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Martin Luther King, Social Justice, and Streetscape Environmentalism

Photo of a postcard showing the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Protest.
Photo of a postcard showing the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Protest. | Photo: tellmewhat2/Flickr/Creative Commons License

That's a seemingly odd claim to make given that we celebrate his remarkable life in activism through a federal holiday, mark his achievements during February, Black History Month, and every April 4 to pause in remembrance of his brutal assassination. Yet during these commemorative moments, we tend to remember only those aspects of his political engagement that affirm central tenets of American culture, not those that critique it.

Consider the endlessly hyped portion of King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech, wherein he looks forward to the day when his children will live in a society "where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." In January, even ESPN endlessly channeled a version of King's words in a series of in-house ads, a reflection of how much King's moral claim about the power of the individual has become an ideological touchstone.

This refrain's almost sacred quality may explain why, 50 years later, we have forgotten the radical and communal context of King's insight. His was not an individualistic creed. For him, social justice is social; it is collectively defined and derived.

Even those who might be expected to share King's perceptions seem to have forgotten this truth and its essential, animating force. Count environmental justice advocates among those who do not always appreciate his powerful role in their movement's history.

True, many of those who have fought to rectify the disproportionate burdens borne by the poor, disadvantaged, and less powerful have adopted the nonviolent, civil disobedience strategies King utilized so effectively during the Civil Rights era. Like King, those who battled to clean up the mess at Love Canal, or to resist the ongoing air and groundwater pollution that have stained the land and those who inhabited it, from Warren County, North Carolina and Cancer Alley in Louisiana to the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Riverside County, have put their bodies on the line. Like King, these activists have gone to jail for their cause.

There the similarities end. That's what the late Hal K. Rothman asserted in "The Greening of a Nation? Environmentalism in the U.S. Since 1945"; the civil rights movement was of limited influence even on key figures such as the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, who had worked with King, and while head of the United Church of Christ in the 1980s is credited with conceiving of a new and poisonous enemy, environmental racism.

"When leaders such as Chavis pointed to examples as the siting of toxic dumps based on racial factors," Rothman argues, "those arguments...could tap into the sentiments that the Reverend Martin Luther King so dramatically and successfully had invoked during the 1960s." But there were distinct rhetorical differences, for "the environmental justice movement played to a concept of victimization" based on health and safety issues. These intertwined concerns, in Rothman's words, offered a "more complex" perspective than King had employed.

This calculated political bid for greater complexity did not go far enough. So observes Occidental College's Robert Gottlieb. As environmental-justice organizations and activists pushed beyond King through their focus "on righting the wrongs experienced by victimized communities," they remained "bound by the angry though still defensive language of discrimination." Unable to transcend this rhetorical "narrow box," he writes in "Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement," they were incapable of fully embracing what Gottlieb believes is a more powerful "community-oriented language of place" -- an understanding of the environment as the site "where we live, work, and play."

Yet King also championed the ineluctable link between people and place, landscape and life; he affirmed a streetscape environmentalism. Indeed, it helped frame one of the last major speeches he gave before being gunned down in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Three weeks earlier, speaking in that same city to 17,000 people at a rally in support of the sanitation workers' strike, he made it clear that the real thrust of this dedicated labor action was to create a more healthy, safe, and just community.

"You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny," King proclaimed, a weave that depended on a mutuality of experience ("if one black person is down, we are all down"). It depended as well on the social bonds that labor creates: "Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this."

It would only achieve that new vision when cities came to see themselves as metropolitan wholes, not places divided between whites and blacks, between the haves and have nots. "You are here tonight to demand that Memphis do something about the conditions that our brothers face," King told the cheering throng, for "they work day in and day out for the well-being of the total community."

Alas, in Jim Crow Memphis, as elsewhere else in the country, these workers' poorly paid efforts were as undervalued as their distressed neighborhoods were ignored. King decried the inequities framed in the built landscape, the substandard conditions in which the poor lived and labored. These impoverished terrain stood in troubling contrast to the works of High-Rise Capitalism. However grand the central business district's architecture, however impressive its technology -- "We built gigantic buildings to kiss the sky. We build gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our spaceships we were able to carve highways through the stratosphere" -- these glorious achievements were for naught if they do not lead to a more compassionate society that provided liberty and justice for all.

With that, King leveled an indictment of the United States and its dominant "power structure." Because it did not feed the hungry, or provide a living wage, or use its "vast resources of wealth to end poverty, to make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life," it was condemned; it "will go to Hell."

Damnation was not the last word in this liturgy of the oppressed. The "chilly winds of adversity," King confirmed, could be blocked by the collective will of the people, the cleansing power of hope, and the social uplift that comes with divine beneficence. "We will build a new Memphis," he promised, a newfound community anchored in "the real promises of democracy."

That's a legacy worth remembering, a promise that still needs redeeming.

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