Van Turner, president of the NAACP Memphis Branch, wears a suit and a mask.
Van Turner, president of the NAACP Memphis Branch, said the organization opposes the Byhalia Connection Pipeline despite accepting a donation from the developers. He is shown during a March meeting of the Shelby County Commission, of which he is a member. Credit: Brandon Dill / MLK50

This article originally appeared at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.

Byhalia Pipeline arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, with gifts in one hand and plans for a crude oil pipeline in the other and called both community investments. But what is charity to the Texas corporation is manipulation to critics, who see it as a tactic to buy support and weaken opposition to the project.

Byhalia Pipeline, a joint venture of Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation, has donated over $1 million to Mid-South community development corporations, church-affiliated groups and other nonprofit organizations over the past year. The proposed route of the Byhalia Connection Pipeline is through several Black Southwest Memphis communities that are already surrounded by polluting industries. (See which organizations kept donations from Byhalia Connection Pipeline, who returned the money and who didn’t respond.)

Critics have called the plan environmental racism and say the route poses a risk to the Memphis Sand aquifer, where the city draws its water. Byhalia Pipeline disputes those assertions.

Since the proposed project’s announcement in 2019, the company has formed a community advisory board and handed out donations to a range of organizations, including the NAACP Memphis Branch, Uplift Westwood CDC, the Mid-South Food Bank, the Memphis Library Foundation and a group building a memorial to Black journalist Ida B. Wells. There was no requirement to support the pipeline to receive the donation, officials of some organizations said.

But gifts with no apparent strings attached is a well-known tactic used by fossil fuel companies to manipulate communities, according to a report released this month by the national NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.

“Co-opting can be used as a tactic to neutralize or weaken public opposition,” according to the second edition of “Fossil Fueled Foolery: An Illustrated Primer on the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Deceptive Tactics.”

“It creates deceptive alliances with local churches, non-profit organizations, and other groups by offering financial support in the form of charitable contributions, gifts, and endowments,” the report says.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber prepares to speak during an April rally at Alonzo Weaver Park opposing the Byhalia Connection Pipeline.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber prepares to speak during an April rally at Alonzo Weaver Park opposing the Byhalia Connection Pipeline. Credit: Brandon Dill / MLK50

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, had stern advice for donation recipients when he spoke at a rally against the pipeline in Southwest Memphis this month: Return Byhalia Pipeline’s money.

“I don’t care what you are and I don’t care how Black you claim to be. If you took money and you claim to represent Black folk … you need to give it back publicly,” Barber said at the rally organized by Memphis Community Against the Pipeline. “If you took money, you’re taking 30 pieces of silver to betray your people.”

The donations are “not worth it, it’s wrong,” Barber said in an interview with MLK50: Justice Through Journalism after the rally. “Why would you want to take money from a company that’s willing to steal people’s land and use all kinds of trickery?”

Byhalia Pipeline has taken at least 10 Southwest Memphis landowners to court in an attempt to gain easements on their property through eminent domain, a government power to seize land for a public purpose. One property owner, Karmen Johnson-Tutwiler, sued the company this month, claiming she was tricked into signing over an easement on her land.

A representative for Plains All American Pipeline did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“We’re not Judas”

Byhalia Pipeline donated to at least 26 Mid-South organizations, according to information on the company’s website. The company did not respond to repeated requests for information on the number of organizations that received donations or the amounts.

MLK50 contacted 12 Memphis organizations that were listed at some point on Byhalia Pipeline’s website. Officials at two said they returned the money; three said they oppose the pipeline but have already spent the funds, and one said the money was spent and took no position on the pipeline. The rest did not respond or declined to comment.

Byhalia Pipeline and the NAACP Memphis Branch announced a $25,000 donation to the chapter in August before opposition to the project gained traction.

“We want to thank the Byhalia Connection Pipeline for being great corporate partners,” said Vickie Terry, executive director of the Memphis branch, in a statement last year.

But what Terry and current chapter president Van Turner know about the project now, they didn’t know when Plains donated, they said. Still, they don’t plan to return the money because it has been spent, they said.

Turner speaks during an April event urging public officials to sign a pledge acknowledging and denouncing racism.
Turner speaks during an April event urging public officials to sign a pledge acknowledging and denouncing racism. Credit: Brandon Dill / MLK50

“I didn’t know anything about them, quite honestly,” Turner said. “They said the NAACP knew the community … (and) they’re going to make us a donation in order to give this money out into the community. And we said, fine, we will act as a fiduciary. We took the money, wrapped it into our grants program, and we dispersed the money out into the community.”

