Former Vice President Al Gore bumps elbows with MCAP organizer Justin J. Pearson.
Justin J. Pearson, an organizer Memphis Community Against the Pipeline bumps elbows with former Vice President Al Gore after his speech during a rally organized by MCAP at Alonzo Weaver Park on Sunday afternoon. Andrea Morales for MLK50

Former Vice President Al Gore spoke Sunday in Southwest Memphis at a rally opposing the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline, urging about 200 attendees to put pressure on local officials to stop a project he dubbed “reckless, racist and a rip-off.” 

 “Our world is changing because these fossil fuel companies are dumping their waste into the sky, using the sky like it’s an open sewer.” Gore said. “Now they want to use this aquifer as much as they please, but now they have run into Memphis, Tennessee …”

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The environmental activist and Nobel Prize winner appeared at Alonzo Weaver Park at the invitation of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline. Other speakers included U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, Councilman Jeff Warren, and Southwest Memphis residents who are fighting developers in court over land rights. 

Pipeline background

In 2019, Byhalia Pipeline — a joint venture of Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation — revealed plans for a 49-mile pipeline route between the Valero Memphis Refinery and a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi. The proposed route runs through Black Memphis neighborhoods including Westwood, Whitehaven and Boxtown.

The rally is in advance of a cluster of local government meetings this week where resolutions are scheduled to be considered concerning the pipeline. The Memphis City Council’s public works committee will deliberate Tuesday about an ordinance (PDF)  that would require council approval for pipelines and other projects on city property. The Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ Delinquent Property Tax Committee will consider resolutions Wednesday to exclude the 38109 ZIP code from a moratorium on tax-delinquent land sales in South Memphis and sell two parcels that fall under that moratorium to Byhalia Pipeline.

Gore is founder of The Climate Reality Project, an international organization focused on fighting climate change, and one of the highest-profile names to oppose the controversial crude oil pipeline proposed to run through predominantly Black Southwest Memphis neighborhoods. He began his remarks by praising local organizers and residents for resisting developers efforts. 

“This is a truly important fight,” Gore said. “It’s an important fight not only for Boxtown and Westwood and Memphis… but for the United States and for the world. We are engaged in a struggle that we must win.”

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism provided comprehensive coverage of the event. See updates from the full rally below.  

MLK50 journalists Carrington J. Tatum, Andrea Morales and Shiraz Ahmed are reporting from the rally. 

5:28 p.m. Gore was introduced by Cohen as “the father of the modern environmental movement before the crowd of at least 200 that also included local and state elected officials.

The former vice president took the podium with a big smile, saying, “I feel like I have been to church. I feel like people here are praying to God for the blessing to do the right thing.” He was referring to a rousing speech by landowner Robinson that ended with a spiritual before Cohen spoke.

“I want to first acknowledge the leadership that has arisen from this community. This is true leadership …,” he said. Gore said he was told about a Byhalia Pipeline representative who said at a community meeting that Southwest Memphis was chosen for the route because the company took “the path of least resistance. … Well, I see a lot of resistance today,” Gore said to cheers. The resistance local officials are witnessing now “is nothing compared to what they are going to see if they go with this pipeline,” Gore said.

His voice sometimes rising then lowering into a growl, Gore blamed fossil fuel companies for much of the environmental problems the world faces today. “Our world is changing because these fossil fuel companies are dumping their waste into the sky, using the sky like it’s an open sewer. … Now they want to use this aquifer as much as they please, but now they have run into Memphis, Tennessee, which is not the path of least resistance.”

Gore said he uses the three Rs when referring to such pipeline projects: “Reckless, racist and a rip-off. “People in the business community think of the risk and reward ratio. … They are putting the risk on Memphis and the reward for themselves.

He called on the Memphis City Council, the Shelby County Commission and Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division to fight the pipeline through resolutions and laws, and urged voters to keep on the pressure. They should tell elected officials if they do not oppose the pipeline, “we will make sure you are kicked out of office during the next election.”

He ended with accolades for Memphis Community Against the Pipeline. “This community has risen up in an extremely impressive way … if anyone is ever tempted (to give up), remember political will is itself a renewable resource.”

4:32 p.m. The crowd sings along with Clyde Robinson.

4:18 p.m. Marie Odum and her father, Clyde Robinson, speak before the crowd.

4:01 p.m.

3:35 p.m Linda Hayes of the Boxtown community spoke about her father, who told his daughters before his death in 2014 to take care of his garden and his land. “That is why we are here today, we are here to save our water. We are here to preserve our land. …”

3:30 p.m.

3:25 p.m.  — Councilman Jeff Warren briefly spoke about the danger of the pipeline, and said it will eventually leak. He also spoke about an ordinance and a resolution coming up before the council.

3:00 p.m. The rally is scheduled to start and they have turned off the music. We don’t have an official estimate of attendees but it appears that most of the non-reserved seats have been filled, along with people gathered under the park pavilion. Organizers are making announcements about getting your temperature checked to ensure COVID safety protocols.

A photo of large crowd of people seated on the lawn of Mitchell High School
A large crowd gathered at Mitchell High School on Sunday for a rally against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline. Photo by Carrington J. Tatum for MLK50

2:25 p.m. “Thank you for having a backbone and a conscience,” Gore told Robinson. As Robinson walked alongside Gore to the edge of his property where the company plans to build, he sang, “Oh, how I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.”

2:15 p.m. Councilman Jeff Warren spoke with MLK50 about the ordinance he’s proposed to require council approval of pipelines that cross city property, which he discussed with Gore. 

Clyde Robinson gestures while speaking to U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen before a protest against the Byhalia pipeline.
Clyde Robinson speaks to U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (left) ahead of the “Park and Protest Rally” on Sunday. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

“If we get the ordinance through I don’t think they’re going to get the approval. Nobody wants to see this. There are 3 R’s, I heard (Gore) talk about this: it’s a racist, risky ripoff. And it’s ridiculous as well to put Memphis citizens and our aquifer in danger. I asked (Gore) for national help, I didn’t expect him to have any (advice) right away but I think he’s going to look into it.”

2:10 p.m. Gore just arrived to meet with property owners whose land is in the path of the pipeline and are being sued for easement rights through eminent domain. A group of about 20 were waiting  for Gore to arrive at Clyde Robinson’s land on Nora Road, including  U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen.

Former Vice President Al Gore speaks to Memphis City Councilman Jeff Warren in a parking lot ahead of Sunday's rally.
Former Vice President Al Gore speaks with Memphis City Councilman Jeff Warren about the upcoming council committee vote regarding an ordinance that would require council approval for pipelines and other projects on city property. Photo by Shiraz Ahmed for MLK50

Robinson’s grandson, Omarie Taylor, 16, who helps his grandfather cut the grass on the property, told Cohen that he is upset about the pipeline’s treatment of his grandfather.

“One day I’m going to own this land too. It ain’t right for nobody to take it from him. That makes me angry. He worked hard to take care of this land and I don’t want nobody to take it from him. It makes me upset to see him having to fight for something he already earned and paid for.”

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