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Dr. King’s Dream and Environmental Justice

2013 August 29


Reposted from EPA Connect

By Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming

President Obama will mark the anniversary of the March on Washington today at the Lincoln Memorial, the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic speech 50 years ago.  As we all reflect on Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his influence on American society, let’s also celebrate Dr. King’s legacy of social and environmental justice.

Dr. King was a pioneer on many fronts. He fought to raise awareness about urban environmental issues and public health concerns that disproportionately affect communities of color – issues that are still relevant today. We have made tremendous progress in the past 50 years, but our work is not done.

As I reflect on this anniversary, my thoughts go to scripture. I am reminded of the passage from Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

This sentiment of stewardship is what led me to join the Environmental Protection Agency. At the EPA, we work every day to safeguard our environment – the environment with which we have been entrusted – for future generations.

Something we don’t think about often enough is that ensuring basic environmental protections for all is a civil rights issue – one that we have yet to resolve. Our low income and minority neighborhoods suffer disproportionate health impacts, like asthma and heart disease, due to harmful pollution in the air, land and water.

We must work to correct these injustices now as we face one of the great environmental challenges of our time – climate change.

We know that our climate is changing. Extreme weather events like hurricanes, wildfires, floods and drought are becoming more and more common. And low income neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted by extreme weather because of aging infrastructure and limited means to escape the devastation.  Our nation’s poorest communities are already bearing the brunt of this devastation, and will continue to do so if we don’t act now.

President Obama recently announced a Climate Action Plan that calls for us to work together to improve the resiliency of our communities so that we can provide protection to those who need it most.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, let’s also reflect on Dr. King’s legacy. As Dr. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We must redouble our efforts to protect people’s health and the environment in all of our communities.

About the Author: Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming serves as Chief of Staff to the Administrator. Ms. Fleming was appointed by President Obama as Region 4 (Atlanta) Regional Administrator of the EPA in September 2010, the first African-American to hold this position. Previously, she served as the first African-American and first woman DeKalb County District Attorney and Solicitor General. She was the youngest ever elected as Solicitor General. Ms. Fleming is a New Jersey native and earned a bachelor’s degree in finance from Douglass College and she earned her law degree from the Emory University School of Law. Ms. Fleming credits her parents, Ursula Keyes, a retired registered nurse and her late father, Andrew J. Keyes, a former Tuskegee Airman, as the reason for her commitment to community service.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Robert Murphy permalink
    September 1, 2013

    A wonderful statement. Thank you!

    Dr. King was murdered in 1968. If he had lived to see the 1970 Earth Day, I believe that the mainstream environmental protection movement would have been different and better. I believe that he would have raised important questions about social justice.

    With climate change, Dr. King might tell us, “If you want environmental peace, work for environmental justice.” There’s a need to provide all people, in all places, with sources of energy that are safe, affordable, and sustainable.

    Energy conservation is important. However: There’s also a need to provide fuel assistance to the poor. Many people need more power, not less. The developing nations will continue to burn whatever they can get, in order to lift people out of poverty.

    Resilient communities? We need more than engineering and new buildings. What happens to vulnerable groups during heat waves, droughts, extreme weather events, etc.? Basic social services and emergency services are needed. Think about the people who were left behind during hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

    “If you want environmental peace, work for environmental justice.”
    Martin Luther King might appreciate that statement.

  2. Tim permalink
    September 4, 2013

    Thank you for this blog. I wish the writer would have focused more on the connection between the Civil Rights movement and many of the EJ leaders who came out of it and took those lessons to help mold the Environmental Justice movement.


  3. Jake permalink
    September 4, 2013

    You have a warped sense of what the bible “requires” from those that have been given much… You work for the federal government and the EPA uses force to get your environmental justice. “Social Justice” and “Environmental Justice” is nothing more than redistribution of wealth by force. You have no clue what true stewardship means and to quote the bible while your “swat teams” armed with military style weapons break down the doors of hard working Americans is blasphemy. You got it?

  4. John Ackerly permalink
    September 4, 2013

    Yes, Martin Luther King’s “is still very relevant to environmental justice. King fought to bring fairness not just to the voting booth, but for energy as well. In the south, Black neighborhoods didn’t get paved streets, sewer lines – or gas lines. That is one reason why, as US Census data shows, large parts of the south relied on wood heating far more than even New England states through the 1950s. And today in our renewable energy policy, generous rebates and tax credits to install solar go to the wealthiest Americans while lower income families get virtually nothing to for their renewable energy of choice – modern wood and pellet stoves. Maryland is one of first states to address that disparity.

  5. Mirabel Weriwoh permalink
    September 4, 2013

    I relished reading this blog. Thank you!
    I support the author’s vision and that of President Obama with respect to climate change. Truly indeed, we have to work together to provide a good,healthy, clean and safe environment especially for the marginalized in our communities.

  6. Jason permalink
    September 6, 2013

    I learned about Dr. King in school but didn’t really make the connection between the civil rights movement and environmental justice until I started reading the blogs here. I definitely have a broader vision and better understanding of the issues and soloutions that many are utilizing.

  7. Robert Murphy permalink
    December 27, 2013

    It’s the day after Christmas. For Christians, this is “Saint Stephens Day.” The hymn called “Good King Wenceslas” tells the story. Christians are asked to provide fuel assistance – and other forms of assistance – to the poor…. Martin Luther King – who was one of the great religious leaders of the 20th century – understood the message…. Long ago, a poor man and his wife went in search of shelter in Bethlehem. Tonight, there are still a lot of families that ask for adequate housing with warmth and light. It’s the right moment to think about environmental justice and its importance. If Dr. King were still alive and preaching, he would tell the Christmas story and he would remind is that “the work of Christmas continues.”

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