Final Report-KP

Long Lives Memphis But Not the Residents: Battle for Environmental Justice

By Kimberly Padilla

Baxter Leach, a waste collector in the late 1960’s never imaged being the public face of the Sanitation workers years to come.[1] He was once a part of the infamous strike in 1968, The Memphis Sanitation Strike. The strike was towards hazardous waste handling employment and race, eventually putting a spotlight on the placement of waste facilities in African American communities.[2] Being that Leach was of color, he was forced to do inhumane tasks that eventually developed into a life-threatening disease in the long run. Years pass, and the environmental struggle still lives on within Memphis, Tennessee. Doris Bradshaw lost her grandmother in the early 90s caused by a toxic landfill that was within walking distance from their house. Memphis Defense Depot is the reason why her mom died from a fatal disease that developed within years of the landfill placement, and why some people who still live in Memphis are affected till this day. Although these events occurred 30 years apart, they are still very much related to one another.

As you can see from these two examples, Baxter Leach and Doris Bradshaw’s grandmother were from different time periods but lead to the same end result, death. This unfortunately isn’t unusual for most of the residents in Memphis for it has been home of racial environmental issues for years. The Memphis Sanitation Strike is known as part of the civil rights movement but what’s not talked about is how this strike had its fair share of environmental injustices primarily in regard to their workers. The colored workers delt with dangerous jobs which in return, affected their health deplorably. Gaining the courage to fight for their working conditions helped shed light on many more situations that was deemed unequal and stripped them from living a healthy life. Over time these injustices never came to a complete end, just like the Memphis Defense Depot situation where African Americans faced health risks due to the placement of the contaminated landfill. Although no paper has yet to mention this, these events are in fact both interconnected with one another.

         People have written about these topics separately but never associated one to another. One may ask how one is correlated to the other especially being that it is years apart. That’s where this paper comes to play. This essay is going to enlighten you with all the similarities found from both events that occurred during different time frames, one lasting longer than the other. However, both are equally as important. Linked together through the cancerous diseases developed over years, the significant figure and support groups fighting for the cause and the “justice,” that in fact is far from justice is what makes them a whole. The Memphis sanitation strike was mainly known for its partake in the civil rights movement, but it has also played its fair share as an environmental injustice issue similar to the Memphis Defense Depot occurring years later in the same community.

         This paper attempts to embody the voice of African American Memphis residents and begins by shedding brief insight into the historical background of the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968. Providing knowledge about the first sanitation strike in 1966, how the strike in 1968 began, the protesting that came along with it and how the strike came to an end. We then move onto the historical background of the Memphis Defense Depot along with how it began, the restoration process and what it is now. Comparing both, the Memphis Sanitation Strike and the Memphis Defense Depot, is what comes next. Going further into detail, the paper proves the similarities between the overall causation of health defects, tactics when fighting for their cause and the justice they both received. In the final section, I reiterate all the evidence and provide thoughts for the future with the key purpose of bringing awareness towards these issues.

The 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike

         Everyone has heard of the Memphis sanitation strike that occurred in 1968, but what people failed to realize is that this fight has been going on long before. For years sanitation workers have been fighting for recognition of their union, better pay and better working conditions. In fact, in 1966 the union attempted a strike but failed to succeed. This failure had a lot to do with the lack of support the workers received from the Memphis’ religious community and the middle class.[3] Nothing became easier for black garbage workers as years passed, especially since a racist mayor was elected in January of 1968. Some instances that Mayor Henry Loeb refused to negotiate was overtime pay for the workers who were forced to work and the destruction of damaged garbage trucks.

