Environmentalists credit the civil rights movement with the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and Clean Water Act in 1972 — bills which enabled the United States' government to better regulate pollutants in air and water.
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission concluded the inadequate government response to the Flint water crisis was a result of "systemic racism."
The day before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech to Black sanitation workers in the city of Memphis, directly making the environment and public health issues part of the civil rights movement.
“This problem of poverty is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves,” Dr. King said,
Poor people are more likely to suffer the adverse effects of climate change. In the U.S., poverty impacts communities of color most, with Black and Native American populations experiencing the highest rates of poverty.
Martin Luther King Jr. rose to prominence by organizing against segregation laws on buses in support of Rosa Parks. His fierce stand against segregation catalyzed the civil rights movement.
As environmental sociologist Dorceta Taylor wrote in the book Toxic Communities, low-income and communities of color are more likely to face environmental hazards from living near hazardous facilities which cause pollution.
Ethnic minorities are also much less likely to live in areas with natural spaces, and the privatization of green spaces means white people may be more able to access these spaces. Racism also prevents people of color from accessing nature.
Canadian Consul-General Nadia Theodore said: "Dr. King spoke of his emerging vision of the American Civil Rights Movement as part of an international freedom struggle against economic exploitation, the poor and disenfranchised.”
Continuing Dr. King's legacy means we have a global obligation to tackle climate change, and to include environmental leaders from across the globe.
In "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Dr. King criticized the "white moderate" who was "more devoted to 'order' than to justice." He cited the white moderate's preference for modest, gradual actions as a stumbling block to real progress.
We can see parallels today in the Green New Deal, a sweeping, forward-looking plan put forward by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which recognizes systemic racism as a barrier to climate change action. The bill has faced pushback from Republicans and moderate Democrats.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s oft-cited quote from his infamous "I Have a Dream" speech goes as follows: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
But today, racism holds back communities of color from participating fully in environmental advocacy, even though Black and Latinx individuals are more concerned about climate change than white people, according to certain polling data.
As Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a Black marine biologist and climate scientist wrote in The Washington Post, "Climate work is hard and heartbreaking as it is... when you throw racism and bigotry in the mix, it becomes something near impossible."