Local environmental activist
addresses Pax Christi Memphis

By Paul Crum, Pax Christi Memphis

Doris Bradshaw recalls being a “little upset” by the letter she received from the nearby Defense Depot in the early 1990’s. Directed at households in the area surrounding the facility, the letter was to alert residents of clean-up efforts to remove toxins and soil contaminants buried on the 640 acres that had been used for military storage since 1942.

“I laid the letter aside because I was preoccupied with caring for my grandmother who had been diagnosed with cervical caner,” Bradshaw told members of Pax Christi and their January meeting at Church of the Holy Spirit. “Her doctors told me they had never seen a cancer progress so rapidly,” she continued. “It was literally spreading before our eyes. Her doctors said it was the most aggressive cancer they had ever seen and asked, ‘where did she work?’ I was told it was an environmentally induced disease.”

Her grandmother’s death in 1995 brought to Bradshaw’s attention similar illnesses and subsequent deaths of others in her south central Memphis neighborhood.

“I didn’t know about this thing called pollution,” she told the group. “My grandmother was a housewife – grew her own vegetables and led a healthy lifestyle. This shouldn’t have happened.” She delved into her own study of contaminants and the environmental practices of the nearby facility and was shocked to find a laundry list of dangerous substances improperly stored and disposed of there including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, trichloro-ethylene, carbon tetrachloride, pesticides, dioxin, chlorodane, PCBs and chemical weapons residues. Many who have studied around Dunn Field believe there discarded mustard gas bombs and scores of chemicals buried there. Estimates range from 187 to 289 different compounds.

Soon after her grandmother’s death, Bradshaw was instrumental in helping to form Defense Depot Memphis TN – Concerned Citizen Committee. The group is now nearly 14 years old and has signed on hundreds of members. They have attracted the attention and support of prominent environmental justice activists and groups from around the nation, many of whom have visited Memphis for “toxic tours” of the area surrounding the Depot and rallies in support of Bradshaw and her group.

Pax Christi Memphis hosted Bradshaw to learn more about environmental racism, a term that refers to the idea that African-American neighborhoods and other communities of color are disproportionately overburdened with hazardous waste sites, incinerators, various chemical plants, lead contamination, polluted air, contaminated water supplies, and a variety of other pollution sources. Her talk was part of Pax Christi’s ongoing discussion of racism centered around Joseph Barndt’s book, Dismantling Racism, The Continuing Challenge to White America.

Pope Benedict XVI has called for the end of racism and encourages people to reflect on hospitality as a “sign and instrument of communion among human beings” of every race and culture. In August 2008 he noted, “One of humanity’s greatest challenges today is to end racism,” and asked his audience to pray for the building of a “world built on authentic justice and true peace.”The Holy Father also shares Doris Bradshaw’s concern for protecting our environment. He reminded a group of priests last summer, "God entrusted man with the responsibility of creation.” Bradshaw shared with Pax Christi members copies of bills pending before congress, and suggested ways they could help identify environmental abuses all around the Memphis area.

She believes her work is not only for the current residents of the Memphis Defense Depot Area, but for generations yet unborn that will be affected through the genes of small children that will become their parents someday.

Pax Christi invites everyone to join their discussion on dismantling racism. Meetings begin at 7:15 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month at Church of the Holy Spirit, located at 2300 Hickory Crest Drive in Memphis.