The donation went to the Uplift the Community Grant program, Turner said, a partnership with the local NAACP branch, The New Tri-State Defender and Kroger Delta Division. According to the branch website, the program awards funds to efforts that decrease blight and crime and other community-centered projects. All of the donation has been distributed, Turner said.

The NAACP passed a resolution against the pipeline on Feb. 25, six months after receiving the donation. This is also after MCAP began a campaign against the pipeline project and members criticized the local chapter for its silence. That campaign has since included marches, rallies, press conferences and support from celebrities, including former Vice President Al Gore, who spoke at a rally in March.

No longer the target of MCAP’s criticism, the NAACP co-hosted a rally against the pipeline with MCAP on Saturday at Alonzo Weaver Park in Memphis.

The national NAACP’s updated “Fossil Fueled Foolery” report, first issued in 2019, warned branches against accepting money from fossil fuel companies, saying the donations are meant to co-opt the civil rights organization’s legacy and garner support for the projects. It also mentions Memphis’ fight as an example of using local, regional and national cooperation to combat the project.

Barber, speaking at the rally, admonished the practice of pipeline companies offering donations to NAACP branches: “NAACP, I don’t care who you are, and I’m a member — a former board member — but it ain’t right.”

The gifts are given with an ulterior motive, Barber told MLK50. “Sometimes they give it for people to speak out and sometimes they give it for people to be muted … You can’t, on the one hand, be taking money from these companies that on the other hand are hurting the very communities that you claim you stand for.”

Turner doesn’t think Barber’s Judas analogy from the Bible applies to the Memphis branch.

“We’re not Judas. Judas sold Jesus out. … The NAACP came out against the pipeline. So I don’t know who he was talking about, but most certainly, I don’t think that applies to us,” Turner said. “If we had not come out against the pipeline, then maybe that’s a fair statement.”

Barber’s comments offended Terry.

“When he was the president of a branch, I’m sure that there were donations that were given to them that people probably had a problem with, but he took those donations and used them wisely,” Terry said. “So I was very appalled at what Dr. Barber said.”

Turner said the chapter can’t be bought.

“Obviously, they’re (Plains) trying to garner support. This is not the first time folks have donated to the NAACP thinking that they can buy us off. We’re taught to take the money, but use the money to fight against (them). So giving the money to our organization doesn’t buy us off,” Turner said.

Deidre Malone, a public affairs consultant working for Plains, answers questions about the project during an October community meeting at T.O. Fuller Park.
Deidre Malone, a public affairs consultant working for Plains, answers questions about the project during an October community meeting at T.O. Fuller Park. Credit: Brandon Dill / MLK50

Plains hired Deidre Malone, former NAACP president — and now second vice president, according to the group’s website — to advocate for the project. She has spoken on behalf of the pipeline at a City Council meeting, at community gatherings and at an NAACP meeting in January, when MCAP and Plains made presentations about the proposed pipeline.

Malone leads a public relations firm, The Carter Malone Group, and is a former county commissioner. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

The pastor and the pipeline

Barber also singled out churches in his remarks about pipeline donations. “If you’re a church, you ought to give it back. If you are a pastor, you ought to decide to be Jesus’ disciple and not Judas, his betrayer.”

Byhalia Pipeline’s website doesn’t list a Memphis church as receiving a donation. However, the company hosted community meetings at Mount Vernon Baptist Church – Westwood and paid a standard rate of a few hundred dollars, said senior pastor the Rev. Melvin Watkins. The church received no other funds from the pipeline company, he said.

But Uplift Westwood CDC did. Watkins is a co-founder and chairman of the board of the community development corporation and it shares an address with the church. Uplift Westwood received a donation that went toward supporting students in the area, Watkins said. However, he declined to disclose the amount.

“We have the courage to say yes, we have received a donation, but it has not purchased a position from us. Uplift Westwood is kind of neutral on political things,” Watkins said.

He told MLK50 in March he was neither for nor against the pipeline and he wanted landowners and science to be the dominant voices in the discussion.

Since then, Watkins decided to oppose the pipeline after learning more about the company’s use of eminent domain.

“If the facts are there that Byhalia Pipeline is doing that, then I’m against the pipeline because I’m not in favor of anything that is unsafe,” Watkins said Wednesday. “I’m not in favor of anything that bullies individuals out of property that they own, and I’m not in favor of environmental racism.”

Justin J. Pearson, a co-founder of MCAP, initially criticized Watkins for what he considered advocating for the pipeline while accepting a donation for Uplift Westwood.

When Plains representatives made a presentation to the City Council in February opposing a resolution against the pipeline, Plains representatives gave part of their time to Watkins.

“For years, we have felt alone in trying to lift the community and now we have a partner coming in trying to assist us, and now it seems that because of suspicion, fear and an ideology about things, we’re pushing them away,” Watkins told the council.