         The two garbage workers who ignited the second attempt of a strike and succeed were called Robert Walker and Echol Cole. Unfortunately, this wasn’t exactly planned as they died due to a malfunctioning garbage truck crushing them to death on February 1, 1968. [4] The worst part of this preventable incident is that this form of neglect and abuse in their workplace has been a long pattern and no surprise for many of the black employees. Raged by the city’s response to the latest occurrence, 1,300 black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike on February 11, 1968. [5] This strike could have easily ended on February 22 during a sit-in at City Hall if it was not for the Mayor who rejected City Councils vote to recognize the union and increase wages. Instead, Loeb insisted that he was the only one with authority to do so and sent out a letter to all the workers stating that compliance in a strike was illegal and all must get to work. [6] Dr. Martin Luther King soon became involved delivering a speech to a crowd of around 15,00 people on March 18th.[7] At first the protests were peaceful until police officers started macing and tear gassing non-violent demonstrators at City Hall. Soon after, the protest became violent and stores were looted. Dr. Martin Luther King returned to Memphis where he gave what is now known as his final speech, “I’ve been to the mountain top” directed towards the sanitation workers. The day after he was assassinated, so many people thought that would be the end for all form of equality, hope was withering away. However, it wasn’t until April 8th when an estimated amount of 42,000 people marched in honor of King and demanded Loeb to give the union their requests. Eventually, on April 16th, the City Council came to an agreement and granted the union with recognition and better wages.

The Memphis Defense Depot

         On the other hand, the history behind the Memphis Defense Depot goes way further than the Strike and lasted way longer as well. The 640-acre compound opened up in January of 1942 to a warehouse who provided military supplies. In fact, the overall mission for this depot was to not only supply soldiers with tools but also with food, clothing and engineering equipment.

From 1942 until 1962, the engineering equipment executed imperative Army supply missions as the Memphis Quartermaster Depot, Memphis Army Service Forces Depot and finally, the Memphis General Depot.[8] However, after 1962, it became home of the Memphis Army Depot and in 1964 because it provided general supply support to numerous military branches it became one of the original Depots which we know now as, the Memphis Defense Depot. Nonetheless, throughout all those years, one thing did stay consistent. This Depot was ultimately home for storing hazardous materials. This consisted of various toxic chemicals such as mustard gas, heavy metals and petrochemicals. [9] In addition, some other toxins that was associated within this military location was Arsenic, Dieldrin, Perchloroethylene, Polychlorinated Byphenyls (PCBs), Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and last but not least, Trichloroethylene (TCE).[10] All these chemicals had a long lasting effect and like stated in an article related to the landfill intoxication, “As the years progressed, many Memphis citizens have grown to believe that the activities and chemical stockpile located at this site have negatively affected the health environment of their residents.”[11] Therefore, in 1992 this site was officially considered a superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and was being investigated. Approximately five years later in 1997, there was confirmation that the groundwater and soil was contaminated due to the buried chemicals from all those years and was officially shut down for good.[12] Ever since the residents found out about this information which was roughly around the early 1990’s, they have not stopped fighting for clean-up and testing. After the creation of the Defense Depot Memphis TN – Concerned Citizen Committee, primarily created to deal with the issues of the Superfund site, they were promised an in-depth cleaning, but the battle lasted beyond that. Years later the location was turned into a Memphis Depot Industrial Park, but this sparked up the same problems yet again. They felt as though, the job was not completely done, nonetheless, good enough for their kids to be playing in. In other words, the pollution was still lingering and still hurting the lives of many residents more and more each day.

Comparing the Sanitation Strike and the Defense Depot

         It was important to provide you with the history of these two events to better understand the following paragraphs. It comes as no surprise that the hazardous refineries, factories, landfills and job tasks come to those located in a poor neighborhood with a high percentage of population being African American residents. In Memphis this is no different, both the Memphis Sanitation Strike and the Memphis Defense Depot shared their own similarities to own another when it came to fighting for environmental injustice.  

To start off, it is clear to point out that both instances delt with hazardous waste and landfills. The strike specifically had their African American workers transport 55-gallon drums which is known as the most common hazardous waste container to date.[13] On the other hand, the Depot contained so many toxic chemicals that it intoxicated the water, soil and air in which people live on. In both situations, this lack of care for the health of minorities took a toll on them and in the long run delt with diseases that was caused due to either the job or the landfill placement. In other words, because the black workers were treated differently than everyone else and was forced to complete tasks that were too dangerous, risky and hazardous, it led them to lifelong diseases. Majority of the workers were obligated to drag those drums to the truck inhaling all the toxins with it leaking onto their shoulders since they had no uniform, no plastic bags and no place to wash up after work. [14] Not only that but these Memphis waste collectors were stripped from their health insurance and tore their fingers, legs and cut their arms while on the job. [15] None of which seems humane especially for a paycheck that can barely feed their family. Baxter Leach, a sanitation worker in Memphis who actually helped organized the strike passed away a year ago from cancer that was slowly building up from his waste collecting days.[16] Being exposed to all the toxins from a young age and the lack of health insurance provided for his hard work made it very hard for Mr. Leach to keep fighting and unfortunately died at the age of 79. The killing didn’t happen all at once, but the effects lingered for many years, it was like a ticking time bomb for both the strike and the depot.

