How Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Laid the Foundation for the Environmental Justice Movement
Alex "Solar Girl" Steele
This past Monday, January 18th 2021, we observed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Known around the world as a prolific civil rights leader, public speaker, and community organizer, Dr. King led the United States down a path of equality and compassion that changed our history forever. But it is important to remember that not everyone was so supportive of his message. As so much of Dr. King’s career involved uncovering ugly truths about prejudice and raising awareness about the horrors of racism in our country, he was notorious among those who did not want the status quo disrupted. Throughout history, many individuals who have tried to spread information about injustice and corruption have been targeted by powerful special interests who would benefit from the suffering of others, and Dr. King was no different. Despite the threats and hatred that followed him, he never let fear hold him back. His time on Earth was cut short by a murderer, but his bravery in standing up for what was right has inspired so many other people to fight for good, years after his passing. Though Dr. King’s work has primarily been associated with civil rights for African Americans, the progress he made impacted efforts for a number of other social justice movements. Today, leaders in the environmental justice movement look up to Dr. King’s struggles and seek to embody his work. We would like to explore the ways Dr. King contributed to the fight for environmental justice, and how environmental justice is intrinsically linked with civil rights.
Before we start discussing how Dr. King’s racial justice movement laid the groundwork for the environmental justice effort, we should establish a definition for environmental justice, as it’s a nuanced phrase many people aren’t familiar with. Environmental justice is defined as “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” by the Environmental Protection Agency. In practice, this means every member of the community having equal protection from environmental hazards, and every person having options for places to live, work, and exercise liberty that are safe and healthy. When we talk about our nation being a place of freedom and equality, where everyone has equal opportunities and rights, this also applies to the environment around us. This appears self-evident; after all, the air we breathe and the water we drink are public goods which we all need to survive. No one deserves clean air or water more than someone else does, and everyone is entitled to live in a place where they can live a healthy, safe life. However, even in the greatest nation on Earth, some people don’t have the same access to a clean environment that others enjoy.
Right now, in the United States, 2 million Americans live without access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and nearly half of our population live in an area with significantly polluted air. If a child doesn’t have clean water to drink or bathe with at home, or lives in an area with such bad air pollution that they develop asthma at a young age, that can deprive them of opportunities to enjoy the same life, liberty and happiness that everyone is entitled to by the Constitution. Can we really say that our community is truly equal when so many of us cannot breathe clean air or access clean water? We should always be striving to ensure that every American can enjoy a life free of restrictions on liberty, no matter where they live or what their background is. This is what the environmental justice movement confronts.
The fight for environmental justice is closely connected to the fight for racial justice because of the intersection of racial and environmental inequality. Environmental justice was born out of the movement for civil rights: in fact, the day before his assassination, Dr. King was supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. This is considered the first environmental justice action in the United States. The workers, largely people of color, were striking to call attention to the fact that they were being subjected to hazardous working conditions. They were also concerned about the fact that the most dangerous jobs were delegated to Black team members, while white coworkers were given safer tasks. This occurrence was not an outlier - time and time again, communities of color have been hit the hardest by environmental problems.
It may be difficult to comprehend, but race is the number one indicator for placement of toxic facilities in the United States. That’s right… You might assume that the poorest communities bear the toughest burden of environmental hazards, but you’d be wrong. Black communities and communities of color are disproportionately saddled with toxic waste and Superfund sites. Coal-fired power plants, incinerators, and landfills emit byproducts such as methane and carbon dioxide which damage the water, air, and soil of communities in their vicinity. These pollutants deter public health and contribute to climate change, and they impact communities of color the most. Black Americans are three times more likely to die of asthma than any other ethnic group in the country, and despite their communities smoking cigarettes less than white communities, they still die of lung diseases more frequently. This is largely in part due environmental hazard sites being placed in vicinity to minority communities.
Not only are communities of color subjected to more pollution and toxic waste in their environments than other groups, they are also impacted by climate change more adversely. When climate disasters such as superstorm-level hurricanes rip through coastal areas, African American neighborhoods have a tougher time building back, due to mismanagement in the allocation of federal funding. This problem was widespread throughout Louisiana after Hurricane Betsy, when levee boards sent most federal relief money to affluent white neighborhoods, leaving Black citizens with less protection. This systemic discrimination exacerbates the dangers of climate change in some of the most vulnerable regions of the country, and communities of color pay a larger price.
Food justice is also closely linked to environmental justice, as minority and low income communities are disproportionately affected by lack of access to fresh, nutritious food. Many urban neighborhoods report being too far from grocery stores with healthy options to get back and forth on public transportation, but processed foods with no nutritional value are easy to come by. This disparity in availability of nutritious foods can make it harder for families to feel their best and build healthy immune systems, impacting their quality of life. Fighting for healthy, accessible, affordable food for all is an integral part of environmental justice and civil rights.
Dr. Martin Luther King's work was dedicated to liberating and lifting African Americans from discrimination and prejudice. Maybe without even knowing it, one of his last acts sparked the beginning of an environmental justice movement that would push for progress for generations! Because we are passionate about caring for our planet and mitigating climate change, we want to show our respect for the great people who came before us and were brave in the face of oppression, even when powerful forces sought to stop them from spreading the truth. This week, take some time to think about how Dr. King's work has transformed your life.