Justin Pearson, a Tennessee Democrat who was ousted from elected office by his Republican House colleagues for protesting gun violence in the state Capitol, was reinstated to his seat in the Tennessee House on Wednesday.
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to send Pearson back to the House in a decisive rebuke of the Tennessee GOP's extraordinary move to expel him, along with another Democratic colleague, last week.
Pearson delivered a powerful speech right after the reinstatement vote, rallying his supporters and sending a message to the lawmakers who voted to expel him.
"What we have shown here in Shelby County, what we have shown here in Memphis, Tennessee, with my fiancé, my brothers, my family, my parents, my family here, is that we do not speak alone," Pearson said. "We speak together. We fight together.
"And so the message for all the people in Nashville who decided to expel us: You can't expel hope. You can't expel justice. You can't expel our voice. And you sure can't expel our fight," he said to cheers.
"We look forward to continuing to fight, continuing to advocate, until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream," Pearson continued. "Let's get back to work."
The 28-year-old lawmaker was sworn in on Thursday morning outside the state Capitol.
Pearson, who represents the Memphis area, and another Democrat, Justin Jones, who represents Nashville, were expelled from the House on Thursday for protesting gun violence after three 9-year-olds and three adults were killed in yet another mass shooting in Tennessee. Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Democrat who also participated in the protest, survived expulsion by a single vote. Pearson and Jones are young Black men serving their first term in the House; Johnson is a white woman in her fourth term.
Republicans had accused them of a grave breach of decorum in the House by protesting peacefully, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton went so far as to liken their actions to the violent Jan. 6 insurrection, even though there was no violence, no property damage, and no arrests.
Jones was reinstated to his seat by the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County on Monday. Surrounded by a swarm of supporters, Jones then marched back to the Statehouse and was sworn into office on the steps of the Capitol.
Pearson's and Jones's appointments this week are on an interim basis, and they will have to run for their seats again in a special election to carry out the term. Both men have said they will do so.
Their expulsions — which effectively disenfranchised approximately 140,000 constituents, mostly Black and brown, in the two districts that elected them — were widely criticized by Tennesseans and lawmakers.
On Wednesday, five Demoratic US senators urged the Department of Justice to investigate whether the Tennessee state legislature violated any constitutional or civil rights laws when it expelled Jones and Pearson. Sens. Raphael Warnock, Chuck Schumer, Chris Murphy, Alex Padilla, and Brian Schatz wrote their expulsions "overturn and subvert the will" of voters in Nashville and Memphis.
"People of all goodwill in Tennessee and across America and are deeply disturbed by these counter-democratic expulsions because they overturn and subvert the will of Tennessee voters in Nashville and Memphis," they wrote. "Many in the Tennessee legislature appear to have convinced themselves that The People’s House is their house, and they have effectively evicted the districts’ voters out of their own house. This is un-democratic, un-American, and unacceptable, and the US Department of Justice should investigate whether it was also unlawful or unconstitutional."