by Djuan Coleon Executive Director, PURE
On July 2, 2014 the nation will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. This landmark act signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, in the presence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provided the most sweeping transformation of our public policy since Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Act not only provided for the barriers of segregation to fall like the walls of Jericho in public places in America but lay the groundwork for the fight for Environmental Justice.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act states that “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Federal funds could not be used in any way to discriminate. In 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther was fighting for the sanitation workers in Memphis, he was not just fighting for their economic well being but the environmental conditions they were dealing with as well. Since the assassination of Dr. King we have witnessed the mounting effects of environmental racism in minority communities with the proliferation of toxins and pollutants being systematically placed in the community with little protection from the government. EPA studies have shown that 80% of African Americans live near hazardous industrial pollution sites like landfills. Dr. Robert Bullard known as the father of Environmental Justice movement said it best that communities of color have “The Wrong Complexion for Protection.”
One of the most poignant displays of how communities of color are affected adversely by discriminatory environmental policies was the devastation that was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In April 2014 I took a trip to New Orleans, Louisiana for the 2nd Annual HBCU Student Climate change conference hosted by the Deep South Center of Environmental Justice at Dillard University. I traveled with a consortium of students from several HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) to the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle. We stood at the epicenter of where the federal levee protection system was breached and failed to protect the lower 9th Ward. As I stood over the observation deck and looked out over the bayou and reflected on all the environmental, economic and ecological damage that had been done, I was reminded of the lyrics of the great Sam Cook:
I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will
Almost 60 years ago this Bayou in the lower ninth ward (a Mississippi River Delta swamp) was the refuge of many residents who were born by this body of water. The Bayou was once a place of recreation and was a place of commercial fishing which provided economic opportunities for the residents in the area. Over time the building of canals and levees ending up destroying the natural defense for hurricanes. It was the surge of water not Hurricane Katrina itself that actually caused the breach of the levees that ended up causing the flooding of the lower 9th ward. The lasting effects of Katrina are not just environmental but ecological, social and economic. Organizations like Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation have helped begin the process to revitalize the area but there is still much to be done for “change to come”. In order to build resilient sustainable communities it is going to take a collaborative effort. The Federal Government in partnership with corporations, local organizations and a cross section of community stakeholders will have to work to together to provide environmental justice in urban communities across the country. Environmental Injustices such as Air pollution, Industrial Sites and Illegal Waste Dumping, Water Safety, adequate access to public and green space, food deserts, lead poisoning and climate change. These forms of injustice affect urban communities disproportionately, but are not exclusive to the urban community, we all have to deal with the issues of Climate Change for the greater good of society.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.