In Tennessee, expulsions of Black lawmakers echo a decades-old protest movement

Two young Black Tennessee state legislators have gone from neophyte politicians to national prominence. They’re being heralded as living echoes of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s

State Representative Justin Jones, D-Nashville, center, marches with supporters to the state Capitol, on April 10, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee.
State Representative Justin Jones, D-Nashville, center, marches with supporters to the state Capitol, on April 10, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee.George Walker IV (AP)

Squint a little as you take in the scene, or just close your eyes and listen to the voice, and 2023 stumbles back into another era. Another Memphis. “You can’t expel hope!” the young man cries in his powerful voice, his message aimed at the Tennessee state legislators who had expelled him and another Black lawmaker a week earlier. “You can’t expel justice! You can’t expel our voice.”

Justin Pearson wears a dark suit in the county meeting room, a carefully knotted blue tie and glasses that bring Malcolm X to mind. He speaks in the rolling cadence of generations of Black preachers.

He ends by quoting a Bible verse beloved by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., vowing to fight “until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Then he turns to his cheering supporters and thrusts his fist into the air.

The two Black Democratic legislators ousted by the overwhelmingly white, Republican-controlled state Legislature — then reinstated by local officials days later — have only a few months’ experience in political office. But in barely two weeks, Pearson, 28, and Justin Jones, 27, have gone from neophyte politicians to national prominence, heralded as living echoes of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, when leaders like King and John Lewis organized protests across the American South.

“Two young Black men” were forced from office, Vice President Kamala Harris said Friday at a convention in New York City of the civil rights group the National Action Network, calling the expulsions “an attempt to silence the voice of the people.”

But those expulsions, she added, simply set off more protests.

“Now, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson are back in their seats!” Harris said to cheers.

The two men — now widely known simply as “the Justins” — “are executing tactics modeled after people they’ve admired,” said Noelle Trent, an official at Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum, located on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated in 1968 while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike. They “have actually studied the (Civil Rights) Movement.”

That movement strikes powerful chords in this part of America.

“The energy is there because both Memphis and Nashville are deeply rooted in the civil rights protest tradition,” said the Rev. Andre E. Johnson, a civil rights activist, senior pastor at Memphis’ Gifts of Life Ministries and a professor of communications who has studied Black oratory and rhetoric.

Pearson and Jones both came to the state Legislature steeped in activism.

Jones, who was born in Oakland, California, and raised in the East Bay Area, moved to Nashville to attend Fisk University and is studying for a master’s degree in theology at Vanderbilt University, according to campaign material. One set of grandparents were Black Chicagoans, and his other grandparents immigrated from the Philippines.

His life has taken him from protest to protest: leading a campaign against the bust prominently displayed at the state Capitol of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, which GOP leaders refused to remove; blocking Nashville traffic after the election of former President Donald Trump; and spending more than 60 days at the Capitol plaza in 2020 to protest police violence after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. As a student, he worked to expand health care and repeal voter ID laws.

The protests have also led to a handful of clashes with authorities, from the time he threw a cup of liquid at the former House speaker during the bust protests to when he stood on a police cruiser during demonstrations after Floyd’s killing. A campaign website says he has been arrested more than a dozen times for nonviolent protest.

He has no regrets about the protest that got him expelled, when he, Pearson and a white colleague, 60-year-old legislator Gloria Johnson, walked to the speaker’s podium while the Legislature was in session and led chants calling for gun control.

The protest unfolded in the aftermath of a shooting at a Nashville Christian school where six people, including three young students, were slain. While the protest also angered some Democrats — video captured some older Black, Democratic legislators berating the trio at the podium — the symbolism of expelling the two Black lawmakers while sparing their white colleague shifted the attention from guns to race.

But with only days left in the session, Jones, who was elected in 2022 and represents part of Nashville, said his focus was still on gun control legislation.

“This is about saving Tennessee, saving our nation, saving the future for our children,” he said in a brief interview Thursday at the Capitol.

He sees himself in the young protesters who flooded the capital to call for gun control, even though he calls himself “an elder now in the movement.”

Pearson grew up in Memphis and went to high school in the same district he was elected to represent after longtime state Rep. Barbara Cooper, a Black Democrat, died in office. The sprawling district sits on the Mississippi River, winding along the neighborhoods, forests and wetlands of south Memphis, through parts of downtown and then north into a series of semi-rural communities.

One of five children — his mother is a teacher and his father is a minister and pastor — Pearson has said his family struggled financially as he was growing up.

His activism reaches back at least to high school, when he complained to the school board about a lack of textbooks. Later, he attended Bowdoin College in Maine, where he was class president and recipient of the President’s Award, given for “exceptional personal achievements and uncommon contributions to the college.”

He returned to Memphis and helped lead the fight against a planned oil pipeline that would have run through wetlands and under poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city’s south. The project was canceled in 2021.

Pearson won his legislative seat in a special election in late January.

“I’m very proud of him,” said Kevin Webb, a teacher and band director at Mitchell High School who knew Pearson when he was a student there. “He’s standing up for what he believes is right.”

“Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t always going to look good,” Webb continued. “That’s how life is.”

Pearson and Jones’ sudden rise to prominence also raises powerful questions about America’s continuing need for a civil rights movement.

The two men’s return to office is not “resurrecting democracy,” said the Rev. Earle Fisher, a Memphis civil rights activist and senior pastor of Gifts of Abyssinian Baptist Church. “There’s a difference between getting our lick back, and actually winning the fight,” he said. “The fight is far from over.”

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