Last Saturday, in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Bowdoin, Tennessee state Representative Justin J. Pearson ’17 took the stage in a sold-out Kresge auditorium to speak to King’s legacy, U.S. politics today and his experiences as a Bowdoin student. The event was also live-streamed for those who did not get a seat in Kresge. Pickard Auditorium was closed due to construction.
Pearson opened, following a glowing introduction from Senior Vice President for Inclusion and Diversity Benje Douglas, addressing the audience as his close friends. Pearson stood tall, pitched forward, heels hovering off the floor to deliver his words with urgency and passion.
“There are a couple of things you must know,” Pearson said. “I am the son of a preacher, the grandson of a preacher, and I’m Black, which means that we in Maine, and this is a predominantly beautifully white audience, and we’re gonna have a little bit of Blackness.”
Pearson began his talk by reflecting on King’s historic visit to Bowdoin in 1963.
“[Bayard Rustin] was here too. But I had to ask myself how it is that the 60 years have gone by and I did not know that part of the story. There’s some erasure that has happened, that we have a responsibility to help change and transform and to speak. Bayard Rustin the civil rights icon, a public advocate for LGBTQIA rights. He was shunned because he was a gay Black man,” Pearson said.
Honoring King’s legacy, Pearson urged, means more than picking and choosing broad quotes from his most famous speeches.
“We must learn about Dr. King and honor his legacy, not by remembering just a few of his words, but remembering his call to action. What was it for us to be maladjusted to the conditions of our society? We cannot accept a laissez-faire attitude about the crumbling of opportunity and our democracy,” Pearson said.
Pearson pulled from his time at Bowdoin to illustrate this, citing his pre-major advisor, Professor of History Emeritus Allen Wells’s research on the College’s relationship with Indigenous communities and slavery. He called on Bowdoin students and community members to reflect on these histories and the College’s role within them as a prestigious institution known for its endowment.
“There were people who lost, there were people who died for us to graduate from here. The cost of privilege is real. This is why conversations about white privilege matter [this] is why conversations about these things matter because they all come at somebody’s cost,” Pearson said in his talk. “That is not accidental or incidental.”
A Government and Legal studies, education double major, Pearson completed a year-long independent study with Professor of Government Janet Martin on felon disenfranchisement.
“Today in Tennessee 20 percent of Black people cannot vote due to felon disenfranchisement laws that were specifically targeted to reduce our voting power…. I studied that with Professor Martin before I graduated from Bowdoin. I now fight in the state house to fix it,” Pearson said.
Directing his message to the Bowdoin students in the audience, and particularly Black students and students of color, Pearson reflected on his own experiences in the graduating Class of 2017.
“The weights of the Bowdoin experience do not weigh on everyone’s shoulders the same. This is important for us to remember. It is important for us to have empathy in relationship with one another. This experience does not weigh on everybody’s shoulders the same,” Pearson said.
Pearson also spoke of the importance of remembering what is at stake and how to be of service to one’s community in the context of a liberal arts education.
“The best use of this education that you are receiving is to teach you about the world and 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,” Pearson said. “This very esteemed, powerful, wonderful liberal arts education is not only intended for your uplift, it is intended that you might lift up others.”
In the question and answer section of the event, Pearson answered several questions about how he takes care of himself when engaging in advocacy work, citing his fiancee Oceana Gilliam as his biggest supporter.
Last spring, Pearson made national news when he was expelled from the Tennessee State House alongside fellow representative Justin Jones after protesting in support of more rigid gun control on the House floor during a legislative session. When asked about the nature of his work and his experience living under public scrutiny, Pearson recalled the agony of the moment and subsequent days.
“I watched 75 white faces, only 10 women—white women—publicly, in front of the entire country and from the entire world, commit a political lynching of me, my family, my district that sent me to be of service. It was one of the most painful days of my entire life,” Pearson said.
Described as formal and quiet, deeply personal and a huge presence, Pearson’s four years at the College were remembered glowingly by those who worked alongside him and attended his talk.
One of these people, Director of Residential and Housing Operations Lisa Rendall, worked with Pearson throughout his time as a proctor at the College. Rendall wrote of his character both as a student and as a speaker this week in an email to the Orient.
“Justin was always a kind, thoughtful, inquisitive student and that has not changed,” Rendall wrote. “For example, at the dinner before the lecture, his invitations ranged from his community host mom, the housekeeper that worked in Chamberlain Hall when he lived there to his favorite faculty members.”
Martin was one of those faculty members whom Pearson thanked in his introduction. Martin spent four semesters teaching Pearson, from leading his first-year seminar, to teaching him in her congress class, to advising his two semester-long independent study.
In her office—just down the hall from the classroom she met with Pearson in—Martin keeps a manila folder with “Representative Justin Pearson” scrawled on the side, filled with notes from when they worked together and recommendation letters she wrote for him over his years at the College.
“I’ve never had as many people as that in the last year, spring 2023, ask if I ever had met [Pearson]. It’s like you say the word Bowdoin, and it was like, ‘Did you ever meet Justin?’ ‘Yeah. He’s a student of mine.’ And I’ve never seen anyone have such an impact,” Martin said.
Martin remembers Pearson’s time as a three-piece-suit donning, hefty binder-carrying student as exceptional and already has big dreams about what he might do next.
“I did figure that by the time Justin qualifies for president, I will be able to work on his campaign, I’ll probably be retired and I can just work full time. And do whatever, if there are envelopes, phone calls, anything? I would be there at the drop of a hat if he runs for any national office. And I have a feeling he wouldn’t need my help. But I would want to give my help,” Martin said.
Many current students revered Pearson with similar awe after hearing him speak. BSG President Paul Wang ’24 attended both the dinner and the talk and only wished more people could have fit into Kresge.
“I was blown away. I felt like it was meant for a bigger stage. Like, I almost wish that all of my peers had heard it. Because it felt deeply personal … evoked so much of his experience and emotions as a student on campus and tied very much his worldview and life,” Wang said.
Looking ahead, Pearson is hoping to focus on encouraging greater voter turnout in young people and Black voters and continuing his work on gun violence prevention. He also hopes to continue to work on the issue that brought him to the State House: combating environmental racism.
“All of our bills are going to be especially focused on gun violence but also looking at interlocking injustices that we experience so many other ways from healthcare, to education, to the entrenchment of poverty, globally to capitalism,” Pearson said in an interview with the Orient.
Pearson concluded his talk with a call to action, connecting his time in Brunswick to his time in Tennessee.
“Seven generations from now, as our Indigenous siblings teach us, those who will be in this very hall will look back and say that there were people, there was some folks in this room who decided that now is the time to break the cycles. Now is the time to break the chains. They refuse to break, they refuse to bid, they refuse to bow down to injustice. Now is the time for us to make sure that justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, like the Androscoggin to the Mississippi to the Nile,” Pearson said.