The Tennessee Three: How Overlooked Democrats Became Unintentional Heroes


The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Tennessee is a state known for the blues and for Elvis; in terms of national politics, it is usually overlooked. But the mass shooting that took place in late March at The Covenant School in Nashville – which resulted in six deaths, followed by the plight of the “Tennessee Three” – has sent the Volunteer State careening into the national spotlight. 

The shooting in Nashville resulted in the deaths of three 9-year-old children and three members of the faculty and staff. According to the Gun Violence Archive, a database recording mass shootings in the U.S., there have been 162 mass shootings and 15 mass murders in the United States in this year alone, as of April 17

In response to the shooting in Nashville, hundreds of protesters flocked to the Tennessee state capitol building on March 30. Protesters flooded the hallways, chanting and waving signs, and eventually entered the House and Senate chambers. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson, all Democrats, instituted a recess while leading chants in support of the protesters. Dubbed the “Tennessee Three,” these representatives illuminated a sharp ideological divide in the state legislature. They were the most outspoken of the liberal camp, who celebrated the bravery of the protestors – most of whom were students – to stand in opposition to the Republican supermajority. The conservatives who hold that supermajority deemed the behavior of the Three to be disrespectful of typical House proceedings. 

Tennessee Republicans used their advantage by immediately stripping Johnson and Jones of their committee assignments. They then voted to remove all three representatives from the legislature. On April 3, Jones was expelled from the House by a vote of 72-25. Pearson was the second to be ousted with a vote of 69-26. Johnson held her position by a single vote. 

Four days after Jones was expelled, the Representative was reinstated, following a unanimous vote by the Nashville Metropolitan Council to send Jones back to the legislature. As he took his oath on the Capitol steps, his supporters gathered and sang “This Little Light of Mine.”

On April 12, the reinstatement of Representative Justin Pearson was unanimously approved. He was sworn into office the following day. 

The situation unfolding in Nashville was further complicated by news broken by The Tennessee Holler, a liberal-leaning digital media company based in Memphis. A five-minute audio recording of five Republican House members planning their votes to oust the Tennessee Three was leaked to The Holler, which published the clip on their site. 

The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper, confirmed that the audio was recorded during an April 10 closed caucus meeting. In the recording, five Republican House leaders discussed the events that led up to the vote to expel Johnson failing. The recording shows that the Republicans who planned to oust Johnson believed that they had the votes to do so. 

Specifically targeted during the meeting was Representative Jody Barrett (R), who chose not to expel Johnson from the House. 

“You hung us out to dry,” Representative Bryan Terry added. 

A glaringly obvious injustice arose from the vote: only Gloria Johnson, a white woman, was allowed to stay in the legislature, while two Black men were voted out. Seeing that all three members engaged in the same behavior, there is no logical explanation for the discrepancy. It would be hard to argue that this entire vote was not done out of racist motivations. But the unnamed representative who spoke out against Barrett during the closed-door meeting certainly tried to. Doing what’s right? Is voting out representatives because they voiced concern over an issue their constituents care about truly the right thing? 

Additionally, all three representatives currently under fire are Democrats who faced expulsion. By removing them from the House, they and their constituents were stripped of their voices in the chamber. With these facts in mind, this move could easily be interpreted as a dominant group taking advantage of an opportunity to maintain their white, conservative bloc. 

It may be true that the five Republican house members heard in the recording leaked to the Tennessee Holler wanted to expel all three Democratic house members, believed they had the votes to do so, and had no racialized motivations behind their actions. Regardless of their intent, however, the consequences of their actions are severe. The Republicans who voted to expel democratically-elected members on an issue of decorum revealed that they care more about their image than about legislation. This could be because they desire an old-fashioned sense of order or because they wanted to show that they could retaliate in the face of protests. Either way, it did not work long. 

While the Democratic house members stood in solidarity with protestors, their Republican counterparts ignored their constituents. Their vote to expel the Tennessee Three, which was repealed within a week, held back any potentially life-saving legislation being passed during that time. The whole charade is a pathetic last stand of conservatives attempting to delay the inevitable and ignore the cries of the people. Though decorum may be the concern of the majority party, it is they who lack decorum, and not the democratically-elected representatives so undemocratically removed from office. 

Also of note is the Tennessee Three’s rapid rise to internet fame. Videos of their speeches following the original expulsion vote were posted to social media platforms such as TikTok and Twitter, where they went viral among sympathizers. Both Jones and Pearson appeared on national television. They generated publicity and funding for Democratic leaders in the state. According to CBS News, Kamala Harris flew to Nashville to speak with the Tennessee Three, and President Biden even invited them to visit the White House. Despite facing permanent expulsion, the Tennessee Three seem to have garnered more good press than bad press. This may help rather than harm them in the future, promising future career opportunities and even an in with President Biden himself. While the Tennessee Three may not be chasing the presidential nomination any time soon, their skyrocketing fame has provided them a platform to speak. 

Tennessee is a microcosm of Republican-held states and the nation at large. The Covenant School shooting angered those who simply want to safely attend school or go about their days without worrying if their children will live to see the final bell. If the Tennessee Three violated decorum, they did so with their protesting constituents in mind. The successful vote to oust them did not do much good for the Republican supermajority. Arguably, the most important lesson to be learned here is that minority parties in majority-led states are much more powerful than we may think, as long as they can get the press on their side.