Sixty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped change the country when he spoke out against the racial injustices that African Americans faced, nearly a century after the end of slavery and the American Civil War. Today, every child growing up in the United States recognizes the name Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and knows of his acclaimed speech given August 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the National Mall.
King was one of the foremost champions for equality, driving forward on the belief that everyone, regardless of background, deserved the same rights and privileges.
He worked heavily on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination in employment and public places based on “race, color, religion, or national origin.” His work would inspire Executive Order 12898 to be issued in 1994, which directed “federal agencies to make achieving environmental justice part of its mission.”
The order was the first significant federal action on environmental justice, and directed agencies to identify and address as appropriate, the very high and adverse human health and environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on African American communities and low-income populations.
However, though large strides towards a better and equitable society have been made since that fateful summer day, significant work remains to be done.
Today, the struggle is not as blatantly open as it was during the Civil Rights era. Instead, it’s more subtle, though no less harmful than it was during the 1950s and 60s. Our challenge is no longer an open conflict against obvious segregation but a fight against climate change, and the indirect tolls it has on communities of color and poor communities.
According to the National Ocean Service, “sea level is rising at an increasing rate.” In Georgia, by the year 2050, the average sea level rise is projected to be anywhere from 7 inches to 21 inches around Fort Pulaski. This might not seem significant or important, especially for people living away from the coasts, but climate change doesn’t end at sea level rise. Other harmful impacts will include stronger and more destructive storms, growing heatwaves, droughts and much more.
And who will be the ones most at risk, directly or indirectly? Most often, it will be communities of color and poor neighborhoods. Poor neighborhoods and communities of color are often those most hard struck in natural disasters and tend to have or receive less resources to recover. Additionally, that does not include threats that communities face when gentrification moves in.
In Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, low income black residents are finding themselves displaced at the rising costs of living due to gentrification. A handful of special conditions, including the high elevation and proximity to the heart of Miami, have caught the attention of speculators and land developers to this once ignored part of town. In the process, resident families who have been living in Little Haiti for decades are being displaced due to the rising costs of living.
In Juliette, a small town in central Georgia, coal ash from is the legacy being inherited from a coal fired power plant built by Georgia Power. While the economic benefits of the power plant are undeniable, the unmistakable truth is that there is a greater impact than just financially. Today, the residents of Juliette face the undeniable reality that their water is no longer safe to drink; a toxic heritage left behind by decades of burning coal and dumping the ash in unlined ponds.
There is more work to be done
In his Letters from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As uncomfortable as it is to accept that Dr. King’s dream of an equal world is not yet accomplished, it is vital that we do so if we plan on making lasting change. Consequences from climate change will hit hardest the communities that are least suited to withstand them. If we choose to ignore these warnings, to allow damage to the poor and communities of color as acceptable risk, we place equality and justice in every neighborhood at risk.
Dr. King’s wife and fellow civil rights leader famously stated, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.” Dr. King dreamt of a society where people would care and support one another, regardless of background. At the time, he spoke to America about racial and economic equality and the end of segregation. Today, we believe that Dr. King’s message would include environmental and climate issues, to protect low income and communities of color, the parts of society that are most vulnerable, and to ensure that future generations will inherit a world and society that is cleaner, kinder and more just.