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Memphis commissioners reappoint ousted representative Justin Pearson to Tennessee House

Second expelled Tennessee lawmaker reinstated
Second expelled Tennessee lawmaker reinstated 02:03

County officials in Memphis voted unanimously on Wednesday to reappoint Justin Pearson to the Tennessee House of Representatives, less than a week after the legislature voted to expel him and another Black Democratic lawmaker for participating in a protest against gun violence.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners, which was tasked with appointing someone to fill the seat, convened to discuss reappointing Pearson and voted to send him back to Nashville. Pearson addressed the commissioners and dozens of supporters who assembled at the meeting.

"Nashville thought that they could silence democracy, but they didn't know the Shelby County Commission," Pearson said to cheers following the vote. "So the message for all the people in Nashville who decided to expel us: You can't expel hope. You can't expel love. You can't expel our voice. And you sure can't expel our fight. We look forward to continuing to fight, continuing to advocate, until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Let's get back to work."

Justin Pearson gestures as he marches with supporters from the National Civil Rights Museum to the Shelby County Commission on April 12, 2023.
Justin Pearson gestures as he marches with supporters from the National Civil Rights Museum to the Shelby County Commission on April 12, 2023. KAREN PULFER FOCHT / REUTERS

Before the vote, Commission Chairman Mickell Lowery told CBS Memphis affiliate WREG that many commissioners wanted Pearson to be reappointed. All seven of the assembled members voted to reinstate him.

"My goal was to make sure that we had a quorum. I feel pretty confident about it. I wouldn't call the meeting if I didn't think we'd be confident in being able to appoint Justin Pearson," Lowery told WREG. 

Justin Jones, who represents Nashville and was expelled along with Pearson, was reappointed Monday by that city's Metro Council. 

Pearson, Jones and a third lawmaker, Gloria Johnson, participated in a protest against gun violence at the Tennessee statehouse on March 30, just days after three children and three adults were killed in a shooting at a Nashville school. Republicans in the legislature have a supermajority, and moved to expel all three lawmakers on April 6. Johnson survived by one vote, and the other two were expelled. 

Asked why she survived as opposed to Jones and Pearson, Johnson, who is White, told MSNBC that she is a "60-year-old White woman and they are two young Black men."

But following the rules of the expulsion, Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, still has to sign what's called a writ of election to set the dates for a future special election. Expulsions by the House are very rare — just two people have been expelled by the chamber since 1866, when six lawmakers were removed after they tried to prevent Tennessee from ratifying the 14th Amendment which gave citizenship to former slaves, according to CBS affiliate WTVF in Nashville. 

The battle at the Tennessee statehouse has received national attention. U.S. Senate Democrats on Wednesday sent a letter to the Justice Department requesting an investigation into the expulsions and whether they violated federal civil rights law. 

Vice President Kamala Harris made a last-minute trip to Nashville last Friday to meet with Jones, Pearson and Johnson, who are being referred to by some as the "Tennessee Three." Harris received wild applause and several standing ovations as she told a crowd at Nashville's historically Black Fisk University that Jones, Pearson and Johnson were being silenced and stifled as they fought "for the safety of our children." 

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