The two Black Democrats who were ousted from the Tennessee statehouse said Sunday that their presence there had been a source of tension from the start — even before their protests on the chamber floor in the wake of a deadly mass shooting.
The GOP-controlled statehouse voted last week to expel Justin Jones, who represented the Nashville area, and Justin J. Pearson, whose district included Memphis, over those protests, arguing that they broke the rules of the chamber. A vote to boot Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white Democrat who also participated in the protests, fell short. Jones and Pearson, who took office in November and January, respectively, are community organizers and social justice advocates, and Jones has described himself as an activist.
Asked by NBC News' Chuck Todd whether that history of activism made them targets, Jones said: “I think our presence as young Black voices for our constituencies, people who will not bow down, those who will not be conformed, that’s what put a target on us the day we walked in the Tennessee General Assembly.”
"I mean, this is the first time in Tennessee history we had a completely partisan expulsion by predominantly white caucus — all but one member of their caucus is white out of 75 members — and we are the two youngest Black lawmakers in Tennessee,” he continued.
“And so what we saw was a system of political hubris. This was not just an attack on us, it was an attempt to silence our districts.”
Pearson said he felt unwelcome since the day he entered the state House, which he described as having “always been a toxic work environment.”
He had faced backlash from state GOP lawmakers when he wore a dashiki, a garment commonly worn in West Africa, on the chamber floor during his swearing-in ceremony earlier this year.
Pearson tweeted that "a white supremacist has attacked my wearing of my Dashiki," and in response Tennessee House Republicans argued that he violated rules for "decorum and dress attire" and that their criticisms were "far from a racist attack."
“When you have people who make comments about hanging you on a tree and hanging Black people on a tree as a form of capital punishment. When you wear a dashiki on the House floor and a member gets up and they talk about your dashiki saying it’s unprofessional,” he said. “They’re really sending signals that you don’t belong here.”
In the joint interview, Jones and Pearson both said that they will do everything in their power to get back into office to represent their communities again.
“We will continue to fight for our constituents,” Jones said.
“This attack against us is hurting all people in our state,” he said. “Even though it is disproportionately affecting Black and brown communities, this is hurting poor white people. Their attack on democracy hurts all of us.”
A majority of the members of the Nashville Metropolitan Council have told NBC News that they plan to vote to reinstate Jones to the Legislature. The council is expected to hold a special meeting Monday to discuss an interim replacement for his seat.
Pearson is from Memphis and represents parts of the city. Shelby County Commission Chair Mickell Lowery told The Washington Post that the commission will vote on a resolution to reinstate him this week.
"I would be honored to accept the appointment of the Shelby County Commission and to run in a special election," Pearson said Sunday. "And I've already heard that people in the state Legislature and in Nashville are actually threatening our Shelby County commissioners to not reappoint me or they're going to take away funding that's in the governor's budget for projects that the mayor and others have asked for."
"And this is what folks really have to realize: the power structure in the state of Tennessee is always wielding against the minority party and people," he said.
Republicans' move to oust two Black Democrats and not the white lawmaker who protested alongside them has raised accusations that race played a role.
Johnson has said she believes she survived the vote because she's a "60-year-old white woman and they are two young Black men."
Republican state Rep. Bryan Richey, who voted to expel Jones but not Pearson or Johnson, pushed back on the allegation, telling CNN on Friday that their ousting "had nothing to do with race."
"Had nothing to do with the color of their skin," he said. "I respect all three of them."