Tennessee State Rep. and National Figure Justin J. Pearson ’17 Gives Black History Month Keynote

By Rebecca Goldfine
Justin J. Pearson gained national prominence last year when he was expelled, in an extraordinary moment for American history, from the Republican-led Tennessee House of Representatives for protesting gun violence. He visited campus February 3 to present the annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture.
Justin Pearson in Kresge
Justin J. Pearson gave the MLK keynote in Kresge on Feb. 3, 2024.

From the moment he opened his speech in Kresge Auditorium to his final rousing plea, “You gotta do something,” Pearson was commanding, riveting, and by turns preacherly and poetic as he urged the audience to stand up and protect our democracy.

Choose to be “an angelic dissenter,” he exhorted, or “choose to be prophets who see the world as it is and can be,” to ensure the nation is not ruled by white supremacist ideologies, to prevent gun violence from slaying more children, to make educational opportunities available for all, to save the planet from burning, and to live in a country where all people are equal.

Pearson graduated from Bowdoin after distinguishing himself as a civic-minded student. When he was elected to the Tennessee House in January 2023—at the age of twenty-eight—he became the second-youngest lawmaker to serve in the state legislature. A few months later, he and fellow Representative Justin Jones were voted out of office by other House members for joining a gun control protest on the House floor. They were reappointed a week later by a county board of commissioners.

In preparation for his talk Saturday night, Pearson said he listened again to the speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave to students and community members in the First Parish Church in Brunswick in 1964. In the sixty years that have passed since King's visit, Pearson reflected, “Some parts of our democracy have progressed. Other parts have regressed, some things have worsened, and some things have improved.” 

He asked that people gathered in the room reclaim King's legacy and recommit to a movement of justice rooted in love. One of his goals for his address, he added, “is to remind ourselves about what is at stake. We cannot accept a laissez-faire attitude about the crumbling of opportunity and our democracy.”

He also told the audience that his talk would be a Black talk, one influenced by being the son and grandson of preachers. “I am Black, and even though we are in Maine and this is a predominantly white audience, we're going to have a little bit of Blackness. So when I say 'amen,' you say, 'amen'! We're going to have engagement!” 

“Are you ready to journey with me?” he continued in a booming voice. “There you go! Somebody say amen! Somebody say, 'yessss'! We're going to do this, we're doing this, we're going to build community together, we're going to be in community together, and we're going to chart our way forward together.”

Reclaiming MLK's Mission

What has not changed since King and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin journeyed to Maine to speak out against segregation and discrimination, Pearson said, “is that we still need people of good will and of moral courage who are determined to be angelic dissenters to a dangerous status quo. What is needed now as then are people who are willing to fight to build a nation where liberty and justice for all means everybody, and a nation where unfulfilled promises are made manifest.”

Black History Month at Bowdoin

bhm2024.jpgBowdoin is celebrating Black History Month with a series of campus events and outings. Students were invited to spend a day alpine skiing, to travel to Boston for a field trip, and to join other students for discussions and community-building.

Seventy students from Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby will participate in an upcoming Black Student Summit on Bowdoin's campus. The daylong retreat features talks with Bates President Garry Jenkins and other college administrators, as well as workshops.

The Black Student Union and Student Organization for Caribbean Awareness have also organized a hair retreat. Besides giving out hair products, attendees will be invited to discuss hair as part of identity and to learn new styles from student stylists.

Finally, each year the Black Student Union hosts its popular Ebony Ball, a campuswide party that follows a fun theme. (This year, it's Beyonce!)

He clarified who he meant by everybody. “I mean every body—every Black body, every white body, every straight body, every gay body, every rich body, every poor body. I mean a movement for justice for everybody, for your body and my body. If you've got a tall body, raise your hand! If you've got a short body, raise your hand! If you've got a skinny body, raise your hand. If you've got a wider body, raise your hand. There is room enough for everybody in the movement for justice rooted in love.”

But that nation of justice and liberty—“that world is not here yet,” he continued. “I am here pleading, screaming and yelling, and fighting for you to join in the fight to preserve this democratic experiment.” 

Pearson in Kresge
Pearson directed many of his comments to students in the auditorium.

It is time for action, he emphasized. “Whether you're a professor or a housekeeper, whether you're [a student] learning government or philosophy or anything else, you've got to do something. Because the time is now. Now is the time. Now is the time. Now is the time to stand up for justice and righteousness. Now is the time to stand against hatred and bigotry and militarism and anti-Muslim rhetoric and anti-Jewish sentiment and white supremacy and xenophobia and homophobia and transphobia.”

