MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — One of two Black Democrats expelled from the Republican-led Tennessee House could return to the Legislature after a Memphis commission vote Wednesday, nearly a week after their banishment for supporting gun control protesters propelled them into the national spotlight.
A Shelby County Board of Commissioners committee approved a resolution Wednesday morning that clears the way for an afternoon vote by the full commission on whether Justin Pearson will get his seat back.
Republicans banished Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones last week over their role in a gun control protest on the House floor after a Nashville school shooting that left three children and three adults dead.
The Nashville Metropolitan Council took only a few minutes Monday to unanimously restore Jones to office. He was quickly reinstated to his House seat.
The appointments are interim and special elections for the seats will take place in the coming months. Jones and Pearson have said they plan to run in the special elections.
The House’s vote to remove Pearson and Jones but keep white Rep. Gloria Johnson drew accusations of racism. Johnson survived by one vote. Republican leadership denied that race was a factor, however.
The expulsions last Thursday made Tennessee a new front in the battle for the future of American democracy. In the span of a few days, the two had raised thousands of campaign dollars, and the Tennessee Democratic Party had received a new jolt of support from across the U.S.
Political tensions rose when Pearson, Johnson and Jones joined with hundreds of demonstrators who packed the Capitol last month to call for passage of gun control measures.
As protesters filled galleries, the lawmakers approached the front of the House chamber with a bullhorn and participated in a chant. The scene unfolded days after the shooting at the Covenant School, a private Christian school.
Support for Pearson has come from across the country, including Memphis. During a Monday rally in support of Tyre Nichols, who died in January after he was beaten by police during an arrest, backers of Pearson said the commission was “on the clock.”
“You’ve got one job — to reinstate Justin Pearson,” activist LJ Abraham said.
Ahead of the Wednesday vote, Pearson was set to lead a march from the National Civil Rights Museum to the county commission’s office in downtown Memphis.
Pearson grew up in the same House district he was chosen to represent after longtime state Rep. Barbara Cooper, a Black Democrat, died in office. It winds along the neighborhoods, forests and wetlands of south Memphis, through the city’s downtown area and into north Shelby County.
Before he was elected, Pearson helped lead a successful campaign against a planned oil pipeline that would have run through neighborhoods and wetlands, and near wells that pump water from the Memphis Sand Aquifer, which provides drinking water to 1 million people.
He gained a quick reputation as a skilled community activist and gifted public speaker.