For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Candace Rowell at Mind the Science Gap reminds us that environmental injustice is a pressing civil rights issue, writing, “minority groups in the United States bear an unequal distribution of environmental risks and outcomes.” (Mind the Science Gap will feature posts from 10 University of Michigan MPH students over the next four months, as part of a course led by Andrew Maynard on communicating science — I’m looking forward to checking it out over the several weeks.)
Underscoring the connection between environmental health and civil rights, US Attorney General Eric Holder said this last year at an EPA Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event:
Now, unlike Administrator Jackson, I am old enough to have witnessed and experienced the remarkable progress that’s been made since the 1960s – when Dr. King., in addition to his many other achievements, helped to plant the seeds for what would become our nation’s now-thriving environmental justice movement.
Nearly half a century ago, it had become clear to Dr. King and his supporters that integrating our schools and public spaces, securing voting rights, and advancing the Civil Rights Act did not solve a series of other problems. People of color still suffered, unequally, from the prevalence of toxic substances in their neighborhoods. Poor communities of color were more likely to be home to hazardous facilities. Residents in these communities were not only living in our country’s most polluted places – they were often doing the dirtiest, most dangerous work.
In March of 1968, Dr. King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to lead black sanitation workers in a strike. As part of his growing environmental and economic justice mission, he returned to Memphis several days later, where he planned to march with these workers again on April 5th – a day he would not live to see; a day that brought the citizens of Memphis together, not in peaceful demonstration – but in sorrow.
Dr. King did not have the chance to witness the impact of the movement he began. But he left us with the creed that continues to guide our work. His enduring words – which he penned from a Birmingham jail cell – still remind us that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This truth was understood – and honored – by the coalitions of activists who rallied against hazardous waste dumps near African-American communities in the 1970s and ’80s. Their activism helped to drive updates in our environmental laws. President Clinton’s 1994 Executive Order – which required each federal agency to address environmental justice in minority and low-income populations – was also an important step forward. And the work that the EPA and the Department of Justice have led to ensure that our environmental laws and protections extend to all people – regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status – has strengthened this tradition of progress.
But the simple, and unfortunate, fact is that we still are not where we want, and where we need, to be.
When he delivered his “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King invoked the promise of the Declaration of Independence, which stated that governments should secure the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Polluted air and water, contaminated soil and food, and other unhealthy aspects of the environment interfere with the pursuit of a long and happy life. Until everyone in this country can breathe clean air, drink clean water, and eat healthy food, Dr. King’s dream will not be realized.