The Justins: The Story of The Tennessee Three
May 17, 2023
On March 30, 2023, three Democratic Tennessee representatives participated in a peaceful demonstration protesting for stricter gun laws in the state. The rally followed a mass shooting three days earlier at The Covenant School in Nashville, where three nine-year-olds and three educators were killed.
Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson (the representatives) led the protest in full force, with Jones holding a sign that read “Protect kids, not guns.” Jones and Pearson are young, Black men. Johnson is a middle-aged White woman.
Despite the protest being peaceful, regulated, and within the Member’s rights, Tennessee’s majority-Republican House of Representatives had issues with the demonstration. Talks of a possible expulsion were impending. Expulsion is the act of depriving/stripping someone from their position in an organization. On April 6, Jones, Pearson, and Johnson, now dubbed the ‘Tennessee Three,’ entered the House’s meeting place holding hands, with dozens of supporters, mostly young people, chanting behind them.
Jones, who represents the 52nd District of Tennessee, prepared a speech following the protest. He began by stating that his demonstration was “for those young people…many of whom are disenfranchised…those who are terrified by the continued trend of mass shootings plaguing this nation.” Jones continues by saying that it was the Tennessee Three’s responsibility as legislatures “to give voice to the grievances of people who have been silenced.”
The largest reason the Republican majority fought for expulsion was that they claimed the protest went against ‘decorum,’ which is behavior/etiquette that all members of Congress are assumed to follow. Before the day of expulsion, Republican Cameron Sexton, Speaker of the House, went on live television and declared the Tennessee Three’s participation in the demonstration was an “insurrection equivalent to or worse than that at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021…their actions are and will always be unacceptable.”
Jones broke down Sexton’s argument immediately after his opening statement. “Article II Section 27 says that any Member of the House…has a right to descent from and protest against legislation that they know to be injurious to the people…the crisis of mass shootings is injurious…the proliferation of guns you promote in this state is injurious…we had no other choice, but to get our descent marked for the journals.”
He continues his address by exposing the House’s underlying faults. “By breaking decorum, we broke the glass of your false power for the world to see.” Jones’ presence had the House captivated. Despite the many pauses he took, the audience was silent the entire time. He furthered his previous points about “injuriousness” by stating that “until we have action, there will be no peace or safety in our communities.”
Justin Pearson, Representative of the 86th District, also spoke before his expulsion verdict. “Is what’s happening outside these doors, by Tennesseans who wanna see change, a temper tantrum?” Pearson goes on to condemn the State House, since its rules of decorum prohibit its Members from exercising their First Amendment rights without punishment. He concludes his quick address by speaking on the notion that his fellow Members “don’t take people who [they] disagree with seriously…all [they] think is ‘they’re throwing a temper tantrum.’”
On April 6, 2023, Pearson was expelled by a vote of 69-26. Jones, by a vote of 72-25.
However, Gloria Johnson, who also led the rally, was spared. According to ABC News, “Representative Lowell Russell, Republican, said he voted not to expel Johnson because she ‘did not participate to the extent that Jones and Pearson did.’” Naturally, these expulsions were contentious. All three representatives committed the same act, but one did not pay the price. To be expelled from the House, a majority vote of 66 is required. Johnson’s verdict ended by a vote of 65-30. She kept her seat as a representative by one single vote.
There have been only three expulsions in Tennessee’s House of Representatives—in over 150 years. The first case happened in 1866 when six members of the House attempted to prevent the passing of the 14th Amendment, which would grant former enslaved people citizenship. Over 100 years later, in 1980, Republican Robert Fisher was convicted of soliciting a $1,000 bribe to kill a state bill. Fisher was expelled from the House on a vote of 92-1. Most recently, in 2016, Jeremy Durham was expelled on 22 accounts of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Johnson has been very vocal, claiming that race played a huge role in ‘The Justins’ expulsion. During an interview with CNN, Johnson exposed her Republican colleague’s apparent racism, claiming they “think we should bring back hanging by a tree.” She furthers her point by stating “[she] hears racist statements all the time…it’s blatant, quite frankly.”
In an interview with Jackie Long, presenter for Channel 4, an argument was brought up that many Republican House Members have used in an attempt to defend the verdicts of Jones and Pearson. They claim that “[The Tennessee Three] are taking the focus away from the very issue” when they participated in the rally. However, Johnson shuts down those claims immediately, speaking on how they are doing quite the opposite. She continues to speak about the House Speaker, Cameron Sexton, who claimed the protesters stormed the chamber doors of Tennessee’s State Capitol building, which Johnson claims is “a lie.”
Pearson’s post-expulsion speech was as impassioned as Jones’, but had a more celebratory and hopeful tone, despite the circumstances. At the well (the place where Members speak), Pearson was surrounded by his fellow Democratic representatives in support. He began his address rhetorically, asking “How is it that you still have hope?” He continued his sermon-like speech, announcing that “even from the bottom of slave ships, my people didn’t quit…even though they were told they had no name…my people didn’t quit.” His recurring motif of “my people” spoke volumes. He finishes his speech with a resounding final note. “I know we are still here, and we will never quit.”
And quit they didn’t.
On April 12, six days after the expulsion, Pearson was reinstated into Tennessee’s House of Representatives. To win, a majority vote of seven out of thirteen is required. Pearson succeeded with a unanimous 7-0 vote, although the six other Members, four of which were Republicans, were absent from the meeting. Mickell M. Lowery, Chairman, claimed the public’s disagreement with the expulsion was evident. Other commissioners added that “[the reinstatement] was the main goal… it took less than 5 minutes.” Pearson himself gave a fiery speech following the verdict, but his conclusion had the hundreds of audience members on their feet. “For all the people in Nashville who tried to expel us, you can’t expel hope. We look forward to continuing to fight, continuing to advocate, until justice rolls down like water. Righteousness has an ever-flowing stream. Let’s get back to work.”
Two days earlier, Jones was also reinstated into the House by the Nashville Metropolitan Council on a vote of 36-0. He, like Pearson, was surrounded by hundreds of supporters during his celebratory address.
To say Johnson was pleased with the reinstatements is an understatement. According to an interview with ABC News, she is relieved “that we did not lose those two young voices…I can’t wait to be back on the House floor with them…seeing all the support they have is absolutely amazing.” Johnson finishes the interview by applauding “the young people, the parents, the toddlers, the teenagers, the grandmothers, who showed up and said, ‘We will not be silenced.’ We do not want only thoughts and prayers. We want action against gun violence and so we’re going to keep it up.”
Pearson and Justin are reinstated into the House on interim. This means they are temporary stand-ins of their former positions as representatives of the 52nd and 86th Districts respectively. Both affirmed they will run in June’s special election to reclaim their previous seats in the House—permanently.