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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tennessee GOP deepens racial tension after expelling Black lawmakers

Students voice their opinions during a gun-control demonstration at the Tennessee Capitol on March 30 after a shooting at Christian Covenant School left six dead.  (Johnnie Izquierdo/For The Washington Post)
By Annie Gowen and Hadley Green Washington Post

Tennessee House Republicans said it was a just a matter of decorum, the need to behave properly in the historic chamber of the State Capitol.

Two newly elected Black lawmakers had disrupted the sanctity of the chamber, Republicans said, when the young legislators yelled into bullhorns and chanted with gun control advocates during a protest that filled the gallery in the wake of a Christian school shooting last month that left six dead. A White female lawmaker had joined them and the trio – Justin Jones, 27, Justin Pearson, 29, and Gloria Johnson, 60 – quickly became known as the “Tennessee Three.”

Now the Republican supermajority – largely White and male – was set to take a vote Thursday to expel the lawmakers, overriding the will of thousands of voters in an unprecedented act of retaliation to silence its opponents. Their action risked further scarring a state with a legacy of brutal battles over race and power.

They were set to make history in a building already steeped in it. The 1859 State Capitol was built by enslaved people, and in 1866, the House expelled members who tried to block citizenship for formerly enslaved people. And Jones himself led a long campaign to remove a bust of an early Ku Klux Klan grand wizard from the building, taken down just in 2021.

“What you’re really showing for the world is holding up a mirror to a state that is going back to some dark, dark roots,” said Jones, a Vanderbilt University divinity student who spoke in a preacherly cadence. “A state in which the Ku Klux Klan was founded is now attempting another power grab by silencing the two youngest Black representatives and one of the only women Democratic women in this body. That’s what this is about. Let us be real today.”

Try to get along, the mostly White, aging lawmakers chided the younger Black lawmakers during more than six hours of proceedings. Let others have a chance to speak, they said. Don’t elevate yourself above the victims of the tragedy, whose bodies aren’t even yet in the ground, one said.

Above their heads, the gallery was packed with protesters and the voices of others chanting outside the doors echoed through the chamber: “Shame. Shame. Shame.”

Don’t do this, the Democrats urged. The Republicans had acted in haste, they said. There was no investigation. No report.

“For a simple rule violation we have elevated this to the highest level of admonishment. That’s not democracy,” said state Rep. Karen D. Camper (D), 65, of Memphis. “I beg of you not to do that today. History will reflect it. And I am hoping you decide to be on the right side of history at this moment in time.”

A shooting and a protest

Ten days before the Tennessee Three halted floor proceedings, a former student opened fire at the private Christian Covenant School 17 miles away and killed six: Evelyn Dieckhaus, 9, collector of stuffed tigers; Hallie Scruggs, 9, the pastor’s daughter; William Kinney, 9, a baseball player; Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of school; Mike Hill, 61, the custodian known as “Big Mike”; and Cynthia Peak, 61 a substitute teacher.

The mass shooting followed several others in Nashville – one dead and six injured at a Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in 2017, four dead at a Waffle House in 2018 – and renewed calls for gun-control reform.

This time, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) had a personal tie to the tragedy: His wife, Maria, had been longtime friends with Koonce and Peak. Peak was supposed to have dinner with the couple that evening.

Lee had long made wider access to guns his hallmark agenda, and this session Republican lawmakers had been considering ways to expand the 2021 law that allows gun owners to carry handguns without a permit – including lowering the age to 18 or allowing permitless carry of all weapons, not just handguns.

Now those discussions were on hold, and Democrats and gun-control advocates pushed the governor to back a “red flag” law that permits the temporary removal of firearms from a person believed to be a danger to others or themselves.

They were dreaming of a breakthrough, but it was not to be. Lee would ultimately announce a school security plan that included $140 million for armed security guards and fell far short of activists’ hopes.

On March 30, hundreds of angry protesters flooded the Capitol, filling hallways and chanting “Do your job!” at passing lawmakers. On the House floor, the “Tennessee Three” made their way to the front of the room with the bullhorn. Jones shouted “No action, no peace!” and waved a sign reading: “Protect kids, not guns,” Pearson chanted “Enough is enough!” Both beat on the podium. Johnson stood by in a quiet show of support.

In a matter of hours, the House leadership had begun the process to remove them – revoking their access to parking and the legislative building, and removing two of the three from committee assignments. House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) went on an interview with a Knoxville radio station, deeming the brief protest – during which no one was harmed – an “insurrection” equivalent to or worse than that at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The vote to expel the Tennessee Three from the 113th General Assembly was set for April 6, only the fourth time in its history that the House expelled members.

Besides the six members that were ejected in 1866, a lawmaker was ousted in 1980 for seeking a bribe, and another was removed in 2016 amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Republicans killed a Johnson-led effort in 2019 to expel state Rep. David Byrd (R), who was accused by three women who said he sexually assaulted them while teenagers on his basketball team. Byrd has denied the accusations.

At the time, Sexton told a local news station: “You have to balance the will of the voters and overturning the will of the voters.”

Confrontation in the Capitol

The mood Thursday on Nashville’s Capitol Hill was tense, with several hundred people showing up to oppose the expulsions. They stood in the rain at the main door, chanting and blowing whistles. Inside, young people crowded in the rotunda to chant, “You ban books, you ban drag, kids are still in body bags.”

