A gold medal-winning Olympic decathlete, Jefferson Pierce, returned to his old neighborhood in the Southside (Suicide Slum) section of the city of Metropolis, with his wife Lynn Stewart and his daughter Anissa to become the principal of Garfield High School. Southside, as it was once known, was where his father - renowned journalist Alvin Pierce - had been murdered. Guilt over this event was a factor in his decision to leave the city of Metropolis. Suicide Slum was being torn apart by a local organized criminal gang called the 100, shady corporations, and crooked local politicians like Tobias Whale. A family friend and tailor, Peter Gambi, had taught a much younger Jefferson how to suppress his inborn metahuman abilities so that he would not accidentally hurt any of the people he cared about. Upon his return, Gambi suggested to Jefferson that he should use his powers to help the neighborhood, and refers him to a plaque with the paraphrased Milo Sweetman quote "Justice, like lightning, should ever appear to some men hope, to other men fear." (the original text of which was "Justice, like lightning, ever should appear to few men's ruin, but to all men's fear. Of mortal justice if thou scorn the rod, believe and tremble, thou art judged of God.") Appalled by the public murder of Earl Clifford, one of his more promising students, Pierce tried to intervene on behalf of the schoolchildren, but quickly learned that the 100 objected violently to any interference. Pierce adopts the costumed identity "Black Lightning" where he had the costume, mask, and wig made by his tailor Peter Gambi.
Black Lightning lost his electrical powers, but continued fighting without them. The loss eventually turned out to be psychosomatic, a symptom of a crisis of confidence resulting from the accidental death of a female bystander named Trina Shelton during an altercation between Black Lightning and some gun-wielding thugs. Batman, wanting to recruit him to rescue Lucius Fox in Markovia, helped him regain his powers; this eventually led him to join the Batman's Outsiders. During his time with the Outsiders, a group of villains called the Masters of Disaster captured Black Lightning at the behest of the parents of Trina Shelton to avenge the death of their daughter; however, upon learning that he still regretted what happened and was willing to be executed by them, they risked their lives to save him. During the invasion, Dominators detonated a Gene-Bomb that wreaked havoc with anyone possessing the metagene by making them lose control of their powers. After the breakup of the Outsiders, Black Lightning moved to Brick City to continue his solo career.