The Tennessee Three and what a win looks like (2)

Now that Justin Pearson has (again) taken the oath of office, the Tennessee Three is reunited in the state House of Representatives. On Wednesday, the Shelby County Council voted on appointing an interim representative to replace the one who was expelled last week (Pearson). Seven of thirteen members showed up to a special session and voted unanimously to put Pearson back in office.

Like his colleague, Justin Jones, Pearson wasn’t just waiting for the vote. He and his supporters staged a demonstration at the Civil Rights Museum located in the former Lorraine Motel–where Martin Luther King spent the last evening of his life–and then a large march to the Memphis Council, where Pearson gave a stemwinder of a speech. My favorite sign: “No Justin, No Peace.” The next day, he returned to Nashville and the state legislature, expressing determination to continue the fight for sensible gun regulation.

The modest disruption the Three (Jones, Pearson, and Rep. Gloria Johnson) caused by bringing a megaphone to the podium turned into a tactical tour de force, aided by a significant and unwitting boost provided by the Republican majority.

But they didn’t get all that much closer to their expressed goal, pushing for sensible gun regulation in Tennessee. The Republicans still enjoy a massive advantage in the House, holding 75 of 99 seats, with legislators still elected in heavily gerrymandered districts. Upon reaching the age of 21, any Tennessean can carry a gun, open or concealed, without having to get any kind of permit. The governor and the majorities in each house of the legislature are quite clear that they have no interest in making it much more difficult to get any kind of weapon. Although the Three and their supporters were masterful organizers and tacticians, the road to reform lies ahead, and it looks like a long haul.

We always want shorter stories about movement influence, in which the heroes win meaningful battles quickly enough that we can connect policy changes to protest. But that’s not the way the world works. Rosa Parks on a bus in Montgomery makes for a shorter simpler story if we edit out more than a decade of organizing she did beforehand, and a decade of organizing afterward to get to Voting Rights legislation. That story isn’t over either.

In addition to the road ahead, there’s a long backstory that’s worth telling. Before fixing on the confrontation in the well of the Tennessee House of Representatives, take a glance at how much time the Three spent getting ready for that moment.

Gloria Johnson had a career as a teacher in Knoxville, before first running for the state house in 2012. She organized in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and worked at the grassroots for educational funding and health care reform. She first clashed with House Speaker Cameron Sexton a couple of years ago, when she was the lone representative who refused to vote for him as speaker. He gave her an office in a windowless conference room, and she moved her desk into the hallway.

Justin Jones had mixed it up with the state legislature long before he ran for office. In 2019, as a Divinity student at Vanderbilt, he was banned from the building after staging a disruptive protest against the presence of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate war hero and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The bust was placed in the Capitol as a sign of resistance during a much earlier round of civil rights activism. In 2021, it was removed from the State House.

Jones been arrested before for political protests, including efforts for health care, against Senator Marcia Blackburn, and a 62 day vigil against police violence after the murder of George Floyd.

Jason Pearson had organized a campaign against the siting of the Byhailia oil pipeline that was to be routed through poorer Black neighborhoods in South Memphis. The pipeline, opposed by a broad coalition of interests, was cancelled. Pearson’s parents (dad a preacher, mom a teacher) say he’s been a powerful orator and committed crusader forever–he’s still not thirty. He got to make his case for activism and politics in an op-ed at the New York Times.

The first point is that it took a long time to become the Tennessee Three; the protest about guns and democracy built on long histories of advocacy and organizing, and a couple of identifiable wins.

To win even a modest policy reform like limiting access to assault-style weapons will take a lot more work, which will include many meetings, protests, lobbying, and electoral campaigns. Alas, it will probably take more horrific shootings as well.

In the meantime, Governor Bill Lee has announced his support for “red flag” legislation, strengthening background checks for gun purchasers, and spending $140 million to “harden” schools and funding armed guards stationed at schools. Of course, these aren’t the remedies gun safety advocates were demanding, but there’s no reason to believe Gov. Lee would have gone even that far without the pressure and the national exposure. Lee didn’t acknowledge the influence of the protesters, also of course.


About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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