“Tennessee Three” Spark Debate Over Race, Gun Reform


Three members of the Tennessee House of Representatives were tried for expulsion, and two were subsequently expelled, after joining protest for gun reform with bullhorns in the Tennessee State House.
In the wake of the March 27 school shooting just outside of Nashville, protest ensued at the Tennessee State House. Protesters expressed frustrations that Tennessee had been focused on limiting abortions rights and stopping drag in the days and weeks leading up to the senseless deaths of three elementary students.
Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled by a two-thirds majority on Friday, April 7, from their positions in the Tennessee House of Representatives. They were the 3rd and 4th members to be expelled since reconstruction; the first two were expelled for accepting a bribe in 1980 and allegations of sexual harassment in 2016. Fellow representative Gloria Johnson, a 60-year-old white woman who joined the men in protest, was tried but not expelled.
Johnson, Jones, and Pearson took part in a March 30 protest in the Tennessee State House after a gunman killed three children at The Covenant School in Nashville’s Green Hills neighborhood. For their act of protest and the controversy that ensued, the trio was dubbed the “Tennessee Three.”
Johnson expressed her frustration as she walked with her ejected colleagues after their hearing, stating she believes Jones and Pearson were expelled because of their race, while she was not.
“I am a 60-year-old white woman, and they are two young Black men,” Johnson told CNN. The reason she believes they were expelled? “Pretty clear.”
Williston’s Dr. Pamela Maddock teaches in the History and Global Studies department, and agrees with Rep. Johnson.
“Well I certainly think it’s hard to assert that race did not matter here, especially given the long history of intimidation and paramilitary violence leveled at Black political leaders in the South,” she said.
In the wake of the expulsion, the very heart of what the “Tennessee Three” were protesting has been lost, fears Dr. Maddock.
“It might be a victory for the Democratic legislators wanting to call attention to gun violence if we were talking about gun violence now,” she said. “Instead, we’re talking about the political drama of the expulsion of the so-called ‘Tennessee Three,’ so it’s possible the extreme measures that Republican leaders took of expelling the men on the basis of decorum has overshadowed the question of gun control.”
Justin Brooks, another member of Williston’s History department, thinks that regardless of the debate in the media, it would be hard to make an impact on the gun reform debate.
“I think this situation like so many other situations in American politics is going to end up kind of just reinforcing what everybody thinks,” he said. “There’s this questions of how do you bust through that, how do you take a moment like this and turn it into something that will produce something different, and I’m not really sure what the answer to that is.”
Since their expulsion, both Jones and Pearson were reappointed to their seats by their districts in the interim. Both men, however, will have to run for their seats in a special election, which by Tennessee state law must be scheduled 100 to 107 days from the men’s expulsion.
Brooks expressed his concerns about a shifting precedent in American politics and culture alike to expel rivals.
“I think we see this not just in congress but I’m kind of connecting it a little with cancel culture, if you say the wrong thing or offend people in a certain way then you’re out, and so I wonder if there is a sort of connection there,” he said. “It does cause me concern because this is an issue about specifically free speech, and the ability to protest, and the ability to stand up for what you believe.”