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Rising Democratic star Justin Pearson speaks his truth in North Carolina

 Justin Pearson
George Walker IV
Tennessee State Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, delivers remarks outside the state Capitol, in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, April 10, 2023.

One of the most popular Democrats in the country visited North Carolina this past weekend.

No, it was not President Joe Biden. It was Justin Jamal Pearson, a young, Black Tennessee legislator thrust into the spotlight weeks after being expelled by Republican leaders in the state.

The line was long to get a handshake, a hug, or even a selfie with Pearson, who did not seem to tire from all the attention.

“I’m so humbled and honored to meet y'all. Thank you so much,” Pearson told Dianne and Wesley Stokes. “Y'all want to take a picture? Let’s do it!”

Pearson was the main attraction at this year’s North Carolina Black Summit at the Raleigh Marriott Crabtree Valley. It is an annual gathering of Black elected officials across the state.

Pearson was all smiles and polite as he greeted each person. Several times, the 28-year-old pulled out his long pick to fluff out his afro before the snap of the camera. Almost every person who greeted Pearson said the same thing: “We are so proud of you.”

“Yes, proud of him. Drove two-and-a-half hours just to take this one-minute picture,” said Dianne Stokes of Roper, North Carolina. “Yes, we need more like (Pearson)."

Pearson is one of the “Tennessee Three.” He and fellow Representatives Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson were admonished for leading a demonstration calling for new gun laws from the Tennessee House floor just days after a deadly mass shooting in Nashville. Pearson and Jones, who are Black men, were expelled. It was a move seen as racist and flagrant. And the world was watching.

Kia Anthony is a first term mayor of the town of Spring Lake. She held Pearson’s hands when it was her time to take a picture.

Justin Pearson with Spring Lake, N.C. Mayor Kia Anthony
Leoneda Inge
Justin Pearson with Spring Lake, N.C. Mayor Kia Anthony, 41. Anthony held Pearson’s hands before taking her picture, saying she was “proud” of him.

“Your reputation proceeds you,” Anthony told him. “I want to pour into you to continue to fight. We are praying for you.”

Anthony admits her tenure has been hard as mayor. Last year, her choice for Town Manager was publicly challenged by Republican State Treasurer Dale Folwell. Anthony says she admires the fight of Pearson and Jones when times got tough.

“They thought they were censoring them. They thought they were getting rid of these guys,” Anthony said. “They didn’t expel them, they propelled them.”

During a news conference, Pearson said he knows this is the time to be loud and proud.

“We have to be those people in this moment so that generations and generations from now, people will look back and say, 'Thank God they fought, thank God they protested, thank God they spoke up, thank God they didn’t go along to get along, thank God they didn’t get paid off, thank God they didn’t quit,'” Pearson said.

Pearson says he is travelling the country to capture this moment.

“Together, we have a lot of power," Pearson said. "Together, we can do a lot that advances and moves forward the issues of Black America, of Black North Carolinians, Black Tennesseans in a way that can’t otherwise be done."

North Carolina Congresswoman Valerie Foushee says it is exciting to see this young Civil Rights leader in action.

“He’s too young to be afraid. It’s just like a kid will jump in a pool of water not knowing how to swim, but will trust when they get in the water they’ll be able to do something,” Foushee said. “What he has shown is once you remove that fear, then you’re free to do what you need to do and say what you need to say to whom you need to say it.”

Marcus Bass agrees. He is the Deputy Director of the North Carolina Black Alliance, who sponsored the conference.

Greear Webb
Leoneda Inge
Greear Webb, 22, is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. He took a picture and got advice from Justin Pearson at the North Carolina Black Summit in Raleigh on April 28, 2023.

“You don’t get that intergenerational mix of 300 plus elected officials anywhere else,” Bass said.

Bass added that he appreciated Pearson recognizing the college students in the room, as they stood next to some of the senior ranking members in the General Assembly.

Greear Webb is graduating soon from UNC-Chapel Hill and he is the co-founder of Young Americans Protest. While he was taking his picture, Webb said Pearson gave him some advice.

“It was very powerful, only about 30 seconds,” Webb said. “He said keep up the good work, and stay focused on achieving positive change, systemic change.”

It is the kind of change Democrats say will hopefully show great returns in coming elections.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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