Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s work had environmental justice woven through it. He was assassinated in Memphis where he had come to support sanitation workers. They striking against their poor pay and unsafe and literally toxic working conditions. Black people were often and usually given the dirtiest, least safe jobs, their concerns and complaints ignored.
Environmental justice is as much part of civil rights and social justice as the lungs and heart are of the body. The United States, like most places in the world, put the poor and the powerless in the dirtiest places. It has allowed profit making to trump the health and safety of workers. It’s allowed municipalities to avoid making sure all of their citizens had access to healthy water and air.
Dr. King viewed environmental justice through the lens of interconnectedness.
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 directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. (1967 Christmas Sermon)
The nascent environmental movement in the 1960s modeled their actions on Dr. King’s and others’ work to get civil rights legislation passed. Following his footsteps, several profound environmental bills became law. The Clean Water, Clean Air, and Endangered Species Acts were passed. The Department of Environmental Protection was founded.
His influence can also be seen in nonviolent environmental movements. Young leaders in climate crisis movements like Helena Gualinga of the Indigenous Youth Collective of Amazon Defenders are clear that there is no demarcation between their culture, land, and future. It’s all interconnected. It is a theme that repeats itself throughout the environmental movements.
Honoring Dr. King includes profoundly better stewardship of the planet, and all of it people.