NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday made an unplanned visit to Fisk University in Nashville to meet with Tennessee Reps. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), Justin Jones (D-Nashville) and Justin Pearson (D-Memphis), after the latter two were expelled from the Republican-controlled state House over their role in a protest calling for gun control.
“They chose to show courage in the face of extreme tragedy,” Harris said to a cheering crowd at the Fisk University Memorial Chapel. “A democracy allows for places where the people’s voice to be heard and honored and respected and they understood the importance, these three, of standing to say the people will not be silenced.”
The group, sometimes referred to as the “Tennessee Three,” were seated in the front row. During her remarks, Harris complimented their efforts on the House floor.
It was a moment that stuck with many in the crowd.
“I think history will tell the story and it’s so important that we get our legislatures back in place, we get them back on that floor, making decisions for this community,” said Dr. LaTanya Rogers, a Fisk University Professor.
The “Tennessee Three” have made national headlines since their expulsion from the House. Jones, a graduate of Fisk University and the first to be voted out, received a warm welcome, surrounded by supporters.
“Seeing Justin take a stand against this prejudice, I would like to call it, and really just injustice, has really inspired a lot of the students here, myself included,” said student Desmond Pare.
“It was a timely speech. Right now, it’s imperative that we get everyone involved. Democracy is failing us right now,” said Connor Joseph, another Fisk University student. “It was great to see that Justin Jones, came home and was able to be celebrated after the expulsion.”
Harris’ visit comes days after Jones and Pearson were expelled from their positions on Friday, after protesting for gun reform in the House well. The protest was sparked by the Covenant School shooting, which left six people dead.
A third Democrat who participated in the protest, Gloria Johnson, narrowly avoided expulsion by a single vote.
The oustings of Jones and Pearson drew accusations of racism. Johnson, who is white, was allowed to continue to serve in the chamber. Republican leadership denied that race was a factor.
GOP leaders said Thursday’s actions — used only a handful times since the Civil War — were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that lawmakers’ disruptions of House proceedings through protest would be tolerated.
But both Harris and President Biden have accused Tennessee’s Republican leaders of silencing the opposition, rather than working with them.
“We need leaders who have the courage to act at statehouses and in Washington D.C. and the United States Congress, have the courage to act, instead of the cowardness to not allow debate and to not allow a discussion on the merits of what is at stake,” said Harris.
Harris also focused part of her speech on “red flag” laws and background checks.
“The policy is really pretty straightforward. It’s to say, you might want to know before someone buys a gun whether they’ve been found by a court to be a danger to themselves or others, you might just want to know. You might want to know if someone has shown themselves to be violent before they can go a buy a gun,” said Harris.
Hours before Harris spoke, Johnson, Jones and Pearson spoke to President Joe Biden via video conference call.
“Our country needs to take action on gun violence — to do that we need more voices like theirs speaking out,” President Biden said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.