Expelled Black lawmaker Justin Pearson reinstated to Tennessee House
Justin Pearson celebrates after being reinstated to the the Tennessee House of Representatives by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in Memphis. | Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal via AP

MEMPHIS—The members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners carried out their moral duty and legal obligation by reappointing Black state lawmaker Justin Pearson on Wednesday, April 12, to his rightful seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Pearson’s reinstatement was the second, following in the wake of his colleague, Justin Jones, who was re-seated on Monday, April 10.

The two legislators, along with a white legislative colleague, State Rep. Gloria Johnson, were charged with “disorderly behavior” for participating in a peaceful protest on the House floor demanding gun control on March 30 following the mass shooting at the Covenant Christian School in Nashville. Three nine-year old children and three staffers were killed in the attack.

The state representatives—now known as “The Tennessee Three”—took the protest to the House floor. An expulsion hearing for the trio was held on April 6. Jones and Pearson were expelled from the House, while Johnson narrowly survived the expulsion attempt, retaining her seat by one vote.

Pearson was reappointed by a unanimous 7-0 vote of the county commissioners. He was joined on Wednesday by his colleagues, Jones and Johnson. Ahead of the vote, Pearson led hundreds of supporters from the National Civil Rights Museum to the commissioners’ office in downtown Memphis.

The museum occupies the former Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

The chairman of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, Mickell Lowery, was clearly sympathetic to the protests at the State Capitol, saying “The gun laws in the state of Tennessee are becoming nearly non-existent.” Pearson represents a part of Memphis, all of which is in Shelby County.

The appointments of Pearson and Jones are interim ones. Special elections will be held in which both will run for their seats. There is no doubt that both will win overwhelmingly.

On Thursday, April 13, Pearson will be again sworn in at the State Capitol in Nashville.. At that time, the Tennessee Three will call for Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton to resign.

Both Jones and Pearson are activists and supremely committed to fighting the racial, political, and social oppression that has been imposed on the marginalized and disadvantaged populations of the American political landscape.

Pearson has an equal activist portfolio, being well known as a skilled community organizer. Prior to being elected, he was instrumental in leading a successful campaign against a proposed oil pipeline that would have impacted residential neighborhoods and wetlands. The pipeline would have been near wells that pump water from the Memphis sand aquifer, which provides water to over one million people.

The reinstatements of these two champions of the people are resounding defeats for the fascist and racist Republican legislators in Tennessee and around the United States, signaling the country is on the cusp of a monumental change.

A new movement heralded by the Tennessee Three is on the horizon to combat the rise of fascist sentiment spearheaded by the Republican Party. A new front in the war for American democracy has opened up, and that battlefield is in Tennessee.

Pearson said on Wednesday that the actions of the Republican Party “have awakened a sleeping giant.”

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Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.