Skip to contents

Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones Won, but the Assault on Democracy Continues

Capital B spoke with a local organizer about the significance of Thursday’s elections and the young leaders shaping present-day political movements.

Tennessee state Reps. Justin J. Pearson (left) and Justin Jones, seen with state Rep. Gloria Johnson in April, will run in special general elections for their seats on Thursday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Tennessee state Reps. Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones — the two young Black Democrats who were expelled in April after they joined gun reform protests on the chamber floor — handily reclaimed their seats in special general elections on Thursday, per unofficial results.

Even so, civil rights advocates say that this moment ought to serve as a reminder of the fragile state of U.S. democracy and of the GOP pattern of preserving power by stifling the voices of marginalized people.

Across the South, organizers are pushing back against Republican lawmakers’ attempts to racially gerrymander state legislative and congressional districts and prevent Black voters from affecting election outcomes.

Alabama’s GOP-controlled legislature in July outright defied a U.S. Supreme Court directive to redraw the state’s congressional map with another majority-Black district.

In a May interview with Capital B, Pearson articulated his fears about the future of democracy in Tennessee and beyond.

“I’m deeply concerned that we’re losing our democracy,” he said, “because people in positions of power are abusing their power, and turning our democracy into a mobocracy, where the mob rules, where they abuse their authority and censure and expel voices they disagree with rather than do the hard work of creating more just legislation that reflects the interests of the people most impacted by policies.”

To further explore the significance of Thursday’s elections and the young leaders shaping present-day political movements, Capital B spoke with Brandon Jones, the communications director of CivicTN, a nonpartisan civic engagement organization based in Tennessee.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Capital B: What should people keep in mind about our broader political landscape, regardless of whether Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones win their old seats in Memphis and Nashville, respectively?

We should keep in mind that it’d be a win, yes, but it’d also be a wake-up call — a reminder of why these elections are happening in the first place.

The assault on democracy is still a huge concern. What happened to the Tennessee Three [Pearson, Jones, and Gloria Johnson, the white state representative who also led protests but wasn’t expelled] wasn’t a one-off. It was a very strategic move, representative of the kinds of attacks on democracy we see in the South, and we [organizers] have to make sure that we’re just as strategic with the work we do. At CivicTN, the past few months have been an opportunity for us to come together with other groups for a common cause.

In this work, I think a lot about the Civil Rights Movement, gerrymandering, and the misrepresentation of people in the South. And my philosophy goes back to the individual — to the importance of empowering even one person to learn about democracy issues and other issues affecting people around them, and then spread that knowledge in their communities.

Could you talk a bit about how Pearson, 28, and Jones, 27, exemplify the kinds of young people who’ve been influenced by the extremely visible public protest of recent years?

This is a pattern. We can see that members of younger generations aren’t backing down. They’re making sure that their communities are equipped with the knowledge they need to protect themselves, to protect their rights.

And this is a really important moment. Young leaders are voicing their concerns and putting themselves out there and fighting for what they know is right. But they’re not just talking about themselves. They’re talking about the generations they’re a part of, as well as the generations coming after them. They want these future generations to be represented equally, too.

We know that these issues are affecting many different parts of the country. I think that when we see that and can pinpoint which leaders are voicing younger generations’ concerns, people can find pathways to take to confront the challenges facing their communities. Earlier I mentioned the importance of empowering individuals. But empowering generations is also important.

How has CivicTN been preparing for Thursday’s elections?

There are a number of elections coming up — including for Pearson and Jones’ seats — and we’re mobilizing our partners. We’re canvassing and having poll parties and phone-banking. We really want to give people opportunities to engage in the political process, especially on Election Day.

For instance, one of our partners, the Equity Alliance, recently hosted a “party at the polls” at one of the Nashville Public Library branches. What’s especially important about all of this is just giving people the information and knowledge they need before they actually head to the polls on Aug. 3.

If people aren’t aware of the issues facing their communities, they won’t necessarily see that there’s a need for change — change they can fuel. And this is where CivicTN and our dozens of coalition partners plug in and make sure that people know about their rights and are voicing community concerns.

This story has been updated to reflect the unofficial results of Thursday’s elections.

Capital B is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to uncovering important stories — like this one — about how Black people experience America today. As more and more important information disappears behind paywalls, it’s crucial that we keep our journalism accessible and free for all. But we can’t publish pieces like this without your help. If you support our mission, please consider becoming a member by making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you!