APTOPIX Tennessee Lawmaker Expulsion

Former Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson, a Memphis Democrat, raises his fists as he leaves the House chamber Thursday after he was expelled for leading a gun control protest. George Walker IV / Associated Press

Justin Pearson, a Tennessee state representative ousted from office Thursday for his involvement in a gun control protest in the wake of last month’s Nashville school shooting, is a Bowdoin College graduate with a long history of advocacy.

Pearson, 28, a Memphis resident who graduated from Bowdoin in 2017, and fellow Democratic Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville were expelled by the Tennessee House of Representatives’ Republican majority for violating decorum rules after they interrupted a legislative session last week, using a megaphone to call for gun control measures. A third lawmaker who participated in the protest, Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, survived her expulsion vote. Johnson is white, while her two colleagues who were voted out are Black, a result widely critiqued for its apparent racial connotations.

“I think it’s pretty clear,” Johnson said in an interview with CNN. “I’m a 60-year-old white woman and they are two young, Black men.”

Pearson and Jones said they will run again for their seats.

Justin Pearson graduated from Bowdoin College in 2017 and became one of Tennessee’s youngest lawmakers ever when he was elected in January. Courtesy of Bowdoin College

“We’ll be back,” Pearson told reporters after the vote. “We’re going to keep fighting for our communities because the status quo is not working. It’s hurting people. It’s killing people.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton compared the protest, which involved a mass of citizens gathered outside the House, to an “insurrection,” though demonstrators were peaceful. The expulsion move was rare; only two other Tennessee House members have been voted out of office since the 1800s, according to The Tennessean.


Pearson acknowledged he violated House rules.

“I recognize that I did not follow decorum this past Thursday on the House floor, and I take full responsibility and accountability for my actions,” he wrote in a letter to lawmakers before the expulsion vote. “When I saw thousands of people — mostly children and teenagers — protesting and demanding action from us after the slaying of six innocent people, including three 9-year-old children, it was impossible to sit idly by and continue with business as usual.”

The March 27 shooting at The Covenant School also resulted in the deaths of a teacher, a custodian and the head of the school. Police shot and killed the shooter.

“We must say no to more gun violence,” Pearson continued in his letter. “We must never accept senseless deaths to continue on our watch and do nothing.”

Pearson, who was born and raised in Memphis, majored in government and legal studies and minored in education at Bowdoin College. His mother is a teacher and his father is a preacher.

“We never had much financially but maintained a deep faith in God and deep faith in attaining what may seem impossible,” he wrote in an article for Bowdoin Magazine in 2021. “At Bowdoin, it was a college degree. In Memphis, it is a safer and cleaner environment.”


He earned a fellowship at a Princeton University summer program for public policy and international affairs. Each summer, he said, he returned to Memphis to run a summer camp program he founded for high school students.

“I think in order to provide the most opportunities for the most kids, government policies have to change,” he said in an interview published on Bowdoin’s website in 2016. “When our system denies students the opportunity to dream up where they want to be and then go after it because of where they come from, or who their parents are, or the neighborhood they grew up in, it takes policy change to get at the heart of that.”

The 2016 interview foreshadowed his pursuit of public service: “Pearson knows that wherever he ends up professionally — whether at a think tank or in elected office — he does not want to lose touch with the teachers, students and school administrators he aims to help.”

After graduation, Pearson moved to Boston, where he worked for the nonprofit Year Up, which provides free job training to young adults. He then moved back to Memphis, where he co-founded Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, a group that opposed the Byhalia oil pipeline over concerns it would contaminate drinking water.

“I read about this egregious case of environmental racism in a piece by a Bowdoin alumna and future cofounder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, Kathy Robinson,” Pearson wrote in his Bowdoin Magazine article. “After reading the article she’d posted and talking with my family, I knew we had to do something. I’d never fought two multi-billion-dollar crude oil pipeline companies before, but our spirits were strong and courageous in the face of the fight ahead.

“We must listen to the communities suffering the most, elevate their voices to the ears of people who are in power and empower them to create change. That’s the beauty and power of a Bowdoin education if it’s used right.”


In July 2021, the company behind the pipeline canceled the project.

In January, Pearson was elected to the Tennessee House, becoming one of the youngest lawmakers in the state’s history.

President Joe Biden said he was disturbed by the expulsion vote.

“[Thursday’s] expulsion of lawmakers who engaged in peaceful protest is shocking, undemocratic and without precedent,” Biden said in a statement. “Rather than debating the merits of the issue, these Republican lawmakers have chosen to punish, silence and expel duly elected representatives of the people of Tennessee.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.