State Rep. Justin Pearson criticized on House floor for wearing traditional West African garb

Published: Feb. 10, 2023 at 7:47 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Newly elected State Representative Justin J. Pearson was called out by his fellow lawmakers Thursday for his apparel in the Tennessee House.

He chose to wear a dashiki on the house floor, and it’s now sparking a debate about what is considered professional attire.

Pearson was elected last month in a special election to replace the late Barbara Cooper.

A dashiki, originating in West Africa, is popular attire in the African American community, and he wanted to wear it on his first day on the job.

“Wearing this dashiki on the first day and being sworn in, wearing it is paying homage to the ancestors who made this opportunity possible,” said Pearson. During opening remarks Thursday, Representative David Hawk of Greene County got up on the House floor to speak, and while he did not call Pearson out by name, he told a story about the late Lois Deberry. 

Deberry was a well-respected longtime member of the State House from Memphis, a Democrat, and the first woman and African American to ascend to Speaker Pro Tempore. Hawk recalled years ago being reprimanded by Deberry for not wearing a coat and tie in the assembly.

“We honor Lois Deberry’s memory by how we look and how we treat each other and how we give the respect we hope to get back. I still, to this day, keep an extra tie in my drawer,” said Hawk.

Pearson and other Democrats thought it was inappropriate of Hawk to call him out on the House floor, but still, Pearson says it’s time for decorum rules to change.

It’s been over a decade since Deberry was a state representative; she passed away in 2013.

“There are going to be more people who are a part of the body that represent the plurality of our country,” said Pearson.

Pearson immediately took to social media Thursday posting a picture of him in his dashiki with a fist in the air. He said in part, “a white supremacist has attacked my wearing of my dashiki. Resistance and subversion to the status quo ought to make some people uncomfortable.”

Tennessee House Republicans fired back saying on Twitter that House decorum rules were unanimously approved and added, in part, “If you don’t like the rules, perhaps you should explore a different career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them.”

Action News 5 checked and found there is no written rule for what can be worn on the House floor.

However, in the Permanent Rules of Order decorum is within the Speaker of the House’s purview.

According to Speaker Cameron Sexton, there is a precedent of wearing a suit and tie; however, it is within his right to change that rule.

“I’ve been wearing suits since I was eight years old.  It’s not a problem with wearing suits, there is a problem with upholding systems that tell people what is wrong and what is right based on what is considered normal and, in this status quo, what is normal is what is white,” said Pearson Friday.

Speaker Sexton did send Action News 5 this statement:

The House clerk has sent Rep. Pearson the information he requested earlier today. 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.”

As for Representative Pearson, he says he will continue to celebrate his culture and ancestry in the State House.

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