Tennessee state Rep. Justin J. Pearson — one of two Black Tennessee lawmakers who were expelled on Thursday — fit himself into a long history of civil rights activism when he told reporters that he’ll “never shirk back from civil disobedience” because that kind of defiance is “what built this country.”
Like his fellow Democrat and expelled lawmaker, state Rep. Justin Jones, 28-year-old Pearson, who was born and raised in Memphis, is in the vanguard of a generation of young activists hoping to use elected office to buck the status quo.
He co-founded the Black-led environmental justice organization Memphis Community Against Pollution, which, per his official website, “successfully defeated a multi-billion dollar company’s crude oil pipeline project that would have poisoned Memphis’s drinking water and stolen land from the community.”
A dark irony looms over the expulsion of Pearson, who represented parts of Memphis: This week marks 55 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the city, where he’d been advocating for higher wages for Black sanitation workers.
Pearson invoked King, saying that the civil rights leader spoke of putting “consciousness above rules.”
Following his ouster, Pearson declared that he’ll continue to advocate for justice and equality — because too much is at stake.
Below, you can read the full text of Pearson’s conversation with reporters after the vote to expel Jones.
Question: What should people who are watching across the country think about what they’re witnessing?
Justin Pearson: We are losing our democracy. That is what’s happening in the state of Tennessee. We’re losing our democracy, and we’ve already seen a member who was duly elected by the people in Nashville in this 52nd District of being expelled from the statehouse because he said we need to end gun violence, because he said we have to do something, we have to make sure that the voices of the people are elevated. And right now we have, on trial, in this kangaroo court, Representative Gloria Johnson and her attorneys, who they, too, are seeking to expel right before I speak and before they were to expel me, which I expect to happen, too.
We are losing our democracy. This is not normal. This is not OK.
If you look at what it takes to expel a member, or what it should take most of the times that a member of the Tennessee state legislature had gotten expelled the last two times, in particular, one guy committed sexual assault against 22 people, the other committed bribery. We broke our House rule because we’re fighting for kids who are dying from gun violence and people in our communities who want to see an end to the proliferation of weaponry in our communities, and that leads to our expulsion? This is not democracy. This is not what it is supposed to look like, and everybody needs to be very afraid and very worried that there are people in positions of power who are using and wielding that power to expel people who are duly elected to their seats.
We came here to fight for our constituents. We came here to lift up the issues of people who are suffering. Six people died in Nashville at the Covenant School. Three were 9 years old, but instead of focusing on that, Representative Jones, Representative Johnson, and myself are being expelled from the statehouse because we said we cannot do business as usual. No one should be wanting to operate as though this is not happening, as though we are not living in a gun violence epidemic in the state of Tennessee.
And the solutions that are being offered is actually to reduce the First Amendment rights of people who speak up on behalf of their constituencies, who speak on behalf of people who are tired of the guns, who are tired of seeing legislation being passed that lowers the age for you to carry. Tired of seeing legislation being passed that says you don’t need a permanent. Tired of legislation being passed that says if we give teachers guns, that somehow gonna fix the problem. People are tired of these non-real solutions to a real problem that we are suffering from.
I’ve lost a classmate this year from gun violence. My mentor died last year from gun violence. We are dealing with a gun violence epidemic, and the resolution is not to silent the voices of people who send us here to the people’s House to speak with them and for them. It is to make sure we do just legislation. It is to make sure we fight for red flag laws. We fight for good storage laws. We fight to make sure that this is a democracy and maintains its democratic principles, but that’s what’s being lost today. And so every Tennessean, you need to be very concerned that we are not in a democracy. And across the United States of America, there has been no House members who have ever been expelled for exercising the First Amendment right to peaceful protests. This is a first in American history, and we are losing our democracy to white supremacy. We are losing our democracy to patriarchy. We are losing our democracy to people who want to keep a status quo that is damning to the rest of us and damning to our children and unborn people.
It is no coincidence that the two youngest Black lawmakers in the state of Tennessee and one of two women are on trial today. That is not accidental! This is what happens when you lose democracy. This is what we are fighting against, and must stand up against as legislators and as people and as citizens across this country, because it’s starting in Tennessee, but it won’t end here.
Question: How painful has this last week been being a member of this body, and instead of talking about dead children and people, they focused on something that none of you expected.
Pearson: So it is painful to be a member of this body because of the silences that the members of this body take. The silence on gun reform. The silence on actually doing things that protect communities and make us safer. The silence about expanding health care access, the silence about doing things to ensure our children have equitable educational opportunities. The silence about the lynchings that are occurring in our state due to police brutality. We are tired of the silence that is going on in this place.
And the reality is there are some people who are silent: They’re dead. There are three 9-year-olds who will never serve in this General Assembly. Who will never be able to march, will never be able to protest, will never be able to raise their voice about this issue. There are three folks 60 and 61, who were just going to work to serve children, who are dead because someone with an assault rifle went into the school and shot 152 rounds. What reason does any reasonable person have to have an assault rifle? They’re only intended to kill people and police officers. And yet, we have folks who are beholden to the NRA. Folks who are beholden to gun lobbyists, like the Tennessee Firearms Association, folks who don’t care about the children that we lost, don’t care about the classmates we lost, don’t care about the people in our communities that we lose every single day when we turn on the news because they rather support a status quo that kills us than doing the work of justice of creating legislation that helps to save us.
Question: Justin, what would be your message to the speaker of the House today?
Pearson: The speaker of the House is leading an undemocratic institution. He is leading a political lynching of people who have already been persecuted for being women; for being Black; for being young, gifted, and talented. The speaker of the House is a problem in the state of Tennessee, and he is not a dictator. He is not a God, as Representative Jones said, and yet that is the way that he is operating and that needs to change, and the people of Tennessee have a responsibility, a moral responsibility, to continue to come, to continue to speak up, and to continue to fight to get justice legislation to end gun violence in our state. And that’s the first speaker and every leader and everybody in the Republican Party who voted in a partisan way to expel the members of this legislature
Question: After what happened to Representative Jones, do you have any belief that you will not be expelled later tonight?
Pearson: I do not have a belief that people can know that children are dying — know that people in communities across the state are dying — and they still choose to do nothing. They’d rather support the NRA. They’d rather call children who are 9 and 10 and 12 and 13 insurrectionists, saying that they’re as violent as the folks on January 6 who killed police officers, who killed fellow Americans. They’re calling children insurrections in the state of Tennessee, because they don’t want to see justice come here. And that’s a problem. I have to head back in.