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Environmental injustice in Tennessee
The Legislature removed an effective climate justice advocate who was representing one of the most-polluted districts in the state.
Last week, a supermajority of Republicans in Tennessee’s state House made the shocking decision to remove two of their Black Democratic colleagues from the state Legislature for engaging in a protest against gun violence on the chamber floor.
The move has since sparked national conversations about gun control, racism, and democracy. But another aspect of the story that deserves attention is the potential impact of expelling one of the country’s most effective climate justice advocates, who was representing one of the most-polluted districts in the state.
Justin J. Pearson, kicked out of the Tennessee House alongside his colleague Justin Jones, was elected to the Legislature specifically because of his advocacy for environmental justice in Southwest Memphis—an area surrounded by toxic facilities, and with a cancer risk rate four times the national average.
"Faulty air, smells that we smell from down at that treatment plant in the bottom," one of Pearson’s voters, Willie Stafford, told Memphis ABC24. "All of that stuff has got something to do with the health of the people in this community—we never had anybody to speak up for it. He did."
Pearson 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. 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.”
“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. 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,” Pearson wrote.
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).
Pearson also campaigned on other issues, including public safety, which is why he protested for gun reform on the chamber floor alongside Jones and Rep. Gloria Johnson (a white woman who was not expelled) after a school shooting in Nashville that left three children and three adults dead.
Republicans' unprecedented decision to remove Pearson from office over that protest leaves the people living in Pearson’s district in Southwest Memphis with no representation in the Tennessee House. Many residents of Southwest Memphis told Memphis ABC24 they feel disenfranchised because of Pearson’s forced removal.
Environmental justice is racial justice. There is no way to create more just communities without grappling with the intersectionality of oppression communities are facing.
-Justin Pearson writing for Bowdoin Magazine in November 2021
They have reason to feel that way. Now, the majority-white, majority-Republican members of the Tennessee House won’t have to hear complaints from Southwest Memphis’s representative while they pass bills to encourage fossil fuel development, like the one they passed last year to make it easier for oil companies to build pipelines in Tennessee.
And Tennessee Republicans are reportedly working hard to ensure they can’t hear those complaints. Last week, Shelby County Commissioner Erika Sugarmon told FOX 13 Memphis that Republican legislators are threatening to take funding away from South Memphis if they vote to reappoint Pearson to his seat.
It’s still possible, however, that Pearson will be reinstated. On Monday, his ousted colleague Justin Jones was reinstated by the Nashville Metro Council. The Shelby County Board of Commissioners will hold a vote to reappoint Pearson to his seat on Wednesday. If the vote is successful, the Tennessee House will regain a powerful voice for climate justice.
But even if the vote fails, Pearson’s voice won’t go away. In fact, it may even be louder than ever. Tennessee Republicans made a fundamental error when they tried to expel Pearson and Jones: they underestimated the opposition. In that way, they were like fossil fuel companies attempting to push through the Byhalia Pipeline. They believed they were pursuing “the point of least resistance.” They were wrong.
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