Expelled Memphis lawmaker credits student activists as he wins reappointment to Tennessee House

A man is turned mid-conversation with his right-side profile to the camera as many demonstrators look on in the distance.
Expelled Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis credited student activists as he won reappointment to his seat in a 7-0 vote by the Shelby County Commission. (Seth Herald / Getty Images)

Memphis high schooler Carolina Calvo skipped school Wednesday, joined hundreds of marchers, and took pictures as local officials made the historic vote to reappoint a state lawmaker to his seat. 

Just a week earlier, the GOP-controlled Tennessee House voted to expel Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis, as well as another Democrat, Justin Jones of Nashville, saying they violated chamber rules by amplifying many protesters’ calls for gun reform in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School. A third Democrat, Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, narrowly survived an expulsion resolution.

For Carolina and her older sister Anna Calvo, the expulsion hearings, culminating in the ouster of the House’s two youngest Black members, represented hopelessness and defeat.

Now both lawmakers have regained their positions — Jones reappointed on Monday by Nashville’s Metro Council, and Pearson voted in 7-0 by the Shelby County Commission, as demonstrators in the chamber cheered. Pearson is expected to be back in his legislative seat on Thursday, rejoining Johnson and Jones.

“Today, there’s just a lot more hope in the room,” Carolina said Wednesday after the vote on Pearson. 

Reappointed Rep. Justin Pearson entered the Shelby County Commission from a march of hundreds than began at the National Civil Rights Museum. (Laura Testino / Chalkbeat)

Pearson, who became a student activist at age 15 in the quest for a proper textbook, said student activism continues to play a role in his career, right up to his reappointment. 

“Students and young people lead all movements,” he told Chalkbeat after his reappointment. “This movement is no different, and the movement to end gun violence and the justice that we will have will be because of young people and students and college students who say that the status quo must change.” 

Carolina, a 16-year-old sophomore, and Anna, an 18-year-old senior, were among student organizers at Memphis’ Crosstown High School who walked out of class in support of gun reform earlier this month. Anna joined youth protesters at the Tennessee Capitol building, and witnessed part of Jones’ expulsion hearing. 

Both want Tennessee to adopt red-flag laws, like 19 other states have, to let law enforcement take guns away from people who threaten harm to themselves or others. 

On Tuesday, Gov. Bill Lee called for legislators to develop and pass what he called “order of protection” legislation that would do the same thing, subject to a judge’s order. 

The sisters especially want Tennessee lawmakers to halt steps toward arming certain teachers with concealed weapons, as one bill that advanced last week in the House would do. 

“School shootings are already scary in itself, but just making (guns) accessible for people to reach them is really awful to think about,” Carolina said. 

Both students — daughters of former school board candidate and Latino activist Mauricio Calvo — have been encouraged to be politically active. But as they’ve gotten older, the stakes have increased, they said. 

“Now that I can vote, it does feel different,” Anna said. 

Even students who can’t vote can still make a difference, Carolina said, by protesting and using  social media to amplify their voices.

“I remember being 11 and doing the Women’s March,” Carolina said. “That was really powerful and stuff, but I was 11. And now I’m a lot older … . You just realize how it’s going to impact you more.” 

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

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