Vice President Kamala Harris met with the three lawmakers who battled this week for their seats in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
Former Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis, were expelled from the House after the two lawmakers, along with Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, led gun reform protests from the House floor following the mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville.
Johnson maintained her seat after the resolution to remove her failed by one vote.
The story has thrust Tennessee politics to a national stage, prompting statements of support for the “Tennessee Three” from Democratic leaders across the country.
Harris met with the lawmakers at Fisk University, where there was a community event at the Memorial Chapel.
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After addressing Thursday’s events and the Tennessee Three, Harris concluded her remarks with a message for the whole audience.
“Your voices are part of the conscience of our country. When we need in these moments in time people who have something in them that is about empathy, about care, about a sense of responsibility for their brother and sister,” Harris said. “We need you all.”
Bookending her speech, Harris returned to civil rights leaders Diane Nash and John Lewis, saying they started as young leaders just like those in the audience.
Especially with the push for gun reform, Harris said it’s a pivotal moment for young leaders to step up.
“We will not be defeated, we will not be deterred, we will not throw up our hands when it’s time to roll up our sleeves,” Harris said, drawing deafening applause as she reached the end of her remarks.
She concluded, “We will speak with truth, we will speak about freedom and justice, and we will march on.”
Introduced by Nashville Mayor John Cooper, Harris took the stage at Fisk University’s Memorial Chapel before a packed crowd.
Early into her remarks, the vice president recognized the significance of where she’s speaking, a local HBCU (historically Black college and universities) that educated civil rights leaders like Diane Nash and John Lewis.
“We are here understanding the broad shoulders upon which we all stand. Those fighters for freedom and liberty and justice,” Harris said. “Those leaders who understood truth must never be stifled or silenced when it is on behalf of the people.”
Pivoting from that theme, Harris recognized Pearson, Jones and Johnson, seated at the front of the chapel.
“It wasn’t about the three of these leaders. It was about who they were representing, it was about whose voices they were channeling. Is that not what a democracy allows?” Harris said. “A democracy says you don’t silence the people, you do not stifle the people, you do not turn off their microphones when they are speaking about the importance of life and liberty.”
While the vice president spoke, Pearson encouraged her every word with stomps of his feet and claps of his hands. “Come on!” he said to Harris, along with other members of the crowd.
“We are here because they chose to show courage in the face of an extreme tragedy,” the Vice President said, before recognizing the March 27 Covenant shooting. “Eleven days ago, six people — three educators, and three babies, nine years old — were murdered senselessly due to gun violence.”
The Vice President criticized the suggestion that one can support either the Second Amendment or “reasonable gun laws.”
“We can and should do both,” she said.
The Vice President met with Pearson, Jones and Johnson privately at the John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library on Fisk’s campus.
The Vice President then met with Tennessee Democratic lawmakers, including Tennessee General Assembly minority leaders Sen. Raumesh Akbari and Rep. Karen Camper, both of Memphis. Nashville Mayor John Cooper was also present. The meeting was closed to the press.
Down the road, a crowd packed into the Fisk Memorial Chapel for an event to support the Tennessee Three.
Inside the chapel, an energetic audience heard from local leaders and organizers, including the Rev. Davie Tucker, a prominent local pastor and head of the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship, Iman Omer, a Vanderbilt University student and organizer with Students Demand Action, Ezri Tyler, an organizer with March For Our Lives, and the Rev. Venita Lewis, president of the NAACP Nashville branch, Tennessee State University student Aliyah Holmes, and Nashville Mayor John Cooper.
“The challenge will be: Don’t just celebrate the Tennessee three, Tucker said. “What consequences are you willing to live through to make a difference? We need some fighters. Will you join us in the fight?”
Biden spoke with lawmakers earlier, invites them to White House
Earlier Friday, before the Fisk event, President Joe Biden spoke with Jones, Pearson and Johnson via conference call. Biden thanked the lawmakers for spotlighting what he called undemocratic and unprecedented attacks on them this week, and invited them to the White House in the near future.
The line to enter Memorial Chapel stretched to the end of the block. The sanctuary of the chapel was nearly at capacity just before 5 p.m.
Several Metro Council Members sat in the second and third rows, while members of the public continued to file into the church.
T-shirts represented gun control advocacy organizations including Moms Demand Action and March for our Lives.
Chatter punctuated the air as people waited for the program to begin.
At-large Metro Council Member Zulfat Suara took the podium first.
“Help me make sense of this,” she said to the crowd. “We are reeling form the deadliest school shooting in our state’s history.”
Suara said she was more than disappointed to see the House chose “only to expel the young, gifted and Black legislators” in the wake of gun reform protests held on the House floor by Johnson, Jones and Pearson.
“If anything, it tells us all we need to know about how our state views young Black men.”
The crowd expressed emotional responses to each statement in Suara’s speech.
“Yes!” they cried, some rising to their feet, as Suara said Tennessee needs gun control now.
At 4 p.m., Harris arrived at the Berry Field Air National Guard Base in Nashville, where she was greeted by Col. Ted Geasley, commander of the 118th Wing. The vice president is expected to visit Fisk University, where there is a community event at the Memorial Chapel at 4:30 p.m. for the Tennessee Three.
Around the time of Harris’ arrival to Nashville, Johnson and Pearson arrived at Fisk.
When Pearson arrived, he was met with raucous applause and cheers. He stepped up on a stone platform, addressing the crowd.
“They thought they could expel democracy,” Pearson said. “But we’re still here!”
Among community members waiting outside the chapel was Nicholas Umontuen, who teaches business administration for Fisk University, waited patiently for the event to start.
Umontuen has taught at Fisk for 28 years. He said he didn’t expect for the Tennessee Three to be expelled. “I was shocked,” he said. “I was demoralized.”
But Umontuen said the national attention aimed at the story gives him hope to elevate the voices of young people fighting for change.
Also present was at-large Metro Council member Zulfat Suara, who is among the council members planning to reappoint Justin Jones to the House as early as Monday.
“What happened yesterday sent the wrong message to people around the world,” Suara said. “We need to make sure what they (expelled lawmakers) did is not in vain. We need to continue to demand gun reform.”
There are likely additional traffic delays during rush hour on highways and secondary roads due to the vice president’s, Nashville police posted on social media.
A White House official confirmed the Vice President’s trip to Nashville, saying Harris is visiting to lift “the voices” of thousands of young votes who have led massive demonstrations at the Tennessee state Capitol to change gun laws but haven’t swayed the state’s Republican majority. Harris is expected to arrive Friday afternoon.
Harris intends to meet with the state legislature’s Democratic caucus, including Jones, Pearson and Johnson, as well as young people who led recent protests at the Tennessee state Capitol in support of gun reform.
“(The vice president) wants to make sure that these young people’s voices are heard,” the White House official said. “In the face of a very tragic event, they want action.”
—Joey Garrison, USATODAY