In the image above you see two residents, Doris Bradshaw and Frank Johnson who have experienced these effects firsthand, their stories will be told later on throughout this section. But first, let’s take a deeper look into the photo. Behind them you see what has now become, the Memphis Depot Industrial Park, which was once home of the toxic landfill, The Memphis Defense Depot. This image signifies the unhappiness and displeasure both residents feel by just staring at their faces. Not one single smile, not even a smirk just plain dissatisfaction. The sky seems clear and bright with the sun seeping through; however, this picture is still so dark. It’s as if it’s foreshadowing their past, present and future. What appears to be good and clear, in reality is nothing but a dark lie filled with more horror ahead.

Doris Bradshaw and Frank Johnson experienced their own mishap that came directly from the depot. Ms. Bradshaw has lived near the depot for as long as she can remember not only her but her family as well. In fact, her grandmother had a farm at her house where she would eat directly off of her land. This posed a problem once they received a letter explaining that the toxic chemicals have been in the soil for a long time. Due to this, she was diagnosed with cancer and died not too long after. This was not unusual for the residents surrounding the depot, not only was this an issue for her family but for other neighbors who battled cancer and other ailments as well. [17]

         Frank Johnson who also lived nearby, lost his mother due to aggressive brain cancer that she developed in 1998. Years later, his oldest sister was recovering from the same aggressive brain cancer as his mother in 2008. Once his middle sister moved back to their house, she developed aggressive tumors in her uterus. Franks neighbor, Jasmine, took out the same tumor’s years before his middle sister. Another neighbor’s daughter developed rare bone cancer and another neighbor developed four different types of cancer. [18] All of these instances were from only Frank’s block, the rest of the surrounding streets had their own fair share of problems also. In simpler terms, similar to the strike, the depot contributed to underlying diseases over time. The previous examples could not have been coincidences with the number of illnesses and the same types of diseases neighboring them all.

         Another thing that the Memphis Sanitation Strike and the Memphis Defense Depot have in common is the approach taken in regard to the situations. When saying approach, it actually refers to how each instance had a main public figure being the voice for all and spreading awareness. In addition, the support of their churches also played an instrumental role for their fight. Let’s take a look at the Memphis Sanitation Strike for instance, their public figure who made an enormous difference was Martin Luther King Jr. The strike was a huge event in which grabbed Kings attention as he aimed his movement towards economic issues and the rights of poor people. He soon came to Memphis on March 18th, however, this marched became violent which was something King never stood for. He returned once more on April 3rd in hopes of turning it around and rallied at the Mason Temple Church where he would deliver his final speech before getting assassinated, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”[19] Following his murder, a peaceful and silent protest in memory of King transpired and the strike effectively came to an end. It was King and the black churches and pastors, some of which were sanitation workers themselves that “helped pave the way for a new form of justice-centered environmentalism.”[20] All of whom focused on tackling racial discrimination and battling the unequal treatment that African Americans faced in environmental policies and regulations. [21]

         Now, in comparison to the Memphis Defense Depot a significant figure that stood up against authoritative forces to defend her community similar to King, was Doris Bradshaw. She was known as the “women who, facing active opposition, backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed” and got a Women of Achievement award.[22] She was the founder and the executive director of the Defense Depot of Memphis, Tennessee – Concerned Citizens’ Committee where they fought against the Depot pollution that was residing in black residential communities and causing cancerous diseases. She spent a lot of time traveling and spreading awareness and even once it seemed as if justice was served, she questioned it and wanted reassurance that all was well for her community. Churches in her neighborhood were also against landfill, so she had their support as well. [23] Not only did she have the churches support but she had her daughters also. Her daughter, Marquita Bradshaw followed the legacy her mother started, and she as well fights for environmental injustices. She founded her own organization, Youth Terminating Pollution, to help raise even more awareness of the environmental issues within the community. [24]

