VOICES: 'We will never quit'

Justin Pearson at Tennessee House well with fellow lawmakers

Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis delivered a final statement from the House well before the body voted to expel him for his involvement in a protest calling for gun control. (Image is a still from this Tennessee House video.)

On Maundy Thursday, April 6, the Republican-controlled Tennessee House of Representatives voted on expelling three Democratic members because from the chamber's floor they had joined protesters in the gallery calling for stricter gun laws following the deadly March 27 mass shooting at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville. The lawmakers — Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, Justin Jones of Nashville, and Justin Pearson of Memphis — had been denied the chance to speak during regular proceedings under restrictive new rules aimed at curbing debate.

In the end, the House voted to expel Jones and Pearson — Black activist men in their 20s — but not Johnson, a 60-year-old white woman and former teacher. Asked about that disparity, Johnson said, "It might have to do with the color of our skin."

Since the end of the Civil War until this week, the Tennessee House had taken action to expel members only three other times: Six were expelled in 1866 for blocking ratification of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, one in 1980 for being found guilty of accepting a bribe while in office, and the other in 2016 over allegations of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, a Tennessee state representative who was accused of urinating on a colleague's chair in the chamber faced no punishment and is now part of House leadership.

The job of appointing a temporary replacement for Pearson falls to the Shelby County Commission, whose chair said they could consider reappointing him to the seat before a special election is held. A majority of the Nashville Metro Council, which will fill Jones' seat, said they support sending Jones back as well.

As we await news of the men's fate, we share the powerful Easter-themed statement Pearson made from the House well before the vote to expel him.

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All glory and honor to God, who makes all things possible, who takes the son of teenage parents, Kimberly Owens Pearson and Jason C. Pearson, and brings him to an institution built by enslaved peoples.

And all glory and honor to God, who brings those who have been marginalized and excluded into this place and tells them that you still have a voice, that you still are somebody, and that the movement for love and justice cannot be stopped because we've still got a heartbeat, because we've still got a movement for love that needs us. We've still got people who are calling on us to act and to do something.

To all you who still believe that the best days for democracy are ahead, for all of you who still believe that our better days in Tennessee are ahead, I want to tell you that I still believe with you.

And how — how is it that, even now, amidst persecution on this Holy Week, after my own brother, Justin Jones, Rep. Jones, gets expelled from the House, is it that we still have hope and faith and belief in the democracy of Tennessee? Faith and hope and the belief in the democracy of the United States of America?

How is it that you still have hope, you descendant of enslaved people? How is it that you still have hope?

Well, it's because, even from the bottom of slave ships, my people didn't quit. Even in cotton fields and rice fields, my people didn't quit. Even when they were whipped and chained and told they had no name, my people didn't quit. Even when they incarcerated us, locked us up for a crack cocaine epidemic created by President Ronald Reagan to fund a war in South America, my people didn't quit. Even when they defunded our schools, separated us, and called us colored and white, even when they put us on lynching trees in the state of Tennessee — specifically, in Shelby County — my people didn't quit.

Even now, as our own brothers and sisters lay to rest because of the failure of people in positions of power to do something, because people are refusing to pass just laws to end the epidemic of gun violence in the state of Tennessee, my people have yet to quit.

And so, even now, amidst this vote, amidst this persecution, I remember the good news. Hallelujah, Jesus.

I remember that, on Friday, the government decided that my savior, Jesus, a man that was innocent of all crimes except fighting for the poor, fighting for the marginalized, fighting for the LGBTQ community, fighting for those who are single mothers, fighting for those who are ostracized, fighting for those pushed to the periphery, my savior, my Black Jesus.

He was lynched by the government on Friday, and they thought that all hope had been lost. All the — outside, it rained and it thundered and everybody said everything was over. And it was some Black women who stood at the cross. It was some Black women who watched what the government did to that boy named Jesus. They were witnesses, as you have been witnesses to what is happening in the anti-democratic state of Tennessee. They were witnesses to what was going on.

And I got to tell you, it got quiet on Saturday. Yes, I tell you, it was a sad day on Saturday. All hope seemed to be lost.

Representatives were thrown out of the statehouse. Democracy seemed to be at its end. Seemed like the NRA and gun lobbyists might win. But all that was good news for us.

I don't know how long this Saturday in the state of Tennessee might last, but, oh, we have good news, folks. We've got good news that Sunday always comes.

Resurrection is a promise, and it is a prophecy. It's a prophecy that came out of the cotton fields. It's a prophecy that came out of the lynching tree. It's a prophecy that still lives in each and every one of us, in order to make the state of Tennessee the place that it ought to be, and so, I've still got hope because I know we are still here and we will never quit.

(Correction: This story was corrected on April 11 to note that there have been three Tennessee House expulsions since the Civil War, not two.)