Watkins said his intention wasn’t to vouch for the pipeline but rather stress the need for accurate information in the resolution.

“I was not speaking on behalf of the pipeline, and the pipeline individuals know that, but the fact that I spoke during a time that was allotted to them, I can see how that could be confused,” Watkins said. “But my intention was only to express that whatever the resolution is, here’s why it’s so important to make sure it’s a factual resolution.”

Pearson thinks Plains tried to use Watkins’ influence as described in the NAACP’s report.

“Crude oil pipeline companies choose trusted people to try and destroy communities’ ability to fight,” Pearson said. However, Watkins said he doesn’t see how he could have been used outside of the City Council presentation.

Watkins said Uplift Westwood can’t return the donation because it’s spent. Though he respects Barber, his Judas analogy is “strong language.”

“I do understand the rationale, and I think that silence is deafening in some instances. But we have to be careful before we make character assessments on people,” Watkins said. “I would not assume that my clergy brothers and sisters who have or have not made a statement are automatically, in some way, working against the community and do not want what’s best for the community.”

Donation returned, replaced

Byhalia Pipeline donated $5,000 to the Memphis Memorial Committee, which is raising money to build a statue and memorial plaza on Beale Street in honor of Ida B. Wells, a Black woman journalist who crusaded against lynching and for women’s voting rights.

The Rev. LaSimba Gray, who leads the statue project, told MLK50 in March that he doesn’t think Wells would have supported the pipeline and she would have been “on the side of the people.”

“It’s gratifying to know when you’re on the right side of history,” Gray said. “When the controversy came up, the Memphis Memorial Committee met and we voted overwhelmingly to return the money because we didn’t want to damage the name and reputation of Ida B. Wells by accepting a donation from such a controversial project.”

But returning the donation was not a setback for fundraising efforts, Gray said.

“We returned the money and then (MCAP) called and pledged that they would replace that $5,000 donation and that’s what they did.”

The group created a fundraiser on Facebook and crowdfunded the replacement.

“We took money and fed people” 

When The Works CDC received a $7,500 grant from Plains, Roshun Austin, the organization’s executive director, wasn’t familiar with the company or the project, she said. The organization has an operating budget of over $5 million, which it uses to provide housing, economic development, education and advocacy services.

“We receive a lot of donations from corporations, individuals and we don’t always know who those people are …,” she said. “So when we (received) a donation, I think, $7,500 from (Plains), I had no idea who that was,” Austin said.

The donation was allocated to a budget of more than $50,000 that was spent on a 15-week grocery giveaway, Austin said.

“The money is not going back because it has fed people,” she said.

However, when Austin learned what the project was, she asked that The Works be removed from Byhalia Pipeline’s website.

“I told the Byhalia Pipeline people once I found out it was such a big stir, ‘Look, get us out of your stuff. We don’t have time for that.’ We have got to keep building housing. I cannot be distracted by that,” Austin said.

She said listing the donation on the website was a tactic to build support for the project. But she rejected the idea that The Works should return the money.

“We took money and fed people,” Austin said. 

Returned to sender

The Memphis Library Foundation got a $5,000 check from Byhalia Pipeline in late December, said executive director Christine Weinreich. It came after the foundation worked with Malone on an event and Malone said another client of hers may be able to help with the foundation’s fundraising efforts, Weinreich said.

“I take complete responsibility for the fact that I knew nothing at the time about the plan in South Memphis. I knew nothing about the Byhalia Connection Pipeline,” Weinreich said. “I knew very little about Plains All American and didn’t do that due diligence, and that’s on me.”

After learning of opposition to the pipeline, Weinreich took the issue to the foundation’s board and the members voted to return the donation, asked Plains to remove the foundation from their website, and is working on a new policy to vet future donations.

“We are not a political entity, we don’t take political stands, we’re not an advocacy organization,” Weinreich said. “This particular gift was controversial. It was clearly hurtful to some people who we serve, and no amount of money is ever worth that.”

However, Weinreich said the foundation’s privilege made the decision easier and doesn’t fault organizations that keep the money.

“It is not problematic for us to write a $5,000 check,” Weinreich said. “It’s not that it’s easy to give back $5,000 of unrestricted funding for us, but we’re able and not every organization is, especially in the pandemic, (when) all of our fundraising is down.”

The organization returned the funds in February but didn’t publicize the decision because Weinreich didn’t want to invite undue efforts to replace Byhalia Pipeline’s donation, she said.

“I don’t want to make money off my bad decision. This was our responsibility to understand the goals of the entity that was giving us money, and we didn’t,” Weinreich said. “I don’t want the community to come to our support or somehow leverage our return of the funds, because there are too many other organizations that can’t return the funds. It just doesn’t feel right to me.”