intersection

7 overlooked ways Martin Luther King Jr. influenced environmental justice

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Environmental justice is a grassroots movement focused on the disproportionate affect environmental issues — like pollution — have on marginalized people, including communities of color.

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Here are 7 ways that Dr. King's legacy made the environment a social justice issue.

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1. Legislative change

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.

But we still have a long way to go. In many communities of color, such as in Flint, Michigan and the Navajo Nation, people still lack access to safe drinking water.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission concluded the inadequate government response to the Flint water crisis was a result of "systemic racism."

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Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act also gave marginalized people "a means to address racial discrimination" when it came to seeking redress for environmental injustice.

2. Making space for different voices in the environmental movement

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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.

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More indirectly, by making the needs of Black people heard in the civil rights movement, Dr. King paved the way for communities of color — who are most impacted by climate change — to take charge in the environmental justice movement.

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But activists still criticize the environmental movement for being predominantly white, with many younger activists looking for ways to expand the representation of people of color.

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3. Connecting poverty to civil rights

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Dr. King famously deemed poverty one of the "three evils" of society — along with racism and war — launching a Poor People's Campaign to call attention to the issue.

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He also criticized the growing wealth gap in the U.S.

“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,

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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.

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4. Tying segregation to environmental justice

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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.

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Segregation is still a fundamental part of environmental injustice today.

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.

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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.

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5. Justice for developing countries

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Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasized the global struggle for freedom by visiting India, and by expressing support for the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.

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.”

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Today, people in developing countries — especially in the Global South — are most likely to be affected by climate change.

Continuing Dr. King's legacy means we have a global obligation to tackle climate change, and to include environmental leaders from across the globe.

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6. Pushing for more radical change

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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.

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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.

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7. Showing how racism holds back communities of color from enacting change

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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."

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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.

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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."

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The fight for environmental justice continues today, but we see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy in making the environment central to broader social justice efforts.

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Read more stories about the climate crisis here.

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