“Now is the time to stand up against the status quo that harms millions of people. One-hundred-and-forty million in our country are poor. Now is the time to demand health care for everybody. Now is the time to save these United States of America and our planet from a climate that is burning. Now is the time to do all that we can to make this city and this nation and this world into a better place. Now is the time in Brunswick. Now is the time at Bowdoin. Now is the time in Maine. Now is the time in Memphis. Now is the time in Lisbon. Now is the time in Kennebunkport. Now is the time in Los Angeles. Now is the time in Austin. Now is the time in Chicago. Now is the time to give all that we've got.”

His voice gradually rose in volume as he spoke these final words, causing audience members to break out clapping and cheering. “We've got to give all we've got, so seven generations from now, those who will be in this very hall will look back and say that there were people, there were some folks in this room who decided that now is the time to break the cycles, now is the time to break the chains, that they refused to bend, they refused to bow down to injustice. Now is the time for us to make sure that justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, like the Androscoggin to the Mississippi to the Nile. Now is the time for us to stand up, for us to stand up, for us to stand up, for us to stand up to ensure that justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing, ever-flowing, ever-flowing stream. And I am so glad, yes I'm glad to be right with you. Let's do this.” 

The Power of a Bowdoin education

Pearson called on Bowdoin students to make good with their education, to use it to not only learn to see the world as it is but to also "lift up others." 

"The best use of this education that you are receiving is to teach you about the world and to encourage you to open your eyes and your heart to see the world for its beauty and its difficulty. There has to be something deep within you, a deep urgency within you, to do something about the difficulty."

"This education," he continued, "this very esteemed, powerful, wonderful liberal arts education is not only intended for your uplift; it is intended that you might lift up others. Do not live life for the ivory tower in an effort to wrap yourself up in a cocoon of apathy, nor live your life for endless ambition and your own gratification. If you do that, Bowdoin and this experience will be for naught."

As they commit to this work, he reminded students that it is not sufficient to only learn great names like "Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Thomas Hobbs, Alexander Pushkin, John Donne, Socrates, Plato, Artistotle, and Euripides." They must also know the names of Bowdoin's housekeepers or card checkers, he added.

Working in the Tennessee State House

Pearson called his current workplace in the Tennessee general assembly, one of the "most toxic work environments I've ever seen in my life or been a part of."

He recalled the moment last spring when he and Jones were voted out of positions they had been elected to. "I watched seventy-five white faces publicly, in front of the entire country and the world, commit a political lynching of me, my family, and my district that had sent me to be of service. It was one of the most painful days of my entire life. ...If they can expel duly-elected members any time they wish, what does that mean for our democracy?"

To survive the crisis, he said he called upon the collective power of his supporters and those who have come before him. "To stand there was not power I created. I truly believe in a higher power, in ancestral power; my grandmothers as witnesses were there empowering me to speak back against this [injustice] that wasn't just happening to me, but to us."

He warned about giving power to people who use it "to be evil, to degrade folks, and to write laws and legislation that make people second-class citizens in this country." Currently, he noted, 20 percent of Black people in Tennessee can't vote due to "felon disenfranchisement laws specifically targeted to reduce our voting power."

Two million people—disproportionately Black, Hispanic, and Latino—are incarcerated, he noted another time in his talk. "People can wear suits into state legislatures, expel duly-elected members who fight against gun violence and use their position to make it harder for immigrants and LGBTQ citizens to be citizens and to be people," he said. "You no longer need lynching trees when that hatred has seeped into every other facet and institution within our society."

Self-care and Pushing Back Against Apathy

During the question-and-answer period, Pearson was asked about how he takes care of himself and what recommendations he would give to somebody to avoid apathy in the face of resistance. 

Pearson noted that his work, both his activism and political efforts, cause physiological and psychological wear and tear. He relies on the reenergizing effects of spending time with family and loved ones, including his fiancé and their beloved dog (which takes care of both him and Oceana, he said).

He also pointed out that one of the best ways to ensure one remains rested, with enough reserves to tackle hard issues, is to "recruit more people into the movement." "Then you can say, 'I can't this week, you got it?' I can't drive up to Augusta this week, can you do it?' The more of us who are part of this work, the easier the work becomes. So join in!"

As to apathy, he said one of the best tools to ward off resignation is to know that those who want to oppress are counting on people to be "asleep and unconscious."

“That is what people in power, who don't want to do us any good, that is exactly what they want,” he said. “They want us to lose hope...They want us to think something is too big, too difficult, too challenging, or that I am not capable, I'm not strong enough, I'm not talkative enough, I am not able enough. That is what oppressors desire for you, for you to throw in the towel even before you give it a try. So to remain hopeful is an act of resistance.”

He also reminded people to keep in mind those in the past who fought for our rights today, who sacrificed, struggled, and strove without even knowing our names. “Every time that you have people who are oppressed, there are people who fought against it,” he said, adding, “You might need to be that person.”