Thoughts On Martin’s Day — Civil Rights Are A Climate Issue

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”

Martin Luther King

A very good essay at makes the connections between the civil rights and environmental movements explicit. Go read the whole thing.

Environmentalists watched as King’s movement moved the conscience of the nation and pressed Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and other landmark legislation aimed at making racial equality the law of the land.

Taking a page out of that playbook, and inspired by the legislative progress King helped to achieve, early environmentalists began advocating for the protections we need to be enshrined in law.

The result was the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and most foundational of all, the National Environmental Policy Act. It makes environmental considerations mandatory for major actions undertaken or permitted by the federal government and guarantees that public environmental concerns will be heard.

There is, though, something more about the way environmental quality is bound up in the larger fight King spearheaded for justice, freedom and equality.

All too often, industrial pollution takes its heaviest toll from among those who live on what King called “islands of poverty,” the low-income quarters of our cities, the bottomlands of our rural communities, the industrial zones where we’ve sacrificed environmental quality for corporate profits.


In 2008, Daily Kos blogger Nuisance Value provided a detailed examination of Dr. King’s impact on the environmental movement, and it’s worth revisiting 6 years later:

The Memphis strike also provided a roadmap for the advocacy of environmental justice. Though existing organizations such as the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund did not concentrate on the effects of wastes in communities of color, the churches that spawned the Civil Rights movement did. It is no coincidence that the landmark report on toxic wastes and race came from the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice. (Its executive director was Dr. Benjamin Chavis, who would go on to head the NAACP.) The nonviolent resistance that was a staple of Dr. King’s campaigns in the South was adopted in Warren County, where residents laid down in front of bulldozers en route to digging the dump. The focus on specific, localized environmental factors predated an expanded concern for environmental remediation that would see accomplishments like the asbestos remediation at Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens. Much work is left to do to relieve the unequal environmental burdens on communities of color, but the attention on these problems will not soon go away.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died more than a decade before the environmental justice movement came into being, but his work and his example were direct influences on people like the protesting residents of Warren County, on Benjamin Chavis, on environmental justice pioneer Professor Robert Bullard (read an interview with Dr. Bullard for more on his work), and on the communities across the nation and the world who recognize that racial and economic forces shaped environmental inequalities today and fight and hope to overcome these inequalities. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may never have heard the term “environmental justice” but today as we celebrate his birthday, those of us involved in the struggle for environmental justice give thanks for his example, for his contributions, and for his hope.


The social and societal advances of the past few centuries are all invisibly built on the relative affluence of a world civilization that developed in a benign period of climatic predictability.

To put it another way, Dr. King’s dream needs a stable planetary climate if it is to come true, because in a world ripped asunder by climate chaos, concerns about social equity will be considered “unrealistic.” The climate-changed society, absent a great deal of conscious hard work from us all, will quite likely be more of a libertarian dystopia in which might makes right — a technologically enabled feudalism contending with frequent crop failures, crumbling infrastructure, and endemic diseases. Any bets as to the position of the world’s economically disenfranchised and historically disadvantaged people under such a system?

Civil rights and human rights are profoundly vulnerable under conditions of climatic instability. Subtract food and infrastructure, and oppression becomes not just easier, but something which some people will view as a manifestation of the “natural order” — as if somehow the Enlightenment and the notion of universal human rights are somehow anomalous and reflect deep underlying naivete.

But there is another aspect to this. It works both ways. A workable environmental movement must account for the systemic inequities that rest at the heart of our world’s “business as usual.” As long as we can outsource our pollution to the world’s poorer countries, as long as we can build toxic waste dumps in Black or Latino communities, as long as we can reap profits from civil wars in the undeveloped world…why, it’s going to seem perfectly reasonable to keep outsourcing our carbon emissions to our children’s children.

Robert Bullard is asked:

Is there such a thing as sustainability without justice?

A: No, there’s not. This whole question of environment, economics, and equity is a three-legged stool. If the third leg of that stool is dealt with as an afterthought, that stool won’t stand. The equity components have to be given equal weight. But racial and economic and social equity can be very painful topics: people get uncomfortable when questions of poor people and race are raised.

I would use a different analogy. Environment, economics, and equity are three strands of a braid. You can’t braid with two strands; they all have to be there or there’s no resilience in the system at all.

We need a stable climate to build a just society, and we need a just society if we are to regain a stable climate. To imagine otherwise is insanity.

Here’s Martin’s dream, with Max Roach offering his commentary:

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