January 16, 2012 Liz Borkowski, MPH 5Comment

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.

5 thoughts on “Dr. King’s legacy and environmental justice

  1. Martin Luther King’s efforts were about civil rights in that all men were created equal. it was about race relations and cultural relations. It was NOT about some made up ponzi scheme to advance global governance that leftist marxists call global warming. Global warming fearmongering gains the globalists the funds they need to seek their greedy desires for domiminance. The very thing Dr.King preached AGAINST!

    Liberals always change history to their advantage. I challenge any marxist liberal on the planet to give me any speech of Dr. King’s where he mentioned evolution, global warming, etc.

    The next thing we know liberals will be telling people that Thomas Jefferson wrote global warming reparations into the constitution.

    Stand up for liberty, freedom, and independence! Destroy the new World Order. May it burn in the ashes of the rubble of a false society it helped create.

  2. For those of us who listen to the vast majority of scientists, global warming is a threat to equality because it will disproportionately harm the most disadvantaged — and in some ways is doing so already.

  3. There is no reason why the “disadvantaged” should be disadvantaged at all. Every day I see people who call themselves “disadvantaged” yet these same people have the latest cell phones, the most expensive cable television packages, and not once have I heard of any of them starving to death- most of the eat better than I do.

    This whole “disadvantaged” pity party has gone too far. Time to fish or cut bait.

    I admit that around the world there are truly disadvantaged people who do not have clean water or food and I truly am sorry for that, but here in the US they are few and far between. Most of them caused their own problems to start with. They are not to be called disadvantaged. They are to be given loans to be helped out of their problems and be educated. Most of the people I deal with are too stupid to realize that paying the electric bill is far more important than facebook or cable television or the latest song.

  4. @liz: “For those of us who listen to the vast majority of scientists”

    What happens when one of those scientists decides to coeme out of the closet so to speak and inform the public of this global scam called global warming? He is ridiculed to no end and he loses his credentials and his career. If one person decides to challenge the establishment he is punished. Funny, I dod not recall that as a prerequisite to the scientific method. I though science was about discovery, not fraud, bullying, and mass deception.

  5. One of the things I like about the field of public health is that the emphasis is on improving population health – in this case, making air and water cleaner – and not deciding who is or isn’t worthy of help based on whether they “caused their own problems to start with.”

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