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The evolution of Justin J. Pearson’s voice

As the Mississippi River flowed within view, the parents of Justin J. Pearson, who has rocketed into the public’s consciousness, acknowledged that some openly have wondered how their sought-after, 28-year-old could have “come from where we come from.”

“Two teenagers from the Westwood community, poor, single-family homes,” said Pearson’s mother, Kimberly Owens-Pearson, who teamed with his father, the Rev. Jason Pearson, to share the story of their relationship with their now-famous son.

Pearson is a dynamic, often-rapid talking public speaker, who easily brings the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to mind for many. He was doing so before Tennessee’s GOP-dominated House of Representatives voted (April 6) to expel him, along with Nashville’s Rep. Justin Jones, for on-the-floor demonstrations in support of meaningful gun-reform legislation. The supermajority deemed the two, first-term legislators’ conduct reprehensible enough to boot them out.

That move, however, lit a fuse that powered Jones and Pearson into a sphere where their voices are being heralded as the sound of change. They are being heard on national news and talk shows. Pearson’s written words resounded from a New York Times op-ed this week ahead of the Shelby County Board of Commissioner’s vote to send him back to the state Capitol as an interim appointee; two days after Nashville’s Metro Council did the same for Jones.

Justin Pearson speaks outside of the Vasco A. Smith, Jr. County Administration Building after the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted to appoint him back to Nashville. (Photo: William Weeks/The New Tri-State Defender)

Building upon their background, Pearson’s father shared that he and his wife were teenage parents. Justin is the fourth of their five children. Both of their parents were divorced.

“People used to say that I would end up being on welfare, doing this, doing that,” said his mother, who has been a teacher for several years. “And the thing, the truth of the matter, is you can’t ever limit God.”

The Pearsons never have put any limits on their son’s aspirations. They learned early that he had leadership interests. His father remembers supporting his son’s run for president in “first grade or kindergarten  …

“I had to go to be there to hear the speech and be his support,” said Jason Pearson, pastor of Community of Faith Christian Church. “Justin gives this speech. I look around, teachers are crying. … And that was the day I knew, ‘we got something.’ There was something inside of him.”

Justin Pearson was a “church kid” who grew up in Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church and around preaching and speaking; gifted orators.

“He had church at home and his brothers had to sit down, his cousins, and listen to him preach. So he has been preparing for this moment practically all of his life.”

Pearson overwhelmingly won the House District 86 seat in January after the death last October of Rep. Barbara Cooper. He spoke at the funeral of Cooper, who represented the district for 26 years.

With a few days of early voting to go, Justin Pearson waves to passersby outside the voting precinct at Riverside M.B.C. on South Third. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender)

A few days before the end of early voting, he was carrying a sign, waving at cars as they passed an early-voting site. Continuing to wave, he answered a few questions from a newsman.

“We are ushering in the next generation of leadership with the guidance and wisdom of our elders to help us in this fight for justice,” he said.

“The status quo has not served the Black community, the Memphis and Shelby County community; the status quo has not worked.”

He was asked how to make use of his “voice” amid a Republican supermajority. 

Noting the difficulty, he said, “There are opportunities for solidarity to be created on legislation that is harmful across all 95 counties, and harmful to us in particular. 

“The other work of the state representative is beyond what is happening in Nashville. It is to serve as a voice and a conduit in connecting people’s voices in your community to people in power in departments and different administrations at the state level. That’s the work that Rep. Barbara Cooper did so well….”

Justin Pearson with his fiancée, Oceana R. Gilliam, and his parents, the Rev. Jason Pearson and Kimberly Owens-Pearson, outside of the Church of the River shortly before heading to the National Civil Rights Museum for a rally on Wednesday ahead of the Shelby County Commission voting him back to Nashville to represent House District 86. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

Connecting people and nurturing and fostering movement is a theme that runs through Pearson’s public life and that is rooted in his upbringing. 

“Everyone can speak out,” his mother said. “Everyone can use their voice, talk against injustices, talk against the disparity. Everyone is powerful. And then, can you imagine it collectively?

“So when he (her son) says this isn’t a campaign, it’s a movement … it’s because it’s progressive. With movement, you’re never stagnant. We’ve got so many battles to fight. You have to keep pressing on.”

Pearson often sounds that message. He did so on the last day of Kwanzaa as the principle of “Imani” – faith – was celebrated at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Whitehaven. Then, as he often does, he stressed that it is possible to unite on similarities beyond differences, stressing that African people have tapped into their capacity to do that during their sojourn in America.

He stresses resistance to the status quo in pursuit of a better future for the children. 

The message resonated from Nashville on April 6 as it did on that Kwanzaa day.

“I’m just here to tell you that I am part of the resistance,” he said on that New Year’s Day. “Are you part of the resistance?”

Justin Pearson was the “King” of Kwanzaa — and a candidate for House District 86 — during the final day of Kwanzaa celebration at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church on New Year’s Day. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender)

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