Even with the successful votes to reinstate Tennessee Democrats Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, the predominantly white Republican-led House of Representatives’ act of retaliation raises concerns about the state of democracy in Tennessee.
“The expulsions don’t make the Top 10 list of the most antidemocratic or unfair things affecting Black people here,” explained Sekou Franklin, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, located about 35 miles southeast of downtown Nashville. “Up and down and top to bottom, Tennessee has democracy issues.”
Jones and Pearson were kicked out last Thursday after they joined gun reform protests on the chamber floor in the wake of a deadly school shooting. Nashville’s Metropolitan Council voted unanimously to reappoint Jones on Monday, and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners did the same for Pearson on Wednesday. Both are serving as interim representatives and will run in special elections later this year.
“What the world saw,” said Tequila Johnson, the co-founder of the Nashville-based grassroots organization Equity Alliance, “was how our state regards young Black leaders.”
Tennessee is Draconian in its treatment of people with prior felony convictions. Per a 2022 analysis by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group, while many states have sought to make it easier for people convicted of felonies to vote again, Tennessee has done the precise opposite. As a result, 1 in 5 Black Tennesseans are barred from casting a ballot.
Notably, the origins of broad felony disenfranchisement laws can be traced back to the post-Reconstruction era, when white legislators throughout the South began to design ways to curtail the voting rights that Black men had won through the country’s adoption of constitutional amendments.
“We have one of the most archaic and complicated laws when it comes to the restoration process,” Sherese Da Silva, the director of operations at The Equity Alliance, told the Center for Public Integrity last year. “We have a lot of people who should be eligible to vote, but the process is so complex. I think that a lot of them just give up.”
Egregious partisan gerrymanders at the state and federal levels also chisel away at democracy in Tennessee.
In fact, according to a 2022 study by Jacob M. Grumbach, a political science professor at the University of Washington, Tennessee is the least democratic state in the U.S., in part because of extreme redistricting that unevenly distributes power.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project shows that Tennessee House Democrats are crammed into a relatively small number of strongly Democratic districts — including Jones and Pearson’s districts, which are 30.9% Black and 61.1 Black, respectively. Such gerrymanders ensure the GOP’s control of the state.
“We have a totalizing antidemocratic atmosphere. This is the environment the Tennessee Three are operating in,” Franklin said, referring to Jones, Pearson, and Gloria Johnson, the white state representative who also led protests but wasn’t kicked out. “The expulsions are indicative of a broader context we’re facing. It’s very, very difficult to go into the legislature and have no power, no influence — nothing.”
Tennessee Democrats have been direct in condemning the ousters, and have stressed that the current legislative session has been difficult for Jones and Pearson.
“A lot of political bullying has been going on behind the scenes. The idea that [they] must apologize is a mindset [rooted] in white supremacy,” state Sen. Charlane Oliver told reporters last week. “This supermajority has gone unchecked.”
‘Tennessee is on fire’
In the absence of intense mobilizing, things will only get worse, Franklin explained, “because the GOP is going to enact a level of revenge that will be vicious.”
Already, Republicans are vowing to withhold millions of dollars in state funding for Memphis-area projects because of Pearson’s reappointment.
“We’re being threatened by the state to take away funding — needed funding to run our schools, to run our municipalities,” Shelby County Commissioner Erika Sugarmon, a Democrat, told FOX13 following the expulsions. “This is about bullying people into submission.”
To create a bulwark against Republicans’ antidemocratic behavior, organizers say, Tennessee needs help — more help than the state has been receiving in recent years.
According to Johnson, with The Equity Alliance, Tennessee hasn’t received any significant funding or assistance from national progressive organizations in more than a decade.
“The state has essentially become a desert when it comes to progressive outreach,” she said. “What we’ve seen in places such as Nashville [a Democratic stronghold] is that Republicans are the ones doubling down on their investments in the city — from moving influencers such as Candace Owens to Nashville, to fighting to host the Republican National Convention in Nashville.”
Johnson added that the infrastructure required to nourish the political power of Black Tennesseans already exists — it just needs support.
“We were able to register more than 1,200 voters this week,” she said. “We put out a voting guide to educate people. We do a monthly plug-in where people have the opportunity to discuss how issues are affecting Black communities. We do events that center joy — every year we have a Juneteenth block party, where 5,000 or 6,000 people show up. We’ve expanded to Memphis and Chattanooga. The foundation is there. All we need is investment.”
Over the past few days, the country hasn’t been able to look away from the political chaos in Tennessee. But for many in the state, the nagging question is: Will this attention last?
The stakes of the current moment couldn’t be higher.
“Right now, Republicans are being careful, because they know that Tennessee is on fire,” Johnson said. “But as soon as they know that people are no longer paying attention — that we’re no longer a priority — that’s when they’ll really start to retaliate.”
This story has been updated.