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Expelled Black lawmaker Pearson to return to Tennessee House

by Ryan Lee
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Imagine it was 2023 and you were hearing a young man speak up in an emotional way against something that happened recently. He was talking to the state legislators of Tennessee who had kicked out him and another Black lawmaker from their positions only a week before. The man shouted with determination: “You cannot take away our hope! You cannot keep us from standing up for justice or silence our voice!”

Justin Pearson is wearing a smart and formal dark suit, blue tie and glasses. He speaks with a deep and resonant voice like those of Black religious leaders from many generations ago.

He’s quoting a bible verse that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said before. This verse promises to fight for justice until it’s flowing naturally down like water and greatness everywhere like an ever-flowing stream.

The crowd cheers and claps as a Black lawmaker named Pearson proudly raises his arm in the air. In Tennessee, this is seen as a new battle for democracy since the Republican-controlled Legislature kicked out two Black Democratic legislators – but then local officials brought them back only a few days later. These two lawmakers have only been in office for a few months.

In just two weeks, Pearson (28 years old) and Justin Jones (27 years old) have become very famous. They are like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis who organized protests for civil rights in the past.

Vice President Kamala Harris said Friday that two young Black men had to be kicked out of office, which she called an unfair attempt to quiet the people. But the act only sparked more protests and eventually Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were allowed back into their seats! Everyone was very happy about it and cheered when she announced it.

The two men, known as “the Justins”, have studied the Civil Rights Movement and are now doing things like people in the movement did. Noelle Trent who works at Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum said this. The museum is located on the same place where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed while he supported a strike of sanitation workers back in 1968. This part of America still feels powerful connections to this movement.

The Reverend Andre Johnson, who teaches communications and studies what Black people say, said that the cities of Memphis and Nashville have a lot of energy because they are well-known for standing up for civil rights. Pearson and Jones are part of their local governments and were already involved in making changes before they were elected.

Jones was born in Oakland, California and grew up close by. He then moved to Nashville for school – he’s studying for a masters degree at Fisk University and Vanderbilt University in Theology. One set of Jones’ grandparents were Black people from Chicago, while the other side immigrated from the Philippines.

He has been to a lot of protests, fighting for different causes. He tried to get rid of the statue of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest at the state Capitol building and when Donald Trump was elected he blocked roads in Nashville. Over the course of 2020, he spent more than two months in front of the Capitol plaza to stand against police violence after George Floyd, an African American man, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. He also worked as a student to make sure people have access to health care and that voting laws aren’t too strict.

There have been some demonstrations that included some arguing with the police. For example, throwing a liquid at the old Speaker of the House and standing on top of a police car after George Floyd’s death. According to his campaign website, he has even been arrested many times for simply protesting peacefully.

He doesn’t regret the protest he was part of which eventually got him kicked out. He, Pearson and Gloria Johnson, a 60-year-old white colleague were in the Legislature while it was running and shouted slogans for gun control.

After someone shot and killed six people, including three students, at a Nashville Christian school, there was a protest. This made some Democrats angry. There is video of older Black Democratic legislators yelling at the people protesting. But what really caught attention was that the two Black lawmakers were kicked out but their white colleague stayed. So it seemed like this was about race more than guns.

Representative Jones was elected to office in 2022 and he focuses on gun control laws. He said that these are important laws which will help keep Tennessee, the US, and our children safe. He can imagine himself when he sees the young protesters who are asking for gun control regulations even though he is “older” now compared to most of them.

Pearson comes from Memphis and went to high school in the area where he was elected as a leader after Barbara Cooper, a Black female politician, passed away. The district he is responsible for covering is very large; it goes north and south along the Mississippi River. Along its way, it takes in different neighborhoods, woods, and wetlands of the southern part of Memphis before heading further north into some more rural towns.

Pearson is one of five children, and his parents both have jobs – his mother is a teacher and his father is a minister and pastor. As Pearson was growing up, their family had trouble with money. In high school, Pearson worked to address this issue by speaking to the school board about the lack of textbooks at the time. Later, he went to Bowdoin College in Maine where he was chosen as class president, plus he got an award for doing well and making unique contributions to the college.

He went back to Memphis and worked hard to stop a pipeline project that would have gone through wetlands and into the neighborhoods of mostly Black people in the south part of the city. The project was ended in 2021. Pearson won his position as legislator after a special election at the end of January.

Kevin Webb, a teacher at Mitchell High School, spoke proudly about one of his students, Pearson. Mr. Webb said that Pearson is doing what he thinks is right and reminded us that doing the right thing isn’t always easy – that’s just how life works.

The sudden fame of both Pearson and Jones has brought up an important point about America still needing a civil rights movement.

The Rev. Earle Fisher, a Memphis civil rights activist, said that the return of two men to their office is not enough to make democracy better. He said “We just started fighting and we haven’t won yet”. Several reporters contributed to this report including ones from Nashville and Minneapolis.

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