Defiant and determined, I’m ready to keep fighting for Tennessee

By Justin J. Pearson, Guest Columnist, The New York Times, April 12, 2023

Mr. Pearson is a community organizer in Memphis and was a Tennessee state representative before his expulsion on Thursday. On April 12, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to reinstate Justin J. Pearson to his seat in the Tennessee House.

MEMPHIS — In January, my former high school classmate Larry Thorn was shot dead. Larry was sweet and beloved and a coach and secretary at a Shelby County, Tenn., middle school when he was killed on Jan. 10, just a month before I took my seat in the State House. In February, in only 10 days, 20 people were shot in mass shootings in Memphis, the community I represented. And on Monday, five people were shot dead at the Old National Bank in Louisville, Ky.

In the wake of the March 27 Covenant School mass shooting in Nashville that took six precious lives, including that of the 9-year-olds Hallie Scruggs, Evelyn Dieckhaus and William Kinney, our people are traumatized. They want action.

Following the school massacre, I walked into work in the State House each day seeing hundreds of young protesters, many with signs that asked, “Am I next?”

We were traumatized, too. We wanted action, too. And the difference was — it was literally our job to act.

Yet, Republican legislators refuse to take meaningful action.

Instead, some have averted their eyes and hurried into the chamber, walking through hundreds of mourning protesters to discuss a bill to further expand gun rights by allowing teachers to carry weapons on campus. But many of us did not. We stopped and embraced traumatized children, parents and elders. We prayed. We protested.

In this season of rebirth and renewal, I stood beside my people with hope. For God said, “Let light shine out of darkness.”

Last week, the people of Tennessee and the nation witnessed an assault against democracy when my colleague Justin Jones and I, both young Black Democratic men, were expelled from office for allegedly breaching decorum on the House floor. My former colleague, a 60-year-old white female Democratic representative, Gloria Johnson, had also joined our peaceful protest against gun violence but narrowly survived expulsion. Mr. Jones has since returned to the House after a vote by the Nashville Metropolitan Council. I’m hoping the Shelby County Board of Commissioners similarly puts me back in the House on Wednesday.

There is something amiss in the decorum of the State House when G.O.P. leaders like Representative Paul Sherrell, who proposed death from “hanging by a tree” as an acceptable form of state execution (Mr. Sherrell later apologized for his comment), feel comfortable berating Mr. Jones and me for our peaceful act of civil disobedience. This, in Tennessee, the birthplace of the Klan, a land stained with the blood of lynchings of my people.

I wasn’t elected to be pushed to the back of the room and silenced. We who were elected to represent all Tennesseans — Black, white, brown, immigrant, female, male, poor, young, transgender and queer — are routinely silenced when we try to speak on their behalf. Last week, the world was allowed to see it in broad daylight.

In such a hostile environment for democracy, I’m inspired by the late civil rights fighter and congressman John Lewis, who in 1965, when demonstrating for voting rights in Selma, Ala., endured a police beating that almost took his life. In 2016, after the tragic Pulse nightclub massacre that killed 49 people, he led a sit-in on the U.S. House floor for 25 hours to protest the inaction of lawmakers in the pockets of the National Rifle Association.

My mother, a schoolteacher, and my father, a pastor, instilled in me the hope that justice is possible for all. When I was 15, I attended a Memphis City School Board meeting with my parents to give a speech demanding access to quality textbooks and classes that white peers in their school districts had. These were resources that increased their opportunities for a good college education — chances that Black students, too, deserved.

A few years ago, I helped lead a coalition of community activists in the fight against the construction of the Byhalia Connection crude oil pipeline project in my late grandmothers’ community in southwest Memphis, where, according to a 2013 study, the risk of cancer is four times the national average. Both of my grandmothers died from cancer. Our coalition killed the project before it killed more of us. We fought, and we won.

Unchecked gun violence, environmental racism and denial of basic health and human services should enrage us all and compel us to action.

It’s not just our individual voices that were sanctioned and silenced last Thursday. It was the voices of the nearly 135,000 Tennesseans we represented — many desperate for protection from the absence of many common-sense gun safety laws in our state. Since the Covenant School shooting, the Republican supermajority in the State House has done little but advance a bill that would allow teachers to carry guns in school and propose a $140 million budget increase to pay for the presence of armed guards in public schools, further militarizing them without adequate evidence that this makes schools safer.

Besides expanding already expansive gun rights, Republican-led statehouses across the country are proposing and passing staggering numbers of bills that serve a fringe, white evangelical agenda that abrogates the rights and freedoms of the rest of us. They’re passing legislation to control the intellectual freedom of writers and educators, proposing laws that would restrict the bodily autonomy of transgender children and people who can become pregnant, and curtailing even our right to vote. Combined with a shrinking social safety net as people lose access to resources to meet basic healthhousing and food needs, we have a nation in pain and peril.

In a small victory for our people clamoring for change, Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday that he would sign an executive order strengthening background checks for buying firearms and called for Republican lawmakers to support a red flag law.

I was elected early this year by the people of Memphis and Millington to stand up for all of us against encroachments on our freedoms.

I will continue to fight with and for our people, whether in or out of office. We and the young protesters are the future of a new Tennessee. Those who seek to silence us will not have the final say.

Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.