         Last but not least, they both may have “ended” differently but the truth of the matter is, they didn’t. When we look closer at the Memphis Sanitation Strike, on April 16, 1968 the City Council gave the workers higher wages, recognition of union and improved working conditions. For this reason, I say that it can be concluded that the strike ended because they received what they were fighting for. However, what they failed to do is protect them even in the long run. The workers didn’t have much of a choice to quit since they needed to eat to survive, because they were African American, they received oppressive workplace conditions and rampant racial discrimination.[25] It was these tasks that shortened their life years to come. Similarly, the residents living around the Memphis Defense Depot didn’t have much of a choice to better housing because the most affordable houses are those in Memphis in the minority populated neighborhoods which just so happen to be near all the toxic landfills. Although, it took years to see the damage that the depot has made to the residents, it is clearer now than ever that they never had a chance. It was this landfill that shortened and disrupted many residents’ life years to come. [26]

Conclusion

         Robert Walker and Echol Cole’s preventable incident sparked a movement, which allowed Baxter Leach to continue their legacy of spreading awareness. The death of Doris’ grandmother sparked a movement. All of which were different situations but lead the same outcome, death and change. In regard to Leach and Doris’ grandmother they both were forcefully placed in a situation that ultimately cut their lives short. Something that could’ve been avoidable had City Hall cared about their living and working conditions.

         Throughout this paper, it showed supported evidence that backed up the similarities found in both The Memphis Sanitation Strike and The Memphis Defense Depot. Before doing so, however, it was imperative to explain the history of both events in order to have a better understanding. Once that was complete, it took the reader through three different similarities. The first one was the long-lasting effects caused by the hazardous conditions of the dangerous workplace and the contaminated landfill. The second was the fact that both had a significant figure to uphold the responsibility of awareness and change as well as support from primarily black churches. The strike had Martin Luther King and the depot had Doris Bradshaw to help achieve the goal the workers and residents so badly longed for. Last but not least, the third linkage was to emphasis that both situations received what they asked for, but that didn’t end their health problems for some it was just the beginning of the end and these issues did and will continue on well into the future.

         This problem till this day, is still an issue. Decades and years later and still environmental injustice in minority communities is not changed. Much work still needs to be done in order to stop this racial injustice where the health of minorities is deemed less superior than of color. This paper was meant to spread awareness and emphasis the time difference between both instances which are relatively similar. Both instances that happened years apart from one another with the same end result. Has anything really changed or are we just conforming?


Keywords: Race, African American, Community, Pollution, Toxic


Endnotes:

[1] Linnea Crowther, “Baxter Leach (2019), Helped Organize 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike,” Legacy.com, August 30, 2019, https://www.legacy.com/news/celebrity-deaths/baxter-leach-2019-helped-organize-1968-memphis-sanitation-strike/.

[2] Aaron D. Weaver, “How Martin Luther King’s Death Birthed Environmental Justice,” Good Faith Media, January 3, 2020, https://goodfaithmedia.org/how-martin-luther-kings-death-birthed-environmental-justice-cms-24804/.

[3]  “Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike,” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, June 4, 2018, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/memphis-sanitation-workers-strike.

[4]  “Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike,” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, June 4, 2018, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/memphis-sanitation-workers-strike.

[5]  “Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike,” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, June 4, 2018, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/memphis-sanitation-workers-strike.

[6]  Erin White, “The Last Survivors of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike Are Featured in This Striking Photo Series,” AFROPUNK, January 5, 2018, https://afropunk.com/2018/01/last-survivors-memphis-sanitation-workers-strike-featured-striking-photo-series/.

[7]  Ted Conover, “The Strike That Brought MLK to Memphis,” Smithsonian Magazine (Smithsonian Institution, January 2018), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/revisiting-sanitation-workers-strike-180967512/.

[8]  “The History of the Depot,” Memphis Depot Business Park, accessed December 15, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20110723205113/http://www.memphisdepot.net/history.htm.

[9]  “The Environmental Justice Movement in Memphis,” accessed December 15, 2020, https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline3/latest/embed/index.html?source=1-F0eRQ6lNRBFm877Yn_SDJmYHFvulKiCp52KZAP8HoY.

