NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The Tennessee House GOP sent a message to a freshman Democratic state representative on Friday: Follow the rules or explore options outside of the General Assembly.
“If you don’t like rules, perhaps you should explore a different career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them,” wrote the Tennessee House GOP on Twitter.
The tweet was a reply to Rep. Justin J. Pearson (D-Shelby County), writing, “We literally just got on the State House floor and already a white supremacist has attacked my wearing of my Dashiki.”
A dashiki is a traditional West African loose-fitted shirt. On Thursday, Pearson wore a black one in the chamber.
“Wearing my African attire, particularly in Black History Month is paying homage to the people who allowed me to be here,” Pearson said. “Especially in a place like the Tennessee Statehouse.”
In the chamber that day, a lawmaker made a statement on the importance of dress code without naming Pearson, but saying wearing a tie and jacket honors the legacy of late Speaker Pro Tempore Lois DeBerry.
DeBerry was the second African-American woman to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly and the first woman to serve as speaker pro tempore.
“We honor Lois’ memory in how we look, how we treat each other, and how we give the respect we hope to get back,” said Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville). “And part of that respect is how you look and how you appear. I showed up one night on two wheels trying to get in here, and I did not have a tie on and she reminded me, ‘Representative Hawk, if you don’t have a tie on, you can’t walk through that door.'”
But not all lawmakers agreed with Hawk’s depiction of how DeBerry would’ve acted.
“She wouldn’t embarrass a new member. She would say let’s educate the new member, let’s fold them in appropriately,” said Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis).
While not finding any specific language in the Tennessee House Rules about what lawmakers have to wear on the floor, Pearson was told by the House Clerk that the House Speaker sets the decorum.
“The speaker will have the authority to set other guidelines for decorum,” states the rules.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) said they are following in DeBerry’s footsteps.
“During her historic tenure in the General Assembly, the late Lois DeBerry established a precedent for attire that remains in place today; men must wear a coat and a tie if they wish to be recognized in committee or on the House floor. Ms. DeBerry would frequently address members violating this precedent and remind them of the requirement. The speaker will continue to follow the precedent and the path established by Ms. DeBerry to honor her and her incredible legacy within our legislative body.”
Pearson says using DeBerry’s name like this is not an appropriate use of her legacy.
“To try and attack the African attire of a young, Black member of the House body is wrong and immoral and a misuse of her legacy. If they actually care about Lois DeBerry’s legacy, let’s see them put forward legislation for justice,” he said.
Pearson also said the pushback on his attire is another example of how the Republican party is legislating.
“Whether that be folks who want to wear drag or people who have different abilities or people who want to read certain books, taking power over people’s agency is a theme of this body,” he said.
He said he plans on wearing the dashiki again and will wear a tie and jacket over it if he needs to.