Vivian Henderson, who was born and raised in Boxtown, stands for a portrait during a rally organized by Memphis Community Against the Pipeline at T.O. Fuller State Park. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

A capacity crowd of about 60 attended a rally against a proposed oil pipeline through Boxtown in Southwest Memphis on Saturday, where a series of speakers vowed to fight the development.

“For too many years Boxtown has been the dumping place for the rest of Memphis,” said Batsell Booker, president of the Boxtown Neighborhood Association, at the event held in the gazebo at T.O. Fuller State Park. Booker and several other speakers condemned the pipeline and its planned route through the mostly Black community that already is surrounded by industry.

The event, which was live-streamed on Facebook, was held by Memphis Community Against the Pipeline. The group was recently organized by young activists, including Kathy Robinson and Justin J. Pearson, who both grew up in Southwest Memphis. Some people were turned away from entering the area by park rangers when capacity was reached. There were social distancing rules in place, with seating numbered, and volunteers did temperature checks and took down identification information from attendees.

Kathy Robinson, one of the founding members of MCAP, speaks at the rally. The group live-streamed the event for those not able to attend due to COVID-19 social distancing recommendations. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

The goal of the rally was to take the lead away from developers, who made presentations at previous community meetings; to label the Byhalia Connection Pipeline plan as environmental  racism, and gather support from more residents and local officials to stop the project, Pearson and Robinson said.

Black people are 75% more likely to live near a polluting facility, according to a 2017 report by the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force.

State Representatives London Lamar and Jesse Chism attended the rally, and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen attended virtually, organizers said.

Chism echoed Booker’s sentiment.

“I still live in Westwood, so this is very personal to me,” Chism said. “I find it funny that anytime someone comes in with something dangerous, they bring it to our community.”

Lamar said the issue is personal to her, too, because her family is from Southwest Memphis, and that it is important to remember the health problems that come with pollution, like higher cancer rates.

“Advocating for our people goes beyond just what you see on TV and protesting. It’s about what’s in our community,” she said. “What we’re drinking. What we’re eating. What we’re breathing in,” Lamar said.

Congressman Steve Cohen is seen attending the rally via Zoom. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

The pipeline would run 45 miles, from the Valero refinery in Memphis to a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi. The project is owned by Byhalia Pipeline LLC and is a joint undertaking of Plains All American Pipeline and Valero.

Boxtown, named for its early homes built from boxcars by formerly enslaved people and freedmen, is already surrounded by polluting industries, including iron and steel mills, a chemical plant, Valero’s oil refinery and a coal ash pond full of carcinogens leftover from the old Tennessee Valley Authority Allen Fossil Plant. 

A study published by the journal JNCI Cancer Spectrum in October found that living near an oil refinery is associated with an increased risk of bladder, lung, colon, and particularly, prostate and breast cancers.

“You may be asking yourself, why did they choose this area?” Robinson asked the crowd. “And the answer is quite simple, and you will hear the phrase a lot today. They called us the ‘path of least resistance.’”

Samuel Hardaway points to the spot on the proposed map for the Byhalia Connection Pipeline where he grew up and his sister lives. Hardaway’s home is farther south and also very close to the proposed route. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

A land agent for the pipeline used that phrase to describe the route of the pipeline. It became a rallying cry for community members and speakers at the event.

The pipeline is one set of permits short of approval for construction.The final set of permits — known as Nationwide 12 permits — would need to come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A representative from the Army Corps’ Memphis office said recently the office expected a decision “fairly soon,” but said they were not able to provide a specific date.

Pearson, 25, who grew up in Westwood, wants to stop the approval of that permit, and build a larger coalition, including with Mississippians who stand to lose land through eminent domain to the pipeline.

“What we are doing here is standing up and standing together against the oppression that has been far too long a part of the story of Black folks, a part of the story of Memphis folks, a part of the story of people who have been oppressed,” Pearson said.

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.