The Story of the ‘Tennessee Three’ Is Also About Black Voters

State Rep. Justin Jones after being reinstated to his seat on April 10, 2023, in Nashville. (Photo by Seth Herald/Getty Images)

The past week has been a whirlwind for Nashville and Memphis residents. Reps. Justin Jones and Justin L. Pearson, who represent those respective areas in the Tennessee House, were ousted by Republicans over protesting for stricter gun control laws. A third lawmaker who protested with them, Rep. Gloria Johnson, wasn’t expelled. She is white; Jones and Pearson are Black. 

Safia Samee Ali

It’s a story, like most, that begs for context. Is there precedent for such expulsions in the state? (Jones, 27, was reinstated Monday after a vote by the Nashville City Council;  Pearson, 28, regained his seat Wednesday after a vote by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners). How far back do such racial tensions extend in the Tennessee General Assembly, and can they be found in policy? What do the people who elected the freshman legislators think of their ouster? 

Sign up for our newsletter! Right Arrow

Over the weekend, NBC News reporter Safia Samee Ali went to Tennessee to get answers. By talking to community members, she gathered enough reporting for four stories contextualizing the lawmakers’ expulsion: Black residents resoundingly said they felt their votes didn’t matter, churchgoers made clear Jones’ protest was exactly the reason they voted for him and constituents followed Jones in a poignant march to the Capitol for his reinstatement. The representatives’ ouster is also part of a long history of Tennessee Republican efforts to minimize Democrats’ power. 

“I talked to so many people who were like, ‘Thank you for talking to us. Thank you for asking — yes, I am upset,’” said Ali. “People really wanted their story to be told.”

Equity Lab spoke with Ali about her reporting, the importance of talking to those impacted by the news and why context matters. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

Tell me about how your recent Tennessee stories came to light — was it your idea to speak to Black voters about what they thought about the expulsions?

The politics team reached out to me and my editor. They needed somebody quickly to get to Nashville. Once I got there, I wanted to talk to people in Justin Pearson’s and Justin Jones’ districts and see what voters are thinking, because they’re the ones who are impacted — their representatives were removed and these are the people whom they voted for. While the main story was about two young Black representatives who were removed, when you look further, they were elected by Black communities. It was all under one umbrella. So I approached it in that way.

Tell me about where you went to find sources for your story. You didn’t just show up on a busy street corner and start asking passersby questions. You went to a grocery store where Jones held rallies and a church in his district. 

When you’re in the field, it’s really hard. You have to have a strong game plan. I looked at Jones’ social media and was like, where has he been? The first place I went to was a community center where he had several rallies. I talked to a couple of people there, but it just didn’t have foot traffic. One of the people said, “Hey, listen, there’s this grocery store and it’s got a big parking lot. He’s been there, so check that out.” That grocery store was a gold mine. If I have any advice for journalists, it is go to grocery stores, popular restaurants — those are the places where you’re going to get the most traffic. And once I got over there, people were really passionate and had an opinion about it.

The church also felt like a deliberate choice — it was Easter Sunday in a predominantly Black Southern community. 

My editors were like, “Go to a church,” and there are 50 churches in the area. I mined Jones’ social media and found that he campaigned there. I called them ahead of time, set it up, asked for permission to come in and sat through the service. It was such an uplifting service, and there were hundreds of congregants. It ended up being such a great choice to go to that church. 

Did you see the perspective of Jones and Pearson voters as a gap in current coverage? 

Yeah, there was definitely a gap. When I was searching around, it didn’t seem that anybody was actually talking to the voters who were impacted. If my representative was abruptly removed, I would have an opinion about it. They are the most important people to talk to because their representatives are the voice of thousands of people. So if these thousands of people now feel like their voice is gone, I was very curious to understand: What are people feeling? And lo and behold, they feel disenfranchised. They feel voiceless. They feel like their vote didn’t matter because this is somebody that they elected. And at that time when I was talking to them on Saturday, they weren’t sure if the legislature was going to put somebody else in there who they didn’t choose, so it was very important for me to go out there to talk to these people. 

Protesters march in the streets of downtown Nashville as state Rep. Jones was reinstated to his seat on April 10, 2023. (Seth Herald/Getty Images)

When I was out there, NPR reached out to me to talk about the story. And host Deepa Fernandes from “Here and Now” was like, “You know, it’s so funny, I think no one else is doing this.” I’m like, really? Why are people not out there talking to voters? I don’t know if it was a holiday weekend, but you’d think it’s the most obvious story. 

Over and over, the constituents you talked to told you the same thing: What Jones and Pearson did was a representation of what they wanted them to do. It’s why they voted for them. How important is it for journalists to speak to voters not just during elections, but all year long to get a pulse on how elected officials are doing their jobs? 

It’s imperative. These patterns and opinions develop long before elections. And so if you really want to know what people are thinking, if you really want to try to predict something, you’ve got to be on the ground, in the street, talking to people for everything. I know it’s difficult. It usually happens when there’s big stories or there is an election coming up, but you got to keep your finger on the pulse because that temperature changes a lot, too. Something that they feel now may not be how they feel in six months.

It can also inform you — when elections come up, you know what questions to ask candidates.

Yes, when I was out in Nashville, I talked to a constituent who was like, “You know, they’ve been redistricting. And they’ve been slicing things up, it’s just a ploy by Republicans.” And she was really upset about that. I knew a little bit about it, but when I went back, I was like, yeah, this was there. These areas have been redistricted in such a weird way where people feel that it’s another way their voice is being taken. 

You mentioned earlier how you approached the entirety of the story: There’s a political story about these two politicians being ousted, and then there’s the context of why this happened. There’s historical context, legal context, racial and many other contexts that help explain why we ended up where we are now. As an attorney, how does your legal expertise inform your reporting? How important is layering all these contexts?

I was a lawyer for eight years before I changed careers to journalism, and the skills I learned as a lawyer were invaluable and made me such a strong journalist. As a lawyer, it’s critical thinking, big-picture thinking, thinking on your feet. You have to go in having done your research. And I think that’s why the transition was very seamless — they’re very transferable skills, and they’re really similar in a lot of ways. As a lawyer, you’re focusing on one case or one person at a time, and as a journalist, while you’re focusing on a lot of people, they all have a similar problem, right? They’re similarly situated. My experience as an attorney always informs me as a journalist. It always makes me think bigger.

Do you feel like the industry has shifted a bit in the past decade to understand that this context is important to add in stories? That we need to better explain racial inequities, tensions and dynamics at play?

I definitely find that true. That’s why there’s so much value in having journalists of color — they’re coming at it from shared or lived experience. We’re able to give a little bit of context. It’s not like we’re telling people what to think or we’re telling people “that’s racist,” but if you give people all the contextual information and circumstantial evidence, perhaps that’s something to chew on, something to think about in this story in Tennessee. The overwhelming resounding opinion was that these two young Black men being removed and a white woman not being removed for essentially the same thing seemed to send a very clear message to these communities that the people that they voted for, their voices don’t matter. Almost every person I spoke to said there is definitely a racial element. How could there not be a racial element? They represent different kinds of voices, they protested and then they were punished for it. 

It’s so important to provide that context, and I’m really happy that it’s happening more and more and it’s being encouraged by editors and newsrooms.