Before Rep. Justin J. Pearson became a legislator in the Tennessee House of Representatives, he was an outspoken Black boy growing up in one of the nation’s most segregated cities: Memphis.
As a high schooler, he organized to push his local school district to provide him and his peers with proper textbooks. At only 26, Pearson co-founded the organization that helped defeat a crude oil pipeline that threatened the precious water resources of his community in South Memphis. Then, when he was only 28, voters elected him to the Tennessee House, making him one of the state’s youngest lawmakers.
This background of going toe to toe with an energy company gave him the tools he needed to work with his peers across the aisle in the legislature. Unfortunately, his passionate commitment to his constituents quickly threatened the establishment. Last week, the Tennessee GOP stunned the nation when Republican House members voted to expel both Pearson and his colleague Rep. Justin Jones from their duly elected positions for protesting against gun violence days after a shooter killed six people at the Covenant School in Nashville, Jones’s district. Three 9-year-old students were among those lost: Hallie Scruggs, Evelyn Dieckhaus, and William Kinney. Though Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, also protested, her House peers let her stay. Pearson and Jones are both Black.
The fight against gun violence is the same fight for climate justice. It is a fight for people’s right to live. It is a fight for our children’s right to a future. The Tennessee GOP’s attempt to silence these two Black lawmakers has shown the public that their denial is not only limited to the growing impacts of the climate crisis—but extends to denying the voice of the people, as well. The people always prevail, though: Jones was reinstated to his seat Monday, voted back into power by the Nashville council. The Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted Wednesday to return Pearson to his seat, too.
These expulsions represent a radical move from the state GOP as speaking out in support of the people has never resulted in a member’s removal. Since the Civil War, the Tennessee House has expelled only two other members from its body. One had been accused of bribery and the other of sexual misconduct. To place protest alongside such clearly immoral acts is “astounding and frankly unbelievable,” said Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.
“The young House members were calling out their colleagues for failing to be responsive to their communities and for seemingly not to care about the life or death of children,” Paulson said. “It was that that, no pun intended, triggered this House body to retaliate … An election was undone because the House didn’t feel these two young activists were respectful enough.”
“We got a climate champion and someone who is going to call out environmental racism at every turn.”
Ultimately, their expulsions are indicative of a wider attack from the GOP on the public’s constitutional rights. Though the First Amendment protects speech, assembly, press, religion, and the right to petition, it can’t stop lawmakers from making what Paulson called “lateral assaults” on those rights. For instance, states are increasingly passing laws that criminalize certain forms of protest. Just look at the activists arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, who had been organizing to protect the trees and stop construction of a police training facility they call Cop City. Twenty-three individuals now face domestic terrorism charges. The state updated its domestic terrorism law in 2017 to include “critical infrastructure,” which can include projects like these. Since the Indigenous-led Standing Rock movement in 2016, some 40 states have enacted some form of restriction on peaceful assembly.
“Like the Tennessee Three, [lawmakers] are using lateral strategies because they cannot touch the free speech, but they can touch the furniture around that free speech, the circumstances around that free speech,” Paulson said.
As the U.S. faces a dual crisis—climate change and gun violence—an engaged public exercising their rights is needed now more than ever. Reese Gatewood, a 17-year-old high school student who serves on the Mayor’s Youth Council in Nashville, was disgusted and angry to hear that Jones and Pearson were expelled. She was there during the March 30 protest that drew ire from the state’s Republican supermajority.
“Gun control is needed now,” she said. “Climate and environmental justice are needed now.”
She sees immense value in having lawmakers like Jones and Pearson in office: they listen to the youth who can’t yet vote. After all, the lawmakers are still pretty young themselves. Their absence would be a major loss to their constituents.
“Both of them have either sponsored or championed bills in the House that are incredibly important to the environment,” said Sudeep Ghantasala, hub coordinator with the Nashville chapter of the Sunrise Movement.
Already, Jones had proposed passing a Green Amendment to the state’s Constitution that would protect the environment and future generations’ access to it. In Memphis, Pearson’s district, clean water is already on the line: it’s the largest U.S. city to rely entirely on groundwater for its water needs. A single aquifer holds the groundwater, and advocates worry that increased industry pressure could risk contaminating it.
Concern for the aquifer is what pushed Pearson to oppose the Byhalia pipeline in the first place—and what underlies all his current work.
“The organizing is core to his being,” said Sarah Houston, executive director of local environmental group Protect Our Aquifer. Houston first met Pearson in 2020 at a community meeting on the crude oil pipeline. Pearson asked a few questions that turned into a “fiery speech,” Houston said. His voice has helped the community become aware of the pipeline’s threat. Houston believes he’s likely inspiring the birth of many more young activists to join the fight.
Pearson has also helped educate his community on the wider pollution threats they face, said Amber Sherman, an organizer with the Official Black Lives Matter Memphis Chapter who works in the communities he represents and grew up there herself.
“We got a climate champion and someone who is going to call out environmental racism at every turn,” Sherman said. “It’s doing a disservice to silence him.”
Neither Pearson nor Jones, however, can be silenced. Tennessee’s Republican supermajority tried—and failed. Pearson and Jones are back in their seats. They won. The people won. Whether in the chambers of the House or the streets of Memphis, the two representatives will always speak out for climate justice and gun control. They will march on until a safe future for all is secured. The status quo demands it.