State Rep Justin J. Pearson raises his fist in jubilation as a crowd of people in the foreground cheer.
State Rep. Justin J. Pearson cheers in the Shelby County Commission chambers following Wednesday’s unanimous vote to reinstate him to the Tennessee House of Representatives. The House’s Republican supermajority expelled Pearson last week for participating in a protest on the house floor for gun reform. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

After being expelled from the state House legislature on Thursday, the Shelby County Commission unanimously reappointed Justin J. Pearson to his elected position as a representative for District 86.

That’s good news for democracy and Pearson’s constituents, but what does this mean for the political landscape? For Democrats? For Pearson?  (If you haven’t been following along, scroll down for the back story.) 

“The winds of change are blowing across Tennessee and our nation,” Pearson said in a statement, after his reinstatement.  “This moment called for justice, for action. We weren’t silent. We answered and we prevailed. But, we have a long way to go.

“We must ban assault weapons. We must reimagine a school safety that nourishes and supports, educates, and protects our children, not one that criminalizes them and looks like a prison. We must look to Restorative Justice instead of police brutality and an unjust criminal justice system. We must fight back against the cruelty to our trans children and other LGBTQ siblings. We must fight environmental racism, instead bring clean energy and green jobs to our district. We must eliminate the policy violence of economic, social and political inequality.”

Yes, we must. But we don’t know whether the state is about to get serious about treating gun violence as a public health issue

So for now, we have questions: 

With Republican supermajority in the House, Senate and a Republican governor, it’s nearly impossible for Democrats to get a serious hearing on legislation they propose. Might the House Republicans who eagerly expelled Pearson punish him by shelving any bills he offers?

Nashville, TN | April 6, 2023: House Speaker Cameron Sexton bangs his gavel at the start of the session. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton bangs his gavel.
A large crowd of people walk across a street with Justin J. Pearson.

The Republican-controlled legislature has a habit of passing laws that limit cities’ autonomy – will it push through preemptive legislation to prohibit ousted representatives from being reinstated?

Memphis, TN | April 12, 2023: Pearson walks alongside his partner Oceana Gilliam and his colleague State Rep. Gloria Johnson during a march down Main Street to the Shelby County Commission meeting. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)

Is there a way this moment in pressing for gun control, inspired by the mass shooting at the Covenant School, can be used to also push for more reform in policing, as activists have called for following the January beating and killing of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police?

Nashville, TN | April 6, 2023: Protestors stage a die-in at the end of the legislative session where State reps. Pearson and Justin Jones were expelled. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)

Several protesters lay on the floor during a die-in. Another large crowd of protesters stands behind them yelling.
A large crowd outside the Tennessee State House.

If the legislature responds to Gov. Lee’s call for “order of protection” laws (aka red flag laws), will they craft them in a way that doesn’t harm Black and Brown folk

Nashville, TN | April 10, 2023: Crowds raised their fist in solidarity following the reinstatement of State Rep. Justin Jones outside of the Tennessee State House. (Noah Stewart for MLK50)

In a 2022 article, The New York Times wondered if Nashville could become conservatives’ Hollywood and in 2020, the far-right Daily Wire moved its headquarters to the Music City. Might the legislature’s attacks on, well, everything, be a strategy to lure more conservative voters to the capitol?

Nashville, TN | April 10, 2023: Folks marching in support of State Rep. Justin Jones gathered at Public Square Plaza. (Noah Stewart for MLK50)

A crowd of people file into a building.
People embrace Justin ones.

National political organizations often fail to invest in Tennessee because it’s so red. In the 2020 presidential election, just over 60% of Tennessee voters cast a ballot for former (and now indicted) President Trump. Will Pearson’s expulsion and reinstatement cause national orgs to reconsider?

Nashville, TN | April 6, 2023: State Rep. Justin Jones is embraced by supporters at the Tennessee State House after he was expelled last week. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)

Tennessee prides itself on being a friendly place to do business. The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development website touts the supposed plusses: The Volunteer State is right-to-work  (read: anti-union), and has no state income tax (read: less revenue for infrastructure) and few business regulations (read: bad for workers). But isn’t the death of democracy  – and consuming national media attention for nearly a week – bad for business? 

Nashville, TN | April 6, 2023: People in the gallery at the House of Representatives chant following the vote that expelled State Rep. Justin J. Pearson. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)

A person takes a photo with their phone while standing between two ornate columns.
A group of protesters are seen from above.

Pearson said the community needs to keep the pressure on gun reform and young people need to vote. What’s our plan to make this happen, people? 

Nashville, TN | April 6, 2023: Young folks protesting in favor of gun reform filled the Tennessee State House. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)

Wednesday’s vote was unanimous, perhaps because the four Republicans, who are outnumbered on the commission, were absent. (Also absent were Democrats Michael Whaley and Britney Thornton, both of whom were traveling overseas, according to social media posts.) What should Shelby County voters take away from the Republicans’ decision? Was their absence just a partisan move?  Is it disrespectful to democracy to not show up for the vote? 

Memphis, TN | April 12, 2023: State Rep. Justin J. Pearson speaks to crowds of supporters outside of the Shelby County Commission following his reinstatement. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)

Justin J. Pearson looks at the camera as he crosses a street with a large group of supporters.

How we got here

Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville were expelled by House Republicans Thursday for “disorderly behavior.” The expulsions came after they briefly disrupted a legislative session March 30, leading chants from the podium in the well of the House chamber, in support of gun reform after the March 27 mass shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School. Three children and three adults were killed. 

On Monday, in another unanimous decision, the Nashville Metro Council reinstated Jones to the House. He was sworn in and returned to the legislature an hour later. 

Where we are now: 

  • In response to the Nashville shootings and the community pressure, on Tuesday, Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order that sets a three-day period for reporting new criminal activity and court mental health information to the state’s Instant Check System, run by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. 
  • He also called on lawmakers to pass an order of protection law to keep guns away from people who present a danger to themselves or others. 
  • Democrats are proposing a ban on gun conversion kits and high-capacity magazines; they’ve also pushed a Senate bill that would allow family members and law enforcement to petition civil courts for an extreme risk protection order to allow law enforcement to temporarily remove weapons from those deemed a risk to themselves or others.

Wendi C. Thomas is the founding editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at

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