MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Commissioners in Memphis are scheduled to decide Wednesday whether to return Justin Pearson, a Black Democrat, to the Republican-led Tennessee House after he and a Black colleague were kicked out of the Legislature following their support of gun control protesters.
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners set a vote to determine whether Pearson will be sent back to the Legislature in Nashville.
Republicans banished Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones last week over their role in a gun control protest on the House floor in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting in Nashville 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 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.
Ahead of the vote, Pearson is set to lead a march from the National Civil Rights Museum to the county commission’s office in downtown Memphis.
The expulsions last Thursday made Tennessee a new front in the battle for the future of American democracy and propelled the ousted lawmakers into the national spotlight. 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.
The appointments are on an interim basis. Special elections for the seats will take place in the coming months. Jones and Pearson have said they plan to run in the special election.
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 around 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.
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.