Terms like “environmental racism” or “environmental justice” were not yet part of the national lexicon when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
And while insider records reveal that the nation’s oil and gas lobby was being briefed that same year on the dangers of rising greenhouse gas emissions, the term “global warming” wasn’t credited with being coined until 1975, seven years after the civil rights leader’s death.
Yet leading climate scientists, theologians or environmental and climate justice activists today find much meaning and inspiration from what King wrote, said or did. In advance of this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday, Inside Climate News reached out to scientists, theologians, ministers and environmental and climate justice advocates to reflect on King’s legacy, as seen through a climate and environmental justice lens more than a half a century after King’s death. Some said they see their work as a direct extension of King’s, while others said King’s teachings offer a global guide for a world that is struggling to address the climate crisis.
“MLK showed us the power of the voices of ordinary people—not the powerful or wealthy, but the underprivileged, the ordinary, and the oppressed,” said Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, evangelical Christian and author of the new book, “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.“ “Their voices changed the world before, and I believe their voices will change the world again.
“That’s why I’m convinced the most important thing any of us can do about climate change is use our voices to advocate for change at every level, from our homes and our neighborhoods to our cities and our countries.”
‘Toward Urban Life, Public Health and Black Experience’
King’s fight was for racial equality through nonviolent means. The movement that he led ultimately spurred passage of landmark civil rights and voting rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. King’s movement dismantled formal segregation over a 13-year arc, pushing for integrated public accommodations, workers’ rights and a respect for the dignity of all human life in ways that continue to resonate with proponents for social justice and scholars who study connections between faith, the environment and ethics.
King is one of the roots that fed into what has become an environmental movement that shifted away from an “almost exclusive focus on wilderness protection and preservation and toward urban life, public health, and Black experience,” said Norman Wirzba, a professor of theology at the Duke University Divinity School. In other words, the environment is wherever all people live and work, Wirzba said.
“It isn’t just where a few privileged, mostly White people go to vacation and recreate,” he said. “King understood that the struggle for equality is expansive and all-inclusive.”
That kind of thinking explains why King’s focus broadened to take in questions of sanitation workers, foreign wars and working conditions, Wirzba added.
King’s expansive perspective can be found in one of his most famous writings, the 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote after being incarcerated following nonviolent protests.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
One very direct connection between King and today’s environmental justice movement can be found in the life of the Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr., said the Rev. Michael Malcom, founder and executive director of The People’s Justice Council and Alabama Interfaith Power and Light. Chavis was one of the organizers of a prolonged protest in 1982 of a hazardous waste landfill in a predominantly Black community of North Carolina, where he popularized the term “environmental racism.”
Malcom added, “Even when we look at the actual death of Dr. King, we find out he was actually in Memphis marching for workers rights. These were garbage workers, and we see a direct correlation of environmental injustice and social injustice.”
Many other connections can be made between civil rights and environmental justice, and right now, one that’s boiling over in Congress is voting rights, Malcom said. With Republicans working to roll back voting rights in states, Democrats are pressing for nationwide standards on voting access, among other measures.
“We don’t see the connections, but the conversations we are having about voting rights determine who will be elected, and they will determine what policies are put in place,” he said.
The Civil Rights Movement, and Native American Rights
King wrote in his 1963 book “Why We Can’t Wait” that the United States was “born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society.”
For one Native American elder and fighter of environmental injustices, Casey Camp-Horinek, King deserves all the recognition and reverence he has achieved. Camp-Horinek is an official environmental ambassador for the Ponca Tribe in Oklahoma, where she has been fighting an oil and gas industry that she says has “wrapped” her people in poison.
But she described a more complicated and nuanced relationship with King’s life and what he has come to represent.
To be sure, Camp-Horinek said, the fight for Native American rights benefited from the civil rights movement that King led starting in the 1950s.
“A good deal of what we would perhaps call the Red Power movement began on the heels of the civil rights movement that Martin Luther King was part of,” she said. “And many of the allyships happened around civil rights issues. And that boils down to what would now be considered, oftentimes environmental issues.”
She also recalled a Martin Luther King Jr. Day protest at her son’s Oklahoma school years ago, inspired by the civil rights leader. “We walked out on Martin Luther King Day because the manner in which they were treating our children was very much, and continues to be very much, like what was happening in Selma, Alabama, and we wanted that parallel drawn.”
