They rode the bus. Again. About 30 Memphians boarded Rufus N. Wiley Sr.’s bus; beige with big green letters on the side that read “BLACK OWNERSHIP MOVEMENT ‘TOGETHER, LET’S OWN OUR TOMORROW.” Wiley behind the wheel again, back to Nashville, the state’s seat of power.
It was different this time though, said Tikeila Rucker, an organizer with Memphis For All. “Last week, we rode the bus with the spirit of, like, possibly anger…frustration that something like this could happen.”
Last week, they rode the bus to support Rep. Justin J. Pearson as he and Reps. Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson faced an expulsion vote. The representatives, dubbed by supporters as the Tennessee Three, participated in a March 30 protest for gun reform at the House’s well after a person with a gun killed three children and three adults in Nashville’s Covenant School earlier that week. A single vote spared Johnson; Pearson and Jones were expelled.
But Wednesday in Memphis, seven votes from the Shelby County Commission reinstated Pearson. Thursday, he was to be sworn back into that house.
“…Today’s ride, the bus felt celebratory; everyone was excited,” said Rucker. “Emotional about all the work that has gone into this. A bit tired but still here and ready…It was a joyful ride today.”
Memphis doesn’t always do well in Nashville. Memphis and Shelby County aren’t seen in Nashville, not in the state House. Memphis is Blacker and poorer and politically, bluer. The supermajority of Republicans and white males in the legislature makes policy — when it makes policy — that strips Memphians of agency more than it supports them.
But as Pearson was reinstalled, he brought his community, Memphis, with him, front and center stage.
In fact, when he arrived, he stood at a podium, then looked out into the Legislative Plaza that faces the state House. He paused. Beside him, lining the stage under that morning sun, were Democratic legislators. Pearson opened with “Where my folks from Memphis at?” and began inviting others onto the stage: Tyranie, Josh, Alex, Bennett…
About 20 people were called, some by name, some as “Auntie” or “Okay, Moms Demand Action, we want you up here too!”
He called Alice Miller, a Shelby County resident.
“…It’s so moving to be asked to be there beside him,” she said. “Even asking the other state reps to take a step or two back to make room for the people who he called to the stage by name. I’ve never seen anything like that. He knows how to build a movement. Not for the sake of a politician or future career, but to get people activated.”
She and the others watched Pearson be sworn in on the plaza. Rucker, thinking of the March 27 Covenant school shooting and discussions of gun violence and necessary reform that started these days of action, said later, “Democracy has been restored in the face of tragedy.”
The swearing-in over, Pearson and his family slowly climbed the three levels of steps of the legislature’s south side, glowing with affection and what looked like hope, and nestled in layers of security. Media circled the edges of their group; the atmosphere vibrated with freedom songs.
The reinstalled representative made it back to his seat in time for a House discussion of a bill amending a “divisive concepts” law passed last year — this state’s version of a swipe at critical race theory. The amendment would add a way for people to report “alleged violations” at higher education institutions. Pearson and Jones rose in opposition. Republicans used a procedural vote to cut off debate. It passed.
There’s still work to be done.
The vote over, Pearson made his way to the legislative lounge at the state house, stopping along the way for selfies with supporters in the ornate rotunda. There, among the bookshelves and busts of white men painted on the ceiling, he said he wanted to hold a private “family meeting” with constituents. He held space to honor his predecessor, Rep. Barbara Cooper, who passed away early this year. They discussed strategy, sustainability and where to meet next.
In a press conference, later, Pearson was asked about this moment and Memphis, in Nashville.
“Memphis, Millington, District 86 in Shelby County has a whole lot to say to the folks in Nashville, which is that we will not be bought, we will not be disenfranchised, we will not allow the system to continue to do us harm, without responding,” he said.
“So I believe our reappointment is one acknowledgment of that but it also is something powerful that over 1,000 people marched yesterday, that there is a movement that is building in Memphis, that is burgeoning in Memphis, that is saying that the status quo is not working or us, the status quo and the people who are supporting and propping up the status quo are not working for us.
“And so we are going to fight to change that and that’s why this movement is going to continue to be sustained by young people. It’s going to continue to be sustained in an intergenerational way, in a multiracial way that should give us all hope and courage to continue to fight.”
A clarion call to his city. To everyone. “He’s reminding us about holding the line, so they don’t keep on moving the line,” Rucker said.
Pearson understands that Memphis knows how to organize, how to protest, how to demand change. It’s in its history and its present.
Memphis, he knows, will get on the bus.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is the executive editor for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrea Morales is the visuals director for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at email@example.com
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