Statement from Forrest E. Harris, Sr., President, American Baptist College

April 7, 2023

Last week, the tragic killing of six people — three innocent nine-year-old children and three adults — at Nashville’s Covenant School left a deep hurt and gaping wound in the heart of the victims’ families and citizens of all colors and creeds across the city of Nashville. 

Thousands of Nashvillians called for the government to reform gun laws and enact red flag provisions to remove assault weapons from the community. In response to the urgent cry for change, the first action of a Republican super majority was voting to expel two young Black male Democratic representatives, Nashville’s Justin Jones, twenty-seven, and Memphis’s Justin Pearson, twenty-nine, for breaking House decorum rules during the protest. For the two representatives, chanting “no action, no peace” through a bullhorn in the well of the State Assembly was a violation of House rules. A White woman, Knoxville Representative Gloria Johnson, who stood with Representatives Jones and Pearson, was exonerated. Freshly under the soil of cold graves were the six victims killed by an assault weapon in the hands of a mentally challenged individual. Yet the Tennessee State General Assembly chose to expend legislative energy and valuable political capital to expel Representatives Jones and Pearson for breaking decorum House rules. 

More than the claim of dishonoring House rules and the consequences of expulsion is the unethical civic brokenness of democracy. In the hands of toxic political partisanship, the fracturing of democracy is eroding the public trust. “No Action, No Peace” is the chant of public distrust and passion for justice reforms at all levels of injustice in American society. Such passion for justice and commitment for change ought not be punished, but should inspire cooperative measures for justice, equity, and public reforms for community safety and flourishing. 

These expulsions represent a toxic and politically partisan exercise of raw power. The issue is much broader than the consequences of violating House decorum rules. The five rights outlined in the First Amendment of the Constitution — the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to peaceable assembly, and the right to petition the government — are the foundation of our democracy. The action of the Republican super majority is a reminder of Jim Crow era vagrancy laws under the disguise of legislative civility, resurfacing as discipline and respect for House rules. Unprecedented in all areas of power overreach, the action of the Tennessee State General Assembly creates a perfect political storm of power and politics bifurcated by race, political ideology, and social location of the Republican super majority. Nashville’s and Tennessee’s darkest hour just became darker and politically toxic. 

Representatives Jones, Johnson, and Pearson were elected by their constituents to uphold the rights of citizens to advocate for health care equity, quality of education, housing, jobs, justice, and gun law reform. Their advocacy is a configuration or cultural pattern of brokenness, unresolved trauma, anger, and social and psychological rage so unified its properties cannot be identified from a simple summation of its parts. In the aftermath and accumulation of deaths due to the purchase guns and assault weapons by unstable persons, Jones, Pearson, and Johnson, along with most Americans, are ready for reforms to end a culture of repeated mass carnage. 

Jones and Pearson were not expelled for breaking the law. Their breaking of State House decorum rules also did not incite crowd violence. But because of their unapologetically Black cultural savvy, politically coherent intelligence, and willingness to get in the “good trouble” of civil disobedience, they were expelled for calling the status quo to public accountability. Representative Gloria Johnson, when asked why she was exonerated and not Jones and Pearson, said “It may have been because of skin color.” Due to the expulsions, thousands of voters Jones and Pearson represented are disenfranchised. House Republicans justified their actions by saying that Jones and Pearson “knowingly and intentionally [brought] disorder to the House of Representatives.” Many Nashvillians believe just the reverse, that the Republican super majority has brought dishonor to democracy in Tennessee. 

It is now time for a Justice Summit for Democracy. Stand with the Tennessee Three. Nashvillians and community leaders, along with clergy across the State, can join with Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson to lead the way in Tennessee.