But the struggles of Black and Indigenous Americans are not the same and the voices of Native Americans are too often silenced, Camp-Horinek said.
“More often than not, the Indigenous voice has been relegated to either that of the noble savage, or the relic of history, and less of an intricate part of the people of color struggle that goes on now,” she said. “My perception is that oftentimes, the Black fight was for equal rights. Ours is for liberation. Red people still have not become liberated from the yoke of the slavery that they call the colonial government of the United States of America.”
Battling the Status Quo
At Creighton University, professor and theologian Daniel R. DiLeo studies Catholic social teaching, and notes that Pope Francis’ landmark Laudato Si’, his 2015 teaching document on the “care for our common home” and climate change, makes a similar point to King’s “network of mutuality,” in its exploration of what the Pope calls integral ecology—or the deep and broad connection between all living things and from generation to generation, as well as the obligations humans have to reign in greenhouse gases and pollution and their oversized impacts on the poorest people.
“It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected,” the Pope wrote.
“It’s a unifying principle,” said DiLeo, of the pope’s message that was also part of King’s.
DiLeo, who teaches King’s Birmingham letter in an ethics class, said he’s also studying the letter for a book chapter he’s writing on his research that documents U.S. Catholic Bishops’ reluctance to embrace the climate change aspects of Laudato Si’.
King wrote the letter to eight Alabama religious leaders who had criticized the civil rights demonstrations as “unwise and untimely” and had urged King to lead a less confrontational approach to achieve his goals.
“The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound” and “the arch supporter of the status quo,” King wrote. While he wrote that he agreed the demonstrations were unfortunate, he told the pastors “it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.”
Within the Catholic Church now, DiLeo said, there might be a parallel situation, with what he sees as the U.S. Bishop’s slow walk on climate change in effect lending support to a status quo that supports systems and policies that are greenhouse-gas intensive.
King’s Life a Guiding Light
In Port Arthur, Texas, former oil company worker and former city councilman John Beard Jr., has been fighting against an expansion of Gulf Coast LNG export facilities and for health and safety protections in a region known for its refineries, export terminals and petrochemical plants.
The region’s economic benefits from a growing oil and gas industry have not been shared equally by Black residents, who get shut out of jobs, he said, adding the root cause is generations of inequality.
“We have been sacrificed,” said Baird, who took his message last fall to Scotland and the Conference of the Parties (COP26), the United Nations-led climate negotiations. There, he confronted Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on fossil fuel exports in a video that went viral after Granholm said stopping oil and gas experts was not “in my lane.”
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Two hundred miles east, in a Louisiana’s industrial corridor often dubbed “cancer alley” with its concentration of refineries and petrochemical plants, Sharon Lavigne has helped to win a delay in the construction of a planned $9.4 billion petrochemical complex in St. James Parish. The environmental justice advocate views King’s life as a guiding light, she said.
“He did everything peacefully,” said Lavigne, a winner last year of the prestigious Goldman Prize for her grassroots environmental justice leadership. “He didn’t go out there and try to kill anyone or hurt anyone. We are doing it in a peaceful way, too.
“He did marches,” she said. “We do marches. He fought to end racism. We are doing the same thing today, with an industry that is racist,” because of the toxic pollution it sends into predominantly Black and Brown communities, and avoids locating new plants in White communities, she said.
A Fight for Global Climate Justice
Scientists are urging aggressive global action to bring the world to net zero carbon emissions in less than 30 years to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change such as extreme storms, prolonged drought, fire, famine, sea level rise and social disruption. In August, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment confirmed that if the global rise in temperature is not stopped somewhere near a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels that climate change could spiral out of control.
Increasingly, the global climate fight is being seen as a fight for climate justice because Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor people are bearing a disproportionate impact from climate disruptions, said climate researcher and professor J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program.
Shepherd, too, draws meaning from King’s Birmingham jail letter to expand his own thinking about climate impacts and solutions.
“At one point in the letter, he pushed back on those that called him an outside agitator by noting that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Playing on that, climate change doesn’t operate on a level playing field, so as it amplifies and accelerates, it is a threat to vulnerable communities everywhere.”
The MLK holiday, he added, is really not about race or civil rights, Shepherd said. “It is not a holiday for people of color. It is a holiday about service for everyone. It is time to reflect on what each of us can do individually and collectively to serve our home planet, too. It’s the only one we have. King would certainly be on the frontlines of the climate crisis if he were alive today.”