Inspiration: The untold environmental justice backstory of a now-famous removed Tennessee legislator

Democratic State Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis speaks on his phone while being expelled from the Tennessee State Legislature on April 6. Source: Seth Herald, Getty Images

By Alliance President Terry Gips and Alliance Communications Coordinator Amy Durr

By now, most of us have heard that last week a supermajority of Republicans in Tennessee’s State House made the shocking, anti-democratic and racist decision to remove two under-30, dynamic Black Democratic colleagues from the legislature for protesting against gun violence on the chamber floor. But what you haven’t heard is the powerful, inspiring, and untold story about the heroic environmental justice leadership of Justin J. Pearson, who was removed along with Justin Jones. Thanks to Emily Atkin and her the sub-stack HEATED for telling Pearson’s amazing backstory.

As HEATED points out, “The Legislature removed an effective climate justice advocate who was representing one of the most-polluted districts in the state.” Pearson, who never saw himself as an activist, became one after Big Oil tried to ram a pipeline through his Black community “in Southwest Memphis—an area surrounded by toxic facilities, and with a cancer risk rate four times the national average.” Consequently, “he was elected to the Legislature specifically because of his advocacy for environmental justice there.”

He “became well-known in his district in 2020 when he led the charge to stop a planned crude oil pipeline from running through his neighbors’ backyards,” according to HEATED. “At the time, oil giant Valero and pipeline company Plains All American were planning to build the 49-mile Byhalia Pipeline through predominantly Black communities in Memphis—an area which the companies believed would be ‘the point of least resistance.’” How’s that for clear-cut environmental racism?

I had never fought a multibillion-dollar crude oil pipeline company, let alone two,” Pearson recalled in a 2022 op-ed for Yes! Magazine. “I had never even called myself an activist before. But I had to do something.” So, at just 25 years old, Pearson co-founded the grassroots organization Memphis Community Against Pollution to mobilize opposition to the project.

One year and lots of national press later, the Byhalia Pipeline was cancelled—and MCAP and Pearson’s work was largely credited for the win,” according to HEATED. As Pearson wrote in his op-ed, that work included “months of multiracial and multi-socioeconomic coalition building across the country, fierce pipeline opposition from Memphians, negative national press coverage about the pipeline and environmental racism, legislation being proposed at the county and city level, and court cases challenging eminent domain.”

HEATED goes on to say, “The Byhalia Pipeline, however, was only the tip of the pollution iceberg for Southwest Memphis. And Pearson campaigned for his seat in the Tennessee House on promises to continue chipping away at it. (Environmental and climate justice were at the very top of his campaign’s list of issues).”

Clearly, Pearson has made a huge difference in his community and brought national awareness about the need for environmental justice. It’s sad and deeply disturbing that the Tennessee Legislature is trying to silence his voice and leave his constituents unrepresented. However, their discriminatory, anti-democratic actions are backfiring and casting shame on the legislature while elevating his voice to the national stage and triggering a massive response.

We are deeply moved by Pearson’s commitment to his community and planet, along with his fervent opposition to gun violence and support for environmental justice. We are inspired by how a young “non-activist” became totally engaged and succeeded in blocking a pipeline and then going on to be a powerful voice for all people. We hope his county re-elects him and that he will become a national leader.

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