Editorial | Tennessee’s House expulsion is a wake-up call to the nation


AP Photo/George Walker IV

Expelled Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, from left, expelled Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, are recognized by the audience at Fisk University before Vice President Kamala Harris arrives, Friday, April 7, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.

The Tennessee House is experiencing a frightening political conflict. In a move President Joe Biden hailed as “shocking, undemocratic and without precedent,” Tennessee’s House GOP cast a dark shadow over American democracy last week.    

Following a protest in the chamber of the state capitol, Tennessee Republicans expelled two Black lawmakers — Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — on Thursday. Jones, Pearson and Gloria Johnson, a white legislator who avoided expulsion, participated in a chant calling for gun control at the front of the House chamber. They joined hundreds of protestors inside the Capitol following the shooting at the Covenant School that left six dead, including three children. 

In what has been characterized as an act of “political retaliation,” the GOP supermajority voted Thursday to expel Jones and Pearson from their democratically elected positions, and failed by a single vote to expel Johnson. Biden and former president Barack Obama condemned the expulsions.

Outrage further ensued when House Speaker Cameron Sexton, along with other House Republicans, equated Jones and Pearson’s peaceful civil disobedience with Capitol insurrectionists. Sexton added that, “depending on how you look at it,” the representatives acted “worse” than insurrectionists. This false equivalence creates a dangerous narrative in a state with a white-majority and long history with slavery, especially since the protest was “resolved peacefully” and resulted in no arrests or property damage.  

The decision to expel the representatives has created a dangerous conversation regarding power and race. Jones called the expulsion “openly racist,” saying “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.” 

As of 2020, Tennessee had a Black population of 1.07 million people, while the white population accounts for 5.03 million people. Pearson’s district is about 61% Black, and Jones’ district is about 30% Black and 24% Hispanic, leaving their districts underrepresented via a decision made by a majority-white legislature. 

Stripping representatives of their position goes against the founding principles of this country, and stripping representatives of color continues a long, dangerous legacy of inequity in politics. 

Tennessee’s proceedings show the GOP supermajority’s willingness to override democratically elected opponents, going against the will of the voting population. While swarms of people gathered to protest Jones and Pearson’s expulsions, the will of the people can only do so much. In order for this political crisis to find resolution, the sanctity of democracy needs better protection to prevent this from occurring in other states. 

Governing bodies set their own rules of conduct and chose how to punish violations, so systemic change at the state level is necessary to prevent this from happening again — however rare it may be.