[10]  “Memphis Defense Depot – Toxic Exposure,” Hill & Ponton, accessed December 15, 2020, https://www.hillandponton.com/toxic-exposure/memphis-defense-depot/.

[11]  Natasha A Greene, Jason D. White, Vernon R. Morris, Stephanie Roberts, Kimberly L. Jones, and Cynthia Warrick, “Evidence for Environmental Contamination in Residential Neighborhoods Surrounding the Defense Depot of Memphis, Tennessee,” International journal of environmental research and public health (Molecular Diversity Preservation International (MDPI), September 30, 2006), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3807517/.

[12]  “The Environmental Justice Movement in Memphis,” accessed December 15, 2020, https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline3/latest/embed/index.html?source=1-F0eRQ6lNRBFm877Yn_SDJmYHFvulKiCp52KZAP8HoY.

[13]  “Hazardous Waste Management Facilities and Units,” EPA (Environmental Protection Agency, November 21, 2019), https://www.epa.gov/hwpermitting/hazardous-waste-management-facilities-and-units.

[14]  Erin White, “The Last Survivors of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike Are Featured in This Striking Photo Series,” AFROPUNK, January 5, 2018, https://afropunk.com/2018/01/last-survivors-memphis-sanitation-workers-strike-featured-striking-photo-series/.

[15] Linnea Crowther, “Baxter Leach (2019), Helped Organize 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike,” Legacy.com, August 30, 2019, https://www.legacy.com/news/celebrity-deaths/baxter-leach-2019-helped-organize-1968-memphis-sanitation-strike/.

[16] Kevin McKenzie, “1968 Issues Still Haunt Memphis Sanitation Workers Union,” The Commercial Appeal (Memphis Commercial Appeal, July 16, 2017), https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/2017/07/16/1968-issues-still-haunt-memphis-sanitation-workers-union/475457001/.

[17]  Alex Greene, “Toxic Battles: The Fight for Environmental Justice in Memphis,” Memphis Flyer, August 23, 2018, https://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/toxic-battles-the-fight-for-environmental-justice-in-memphis/Content?oid=15449005.

[18] Alex Greene, “Toxic Battles: The Fight for Environmental Justice in Memphis,” Memphis Flyer, August 23, 2018, https://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/toxic-battles-the-fight-for-environmental-justice-in-memphis/Content?oid=15449005.

[19] Aaron D. Weaver, “How Martin Luther King’s Death Birthed Environmental Justice,” Good Faith Media, January 3, 2020, https://goodfaithmedia.org/how-martin-luther-kings-death-birthed-environmental-justice-cms-24804/.

[20] Aaron D. Weaver, “How Martin Luther King’s Death Birthed Environmental Justice,” Good Faith Media, January 3, 2020, https://goodfaithmedia.org/how-martin-luther-kings-death-birthed-environmental-justice-cms-24804/.

[21]  Aaron D. Weaver, “How Martin Luther King’s Death Birthed Environmental Justice,” Good Faith Media, January 3, 2020, https://goodfaithmedia.org/how-martin-luther-kings-death-birthed-environmental-justice-cms-24804/.

[22] “Doris Bradshaw,” Women of Achievement, December 3, 2019, http://womenofachievement.org/courage/doris-bradshaw/.

[23] Alex Greene, “Toxic Battles: The Fight for Environmental Justice in Memphis,” Memphis Flyer, August 23, 2018, https://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/toxic-battles-the-fight-for-environmental-justice-in-memphis/Content?oid=15449005.

[24] Breanna Edwards, “Marquita Bradshaw And Her Fight For Environmental Justice,” Essence (Essence, July 31, 2020), https://www.essence.com/feature/marquita-bradshaw-tennessee-united-states-senate/.

[25] Aaron D. Weaver, “How Martin Luther King’s Death Birthed Environmental Justice,” Good Faith Media, January 3, 2020, https://goodfaithmedia.org/how-martin-luther-kings-death-birthed-environmental-justice-cms-24804/.

[26] Alex Greene, “Toxic Battles: The Fight for Environmental Justice in Memphis,” Memphis Flyer, August 23, 2018, https://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/toxic-battles-the-fight-for-environmental-justice-in-memphis/Content?oid=15449005.