, the three lawmakers accused their Republican colleagues of inaction in the face of an epidemic of mass shootings.

"We are losing our democracy in Tennessee," Pearson told WPLN before the vote to expel him from the House. "This is another example of the erosion of democracy because we spoke up for gun reform. Because we spoke up for people and children who will never become state legislators, who will never graduate from high school and never get engaged, never be able to see or protest for their own lives because they've been killed by gun violence."

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee took up some changes to gun laws on Tuesday, asking the General Assembly to expand the state's "order of protection" law (which is similar to other states' "red flag" laws that are meant to prevent anyone who poses a threat to themselves or others from accessing guns.)

Lee also issued an executive order that is intended to make the state's background check process more effective.

Like most mass killers, the Nashville shooter acquired the guns they used legally. Nashville Mayor John Cooper has said stronger laws could have prevented three mass shootings in his city, including the recent tragedy at the Covenant School.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Katie Riordan