Jones, dressed in a white suit that echoed voting rights battles of decades past, was the first to face expulsion. He was already well known to many lawmakers as a community organizer and student activist even before he was elected last year.

An acolyte of the late civil rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis (D), Jones says he has been arrested a dozen times over the years for nonviolent protests, including a sit-in at the Capitol after the death of George Floyd in 2020 and a months-long campaign to remove the bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. During that debate, he was temporarily banned from the Capitol building for throwing a cup of coffee at then-House Speaker Glen Casada (R), who stepped down in May 2019 after text messages emerged that showed he encouraged or approved of his chief of staff making sexist remarks.

Now Jones was being dressed down by his Republican elders.

“You should join the House and become one of us, make the transformation from being a person (who demonstrates) to a representative who represents,” state Rep. Sabi “Doc” Kumar (R), 75, an Indian-American surgeon from Springfield, told him. “Sir, you have not done that.”

Kumar, an immigrant who said in his remarks he had never experienced a racial slur in his more than half-century in the United States, admonished Jones for looking at everything “through the lens of race.”

Jones shot back that he had heard a racial slur in the House just days earlier, when state Rep. Paul Sherrell (R), 64, who is White and from Sparta, wondered aloud if he could amend legislation adding a firing squad to execute death row inmates to include “hanging by a tree also.” Sherrell later apologized for his remarks.

Jones said it was “sad” for Kumar to urge him to simply assimilate and conform.

“I don’t want approval from you, I want approval of the people of my district,” Jones said. “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make a change for my community.”

When he had entered the well with the bullhorn, Jones said he was thinking of the students outside pleading for them do something and warned the legislators, “the world is watching.”

Despite angry admonitions from Democrats – “Give me a break. Is this a circus?” cried state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, 45, a Democrat of Nashville – Jones did not convince Republicans. The House voted 72 to 25 to expel him to boos and chants of “shame” from protesters. Only one Republican voted for him to stay.

Local leaders in Nashville, who are charged with appointing Jones’s replacement, immediately began plans to appoint Jones back to the seat.

Next up for possible expulsion: Johnson. The former teacher told her colleagues about watching terrified students flee a shooting at the Knoxville’s Central High School, where she worked in 2008, when one student shot another during a dispute.

“Every time I am in a school, and I hear sirens, I jump. Every single time,” Johnson told the chamber. “You never get that out of your head.”

She vigorously defended her two younger colleagues.

“We have to welcome this younger generation, who might do it a little differently, but they are fighting like hell for their constituents,” she said. “It’s gonna look different, you guys, the next generation always does. Respect the human dignity of every citizen in the state of Tennessee, not just the ones that look like you and not just the ones that agree with you.”

Democratic lawmakers who spoke in Johnson’s defense Thursday noted that Johnson had not shouted or banged the podium during the March 30 protest, unlike Jones and Pearson, but merely stood beside them in a show of support.

Johnson ultimately avoided expulsion after a vote of 65 to 30 fell one short of the two-thirds majority needed to eject her.

Cheers erupted in the chamber, but the victory also meant that Republicans had ousted the young Black lawmaker but not the older White one. When Johnson was later asked on CNN why she wasn’t expelled, she responded, “Well, I think it’s pretty clear. I’m a 60-year-old White woman.”

Last came Pearson, an activist who campaigned against a proposed crude oil pipeline in Memphis he said would have harmed local drinking water. He donned a dashiki under his blue blazer Thursday as he told his colleagues that “each of you have an obligation to stop turning the people’s house into your own club.”

As nearly six hours of debate came to a close, state Rep. Andrew Farmer (R) upbraided Pearson for failing to “understand” why he was being censured.

“Just because you don’t get your way, you can’t come to the well, bring your friends and throw a temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn,” said Farmer, 43, an attorney from Sevierville, outside of Knoxville.

“You all heard that,” Pearson said, taking a long pause. “How many of you would want to be spoken to that way?”

Pearson thanked God for bringing “a son of teenage parents … to an institution built by enslaved peoples” and went on to evoke the history of racial injustice in the state.

“Resurrection is a promise, and it is a prophecy,” Pearson said. “It is a prophecy that came out of the cotton fields. It is a prophecy that came out of the lynching tree. It is 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!”

There was cheering and applause. Sexton, the 52-year-old speaker from central Tennessee, pounded the gavel. “Out of order!” he shouted. The House ultimately voted to remove Pearson 69 to 26.

Pearson pumped his fist in the air.

His supporters in the gallery shouted, “Shame, shame, shame.”

The aftermath

After the expulsions, the Tennessee GOP tweeted that it was a “sad day for Tennessee. This body has determined formal expulsion for two of its members is the only path forward after they led disrespectful and deliberate efforts to disrupt the business of the House.” As #TennesseeThree trend on social media, the Republicans tried to get a new hashtag going: #TennesseeMe.

On Friday, Vice President Harris made a surprise trip to Nashville to meet with the lawmakers, and President Biden spoke to them on a conference call to invite them to the White House “in the near future” and thank them for their leadership on gun control.

Jones and Pearson represented a constituency of more than 140,000 who now don’t have representation. The Nashville Metropolitan Council will name Jones’s replacement, and local leaders say they plan to vote Monday to reinstate Jones to his seat. Shelby County leaders are weighing whether they can reinstate Pearson.

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The Washington Post’s Claire Gibson in Nashville and Matthew Brown, Sarah Parnass, Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff, Andrea Salcedo and Neeti Upadhye in Washington contributed to this report.