Justin Jones, Justin Pearson on Fighting Back in Tennessee
Justin Pearson (left) and Justin Jones.
Photo: John Partipilo
The first thing you notice about Justin Jones and Justin Pearson is their hair. The left balcony above the floor in the Tennessee House of Representatives in Nashville provides an unobstructed view of their desks, where they have been shunted into a back corner like misbehaving children, surrounded by a sea of hostile heads, almost all of them gray, white, or glistening pink. Pearson’s wiry frame is topped by a luxuriant Afro, while Jones sports a jet-black ponytail — visual emblems of the lonely island that both men occupy here.
Facing them at the front of the chamber is Cameron Sexton, the imperious house Speaker whose push to ostracize them even further backfired this spring. After Jones, Pearson, and their white Democratic colleague Gloria Johnson disrupted a session with calls for gun reform in response to a mass school shooting in March that killed three children, Sexton and his supermajority of Republican colleagues voted to expel the two Black lawmakers (but not Johnson), an unprecedented move that turned their plight into a national cause. They were eventually reinstated, but not before Vice-President Harris came to Nashville and declared the situation a crisis of democracy, while the media descended in a swarm that is still buzzing around the capital.
Across the street, in his fourth-floor office, Jones, 27, feels anything but alone these days. Midway through our conversation, he answers a knock at the door to reveal an outstretched hand holding a silver thermos. “I haven’t been well,” he explains, stifling a cough. “People keep giving me tea.” Jones says that, though the vice-president’s visit might have been the starriest support he has received, his staunchest allies come from the community that raised him — friends; mentors from his nearby alma mater, the majority-Black Fisk University; and adoptive “grandmothers” who brought him cornbread and white-bean soup during his ordeal to make sure he was eating.
That familial embrace looks even tighter one floor up in Pearson’s office. When I step out of the elevator to meet him, the 28-year-old is accompanied by two of his aunties. When we sit down at his desk, past an entryway full of artwork his mother chose for him, his fiancée–slash–chief of staff, Oceana Gilliam, takes the seat next to him. “My brother ran our field operations,” Pearson says of his office’s dynamic, which feels like that of a family who dropped their kid off at college and decided to stay. “My other brother made sure the mics were wiped off at our rallies because of COVID.”
In short order, the Justins, as they are now affectionately known, have become the face of a resurgent oppositional politics born out of the social-justice protests of the past few years. They are steeped in the ways of activist disruption while simultaneously advocating for a return to norms of good governance: In a viral video, Jones denounces the ethical corruption pervading a Republican caucus that refuses to do anything about gun violence and that boasts a member who has been accused of abusing teenage girls (and one who just resigned over workplace harassment). The Justins’ position is also expressed in their appearance — a look that combines the radical flair of the Black Power era with the buttoned-down, tie-forward respectability mandated by the House dress code. “People here are not used to seeing a young Black person with an Afro and a dashiki donned over a tie in the state capital as a peer, as an equal,” says Pearson.
Their fans are not the only ones who have noticed. In a rant on April 12 that pushed the bounds of televisable racism even for Fox News, Tucker Carlson compared videos of Pearson during his time at Bowdoin College — shaved head, blazer, an earnest baby politico in the mold of Barack Obama — with a speech he made on the statehouse floor as a legislator. In the former, Pearson is running for student government and talks, in Carlson’s view, like a “crypto white kid.” In the latter, he has assumed the cadence of a preacher in a Black church, which is in fact an institution that he knows intimately, having been raised by a father who is a pastor in Memphis. The contrast would be unremarkable to anyone who has heard a minister in the pulpit and then chatted with them afterward, but to Carlson, Pearson was the equivalent of a Black Rachel Dolezal, a fraud who adopts a “sharecropper” twang out of convenience.
“It’s much easier to try and create a straw person to attack than to attack the issue,” Pearson explains, unbothered, “which is that in Nashville at the Covenant School, six people were killed, and three of them were 9 years old, with an assault rifle that no human being walking our streets should have access to.” When Pearson speaks, he maintains penetrating eye contact that you feel guilty for breaking. On his desk is a worn copy of the Bible open to Psalm 27, which reads in part, “Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty.”
Downstairs, Jones fiddles with an eye-catching turquoise gem on his index finger. “Half the members told me to cut my hair, that I can’t wear earrings,” he says. “But I’m not going to assimilate to them.” The men see their rejection of house conventions as both a statement of principle and an appeal to make our democratic institutions more democratic. The Capitol Building in Nashville is perched on a hilltop like a citadel, fronted by a memorial placard dedicated by the Daughters of the Confederacy. By and large, the Republican supermajority operates in the spirit of that monument. “They don’t govern,” Jones tells me. “They rule.”
“There’s a culture here that I think this past week has unsettled,” he says, “a culture of being okay with getting crumbs and saying that this is all that we can get, that diminishes people’s fight, diminishes their resistance.” The blackballing tactics Sexton has orchestrated against dissidents are legendary. In a choice display of pettiness in 2021, he reportedly assigned Johnson a tiny windowless conference room to use as her office, to which she responded by moving her desk into the hallway in protest. He has stamped out whatever moderate impulses might have existed within his party and reacted to the demonstrations in March by restricting Jones’s swipe card, parking-lot access, and committee assignments.
During the afternoon legislative session I attend, Pearson and Jones are on their feet, interrogating a Republican colleague about two bills she is sponsoring that would help parent-activists expedite the banning of books. The next day’s session will see the GOP supermajority send a bill to Governor Bill Lee’s desk that will further shield firearm manufacturers from legal liability. “We won’t win until we pass common-sense gun laws,” Jones tells me, and as we watch this conveyor belt of right-wing bills glide so effortlessly through the chamber, that prospect seems as dim today as ever.
But that doesn’t mean the Justins aren’t getting through to their opponents. Shortly after he was reinstated, Jones was approached by Mike Sparks, one of the Republicans who had voted to expel him. “He tried to talk, and I kind of just went silent,” he says. “‘Justin, will you forgive me?’” Sparks asked, according to Jones. “‘You’re in divinity school. The Bible says to forgive people.’”
The youngest legislator in Nashville obliged, though not without a condition. “I forgive you, Sparks,” Jones replied. “But I wish that you would stand for what you believe in and not just let Cameron Sexton tell you how to vote.”