Talking Environmental Justice with Justin J. Pearson, the Legislator who Tennessee Republicans Tried to Fire

Image of men holding hands with shirts that say "No Oil on our Soil"

Image courtesy Justin J. Pearson.

Tennessee State Rep. Justin J. Pearson has become a progressive star ever since “the Tennessee Three” controversy this spring, when Republicans in the Volunteer State voted to remove him and another black legislator, Justin Jones from elected office. They had committed the sin of violating decorum to join demonstrators in the statehouse who were demanding common sense gun control laws in the wake of the mass shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School on March 27.

The power play backfired however, as Pearson and Jones were thrust into the national spotlight, amplifying their voices while focusing attention on racism within the Republican Party as the hashtag #NoJustinsNoPeace trended on Twitter.

Pearson was already attracting national attention after co-founding the environmental justice group Memphis Community Against the Pipeline in 2020, which succeeded in stopping oil giant Valero Energy and partners from running the Byhalia Connection Pipeline through South Memphis. But Pearson was just getting started. His group morphed into the larger and more ambitious Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP) and he was elected to the Tennessee House to replace his mentor Rep. Barbara Cooper, after she passed away in 2022 at age 93.

I first learned of Pearson in his role as leader of MCAP, which is a member of the national environmental justice coalition Anthropocene Alliance (for whom I’m a staff writer.) I caught up with Pearson on May 24 to talk about his work in Tennessee and the larger struggle for environmental justice across the country and the world…

[This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]


GS: I gotta ask – is the Tennessee Republican delegation racist or just stupid? Didn’t they know that trying to unseat young Black state representatives wasn’t a good look?

JP: The Tennessee Republican Party is operating as a mobocracy. Instead of a democracy where people rule, the mob mentality rules, which is venomous and evil at its roots. And we have a system of people who abuse their power and authority for their own gain and the gain of their corporate lobbyists. They perpetuate the harm of white supremacy, racism, bigotry, and patriarchy, as part of [bringing] their own demise.

GS: Were there hints they wanted to get rid of you guys even before the gun control protest, and were just looking for a pretext?

JP: They have taken issue substantially with things Rep. Jones and I have said and done in our committees, and on the House floor when we were demanding that laws be more just. There’s always ire when we stand up and talk about poor people, or queer people, or looted communities. It’s never well received there.

GS: Alright, let’s go back to how you wound up in the Tennessee State House, through your work with MCAP. One of the pipeline developers you fought admitted that South Memphis was chosen for the location because it was deemed a “point of least resistance”, since it’s a lower income community of color. Was there a pivotal moment or two in the fight against the Byhalia pipeline you could identify that helped turn the tide?

JP: Well thanks for asking. The Byhalia Connection Pipeline was one of the most racist and environmentally unsound projects I’ve ever heard of, though a lot of the projects that these fossil fuel companies are promoting fall in line with that. They hunt communities that have been historically hurt, disadvantaged, and oppressed and they exploit them before the community has true information about what the ramifications are – their land stolen, their water at risk, and their air polluted.

We were fortunate in so many ways, blessed in so many ways in the Byhalia Connection Pipeline fight, not just by the people power portion of it but really by God’s timing. Because there was a delay in their ability to construct the pipeline and move it forward because of covid. There was also a meeting in the community they were forced to have – after calling our community the path of least resistance – by Dr. Barbara Cooper, our state representative.

One pivotal moment happened at our first rally. I was pretty intentional about making sure that people in the community were able to speak and have their grievances heard by whoever was listening in the community, or elected officials. And at the end of that meeting, Marie Odum spoke. She was the daughter of Clyde Robinson, who had become one of our key plaintiffs in the fight against the pipeline, a landowner we worked closely with on the eminent domain cases.

She got up and she told how they were taking her father to court to try to take his land. That was a really big moment for us. Because finally after a lot of searching, we found somebody who was directly impacted. All of us were being indirectly impacted by the building of a pipeline, breaches in the clay layer, all these [technical] things. But we hadn’t had somebody who had paperwork associated with the pipeline companies taking their land. So that was a really big moment…and then Mrs. Scottie Fitzgerald was also really important; she was the second landowner. So having people proximate in the fight… was a big deal… and that helped us obviously to start to build our case against these pipeline companies’ eminent domain claims.

Another big moment was when we learned that the pipeline company needed the county government to give them land to build the project. This is why it’s just so important to find out where these things are being routed, so that communities can resist appropriately. They had to get the county government to sell them land. We learned about that on a Thursday, and the vote was going to happen on a Monday. We had to organize and galvanize our entire coalition and so many more people to prevent the sale of the land. And so, a very critical moment for us was when we were ultimately successful in preventing the land from being sold to the pipeline developers, which disrupted their ability to choose any route they wanted.

GS: I loved your recent editorial in Rolling Stone magazine, in which you referenced a famous quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the moral responsibility for civil disobedience. If Dr. King was alive today, what do you think he might be saying about environmental justice and climate change?

JP: I think this is an important thing, as Dr. King’s legacy is tied up with the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, which was the launch of the environmental justice movement in the United States of America. It’s even [referenced] on the EPA’s website. [Anthropocene Alliance notes that: In addition to supporting the Memphis sanitation workers, who were obviously subjected to toxics on a daily basis, King supported what he called in his 1967 Christmas sermon, a “world perspective”: It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.]

And so, I believe Dr. King realized the intersection between environmental justice and civil rights, including workers’ rights in a way that he probably isn’t given a whole lot of credit for. But in this moment of time, I think he would continue to march with folks like sanitation workers, and march with folks like the Kingston coal ash workers.

