Was Martin Luther King an environmentalist? Was his deep engagement with and passionate pursuit of social justice of a piece with his contemporaries' advocacy of wilderness preservation? Would the man who in 1963 wrote a brilliant call to action in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" have much to say to the woman who one year earlier published Silent Spring, its own clarion call?
Actually, yes: Martin Luther King and Rachel Carson offered withering examinations of the content of Americans' lives, the injustices--social, political, and environmental--that set the context for how they lived. Their approaches differed, to be sure. Take water. King focused on the inequities embedded in the creation of separate water fountains for blacks and whites, each one an emblem of the devastatingly invasive consequences of segregation. Carson looked at the water itself, at the toxins that coursed through it as a result of industrial pollution and agricultural run-off, identifying its deleterious impact on public health. Out of these differing perspectives emerged powerful critiques of some of society's most egregious flaws, each writer elevating what King dubbed "creative tension," the necessary precursor to major social change.
However diverse their sources, these tensions were corrected in tandem, at least in a legislative sense. In 1964, for instance, President Lyndon B. Johnson, signed into law two landmark bills--the Voting Rights Act and the Wilderness Act. Four years later, and within days of King's assassination, he placed his signature on the Fair Housing Act, and months later did the same for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. These parallels are not by happenstance or without consequence. Without the insights of King and Carson, and the powerful reform energies that they let loose, the 1960s would not be The Sixties.
Subsequent generations have fused these iconic figures' arguments about what ailed America (and how those ailments could be remedied) into the rhetoric animating the contemporary environmental-justice movement. Indeed, U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder made the case recently for King's influence in an address to the Environmental Protection Agency:
Nearly half a century ago, it had become clear to Dr. King and his supporters that integrating our schools and public spaces, securing voting rights, and advancing the Civil Rights Act did not solve a series of other problems. People of color still suffered, unequally, from the prevalence of toxic substances in their neighborhoods. Poor communities of color were more likely to be home to hazardous facilities. Residents in these communities were not only living in our country's most polluted places--they were often doing the dirtiest, most dangerous work.
Putting his words into action, in the final years of his life King focused more on urban and environmental concerns: better housing, more equitable wages, cleaner neighborhoods. Reflective of this shift in his mission was the purpose of his April 1968 visit to Memphis, the scene of his assassination: to aid striking sanitation workers and the communities they served.
Carson's legacy only appears less direct. After all, the "toxic substances" to which Holder referred had been the subject of her galvanizing study; it as her scientific investigations that demanded the federal government and ordinary citizens pay closer attention to the carcinogenic ramifications of dangerous chemicals in our rivers and aquifers, our taps, sinks, and tubs. One enduring consequence was a series of important amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1966, 1970, and 1972 (the latter of which is known simply as the Clean Water Act). Without this legislation, Latino activists in San Antonio, Texas in the early 1970s would have had a much more difficult task organizing around the potent meld of human rights and environmental degradation; the same is true ten years alter for African-American grassroots groups that fought against locating hazardous-waste dumps in North Carolina's rural, impoverished communities.
Out of these local protests came significant national legislation: the 1974 Safe Drinking Water legislation that San Antonio congressman Henry B. Gonzalez sponsored; and President Bill Clinton's Executive Order 12898, entitled Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Neighborhoods, which requires each federal agency to "make achieving environmental justice part of its mission." Unfolding ever since has been a full-scale political movement that confronts city, state, and federal governments over the unequal burdens that poor neighborhoods face with air, noise, and water pollution; sues petrochemical industries for befouling estuaries that feed so many; and challenges smelting and mining companies that lay waste to sacred lands of native peoples.
EJ activists have been busy in Southern California, too. The infamous Stringfellow acid-pit superfund site in Riverside County became a superfund site because a coalition of neighborhood groups fought the danger it posed to their health and then called into question the EPA's failure to manage the cleanup. Others have successfully targeted deadly diesel fumes emanating from ships docking in the ports of LA and Long Beach and the thousands of 18-wheelers that haul their cargo along the region's freeway system.
To rally people to cleanse their water or scrub their skies requires a conviction that their actions will have meaning beyond their immediate environs. Rachel Carson understood that need, which is why she argued that pervasive contamination could not be corrected without a radical shift in the political economy and hubris on which it was built: the "'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man," she asserted in Silent Spring. "It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth."
To destroy the planet would be to destroy humanity, an axiom Carson identified and then fought to prevent. So did Martin Luther King, who knew all about the moral imperatives required to change entrenched behavior. One in particular was the core principle to which he gave voice in "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail," and which is also central to an inclusive environmentalism committed to maintaining the integrity of natural systems and human communities: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues.