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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — At 26 years old, Justin J. Pearson, born and raised in southwest Memphis, forged a movement to stave off a major oil pipeline slated to run through his community. 

His charisma and passion has thrust him into the spotlight, helping attract big names like former Vice President Al Gore to rally against the pipeline project and bring nationwide attention to their fight.

“The Byhalia Connection Pipeline is an environmentally racist and unjust project that is being planned to run through South Memphis because they call the community the path of least resistance,” Pearson said.

WREG met Pearson three years ago. He’d just graduated college and was getting an award on the floor of the state capitol for setting up a summer camp at his old high school in Memphis.

He said then he’d go back to Memphis. But no one had any idea the timing of his arrival would land him at the forefront of an environmental fight that would gain nationwide attention.

“What is it about this neighborhood?” we asked him.

“The people,” he replied. “It is the people, all the time.”

Pearson said it’s the sense of community his parents instilled in him, and his memories that fuel his fight to save this southwest Memphis neighborhood. 

“They instilled in me and my brothers a sense of community, the importance of family, and the need to care for the places where we’re from,” he said.

It’s a place that runs close by the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline that will carry fuel to the Gulf of Mexico. 

“We’ve seen the terror of pollution in this community for far too long,” Pearson said. “Both of my grandmothers, including the one who used to live in this house beside me, have died of cancer. Enough is enough, and our community is resisting to protect our water, protect our people.”

Pearson’s plan for protecting his people involves a lot of old fashioned “footwork and organizing” to stave off the pipeline project. It also included forming the environmental group MCAP — Memphis Community Against the Pipeline — with concerned neighbors.

The Byhalia Pipeline company argues safety is at the forefront of their project, which they say could create jobs and will run mostly through vacant land.

Pearson disagrees with the idea that vacant land doesn’t have value. Underneath that vacant land is an aquifer that supplies drinking water to more than a million people, he said.

Pearson’s first role as an advocate started at Mitchell High School in the Westwood neighborhood, where he fought for textbooks for him and his classmates. Now his fight is much broader, fighting for not only the entire neighborhood of Westwood but all of Shelby County.”

His opponent now is Byhalia Pipeline, a subsidiary of Valero, a Fortune 500 company and giant in the energy industry.

“We are definitely ‘David’ in this story,” Pearson said. “But we know how the story ends, and that’s good news.”