I think he’d be marching with communities that are suffering under the weight of pollution’s oppression, because of corporations’ policies of putting profits over people. I really think he would have a lot to say about the climate and environmental issues we experience and the way that they are so interwoven with the toxic leadership in government, and toxic corporate practices that continue to exploit people, especially people who are already poor — made poor by bad wages. And also countries that have been made poor because we’ve exploited them.

GS: Are there other historic civil rights figures you admire — maybe Malcom X, Huey Newton or Fred Hampton? Hampton has always fascinated me, as a 21-year-old Black Panther organizer who the government feared so much they got the Chicago Police to kill him because he was putting together a multi-racial, economically diverse coalition.

JP: Exactly. The status quo in this country has always been terrified of a multi-racial, multi-socioeconomic coalition of Americans standing up to change the system. Race was created in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion. Scientific racism comes to the forefront after a multi-racial coalition of people seek to fight the government to prevent injustices…Any progress America has made over the last century plus has been because of a broad movement of people in a multi-generational, multi-racial, multi-socioeconomic coalition that has helped lead the way closer toward the freedom, liberty and justice people say they care about.

I admire people like Mr. Hampton, like Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer especially, who said “Until the poorest person in Indianola, Mississippi is free, nobody is free.” It is realizing that America’s plight is the plight of the poor, and America’s future is the fate of the [U.S.] South. America cannot go further than the South will let it. The reality is that if democracy is crumbling here — if the poor are dying here disproportionately — then that’s America’s report card.

GS: Do we need a national campaign for environmental justice like the Poor People’s Campaign, but focused on environmental threats to health and safety for low income, black, brown and indigenous Americans? What would that look like?

JP: I believe there is an environmental justice movement growing and building across our country that is hope-giving in so many ways. And to your point, the environmental and climate justice movement has to be turned into a more formidable coalition that unites across the country, across the issues that we all deeply care about. Because if you care about climate justice, you care about racial justice; you do care about economic justice, you do care about social justice, for all of those things are intertwined. And who is it that is carrying the burden of pollution? It is the poor.

GS: I’ve covered environmental justice and environmental racism issues all over the country and have found that it often really boils down to a class war on the poor. Would you agree with AOC and other progressive leaders that this pursuit of profit “at all human, environmental and social cost” – what she and others call “late stage capitalism” – is incompatible with environmental health and human wellbeing?

JP: Yeah, that’s 100 percent true. There is an amazing book that talks about this incompatibility… This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. She relates it so very well – that an exploitative, extractive endless capitalism cannot create a sustainable and safe environment, climate, and ecosystem in which all of us can thrive. They are wholly incompatible and it requires us to change the way that we are living and expecting one another to live, if we are going to survive on this planet together.

GS: Yes, great book! But how does the environmental and social justice movement take on what Bernie Sanders, AOC and others have called a battle between the 99 percent and the 1 percent?

JP: We have to be honest that the way our society is operating right now is not working to the benefit of the majority of people. And in our honesty, we are going to have to assess why things have gotten as bad as they have gotten. Why are this many children in poverty, why are this many parents unable to pay off student loan debts or to buy homes? Why is the American Dream turning into an American nightmare for so many people who are suffering under the weight not only of poverty, but also pollution… Why is this? And in the real assessment, we’ll find that we’ve allowed for certain people in our country to become oligarchs, while other people have remained in need.

GS: But what is the formula for taking on the oligarchs and Big Polluters?

JP: It’s building a people-powered movement that is both politically active and engaged in the process of registering people to vote and getting out the vote. It is also being engaged outside of election time. See that’s the thing, while laws are passed [because of what happens] on election day, you have to be present, aware and woke to what’s going on outside of election day… It is not just having an informed electorate as it relates to voting, it’s an engaged electorate all year round.

And if we do this in our communities and build that infrastructure through nonprofits, coalitions, and organizations who have political and social power, then we’re going to be able to continue to advance. A community of coalition that is engaged and whose relationships are built on action and activism, including attending and speaking out at hearings. Building that coalition obviously helps to engender successes. But it also helps you to [remain] a power block when you experience some losses, or sometimes when you don’t advance as far as you’d like to. Having that community is still powerful, so that you don’t fall all the way down.

GS: Going back to your Rolling Stone editorial again, I loved how you quoted Margo Price telling you that while she’s an artist, she also considers herself “a cultural worker” who feels that art has the ability to change hearts and minds. And it’s so inspiring when politicians like AOC and yourself kind of move into this role of being a culture worker that speaks bold truth to power. Are there any other artists you admire along those lines?

JP: Well, I really appreciate that. To see and talk with Sheryl Crow and Margo Price [at the gun protests in Nashville] was so meaningful and touching. And I’m so grateful to them for making the time to elevate their voices as members of this big and broad community, to speak up for justice.

Other folks that I’ve seen do this well include Chance the Rapper, who I’ve seen and have admired. And a lot of Beyonce’s music… Her album Black is King, with a film related to it, that talks about the intersectionality of blackness… I’ll tell you who else does this well is Common, who speaks up from his poetry and his lyrics — which probably are the same thing — against injustices that are happening to people in our country, particularly black folks. So those are a few that I have seen and listened to recently whose commentary is pretty powerful.

GS: Thanks Justin. Is there anything else you’d want to add about the environmental justice fight?

JP: I think environmental justice is all our fight. The planet will be here, but whether the people will survive, is up to us.

Justin J. Pearson is the interim Tennessee state Representative for District 86 in Memphis and Millington. After his expulsion, he was quickly reinstated by the Shelby County Commission in Memphis. He is running for re-election and won a special primary on June 15, sending him to the state’s general election on August 3.

Greg M. Schwartz is an award-winning investigative reporter and was honored by the Society of Environmental Journalists in 2021 as an SEJ Spotlight Reporter of the Week. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @gms111, where he remains active to hold the line against Elon Musk’s right wing depredation of the site.