INSIGHTS: Environmental Justice: Carrying Forward Dr. King’s Dream

INSIGHTS: Environmental Justice: Carrying Forward Dr. King’s Dream

By Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General of the United States

{Editorial Note: Attorney General Eric Holder delivered this speech as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Program, Friday, January 14, 2011, the day before Dr. King’s birthday, which is observed as a federal holiday on the third Monday of January each year.}

WASHINGTON, DC, January 17, 2011 (ENS) – Today, as we join together to reflect on – and pay tribute to – the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are also bound by a common grief and by a shared, and painful, loss.

As Administrator [Lisa] Jackson noted, six days ago, a devastating tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, stunned our nation. And that senseless act of violence reminded each of us that, more than 40 years after Dr. King’s own tragic and untimely death, our long struggle to overcome and eradicate cruelty goes on.

Attorney General Eric Holder (Photo by ABA Journal)

In this time of inexplicable loss, the power of Dr. King’s example – and the importance of his commitment to, and pursuit of, justice – are brought into stark focus.

So, as we continue to mourn the six innocent victims who were killed, and to pray for those now fighting for their lives, let us also recommit ourselves to the work of carrying on – and carrying forward – Dr. King’s dream of unity, tolerance, and peace.

For a quarter of a century now, Americans have been coming together around Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to do just that – and to honor Dr. King’s legacy and enduring contributions. Each year, this time also provides an opportunity for all of us to rededicate ourselves to Dr. King’s mission to ensure racial, social, economic, and environmental justice.

Now, unlike Administrator Jackson, I am old enough to have witnessed and experienced the remarkable progress that’s been made since the 1960s – when Dr. King, in addition to his many other achievements, helped to plant the seeds for what would become our nation’s now-thriving environmental justice movement.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC, August 28, 1963. (Photo credit unknown)

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.

In March of 1968, Dr. King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to lead black sanitation workers in a strike. As part of his growing environmental and economic justice mission, he returned to Memphis several days later, where he planned to march with these workers again on April 5th – a day he would not live to see; a day that brought the citizens of Memphis together, not in peaceful demonstration – but in sorrow.

Dr. King did not have the chance to witness the impact of the movement he began. But he left us with the creed that continues to guide our work. His enduring words – which he penned from a Birmingham jail cell – still remind us that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

This truth was understood – and honored – by the coalitions of activists who rallied against hazardous waste dumps near African-American communities in the 1970s and ’80s. Their activism helped to drive updates in our environmental laws. President Clinton’s 1994 Executive Order – which required each federal agency to address environmental justice in minority and low-income populations – was also an important step forward. And the work that the EPA and the Department of Justice have led to ensure that our environmental laws and protections extend to all people – regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status – has strengthened this tradition of progress.

But the simple, and unfortunate, fact is that we still are not where we want, and where we need, to be.

Research proves this. In 1987, a groundbreaking study showed that race – more so than class or wealth – was most indicative of where toxic waste sites were located. Twenty years later, a similar analysis reached the same conclusion.

In 2005, a report based on EPA data showed that African Americans were almost 80 percent more likely than white Americans to live near hazardous industrial pollution sites. Today, poor families of color are more likely to have a landfill proposed in their community. Their neighborhoods are more likely to have polluted water and soil. Their children are more likely to breathe polluted air and suffer from asthma.

Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice first meeting in 10 years, September 22, 2010. From left: Nancy Sutley, chair, White House Council on Environmental Quality, Lisa Jackson, administrator, Environmental Protection Agency, Eric Holder, attorney general, Shaun Donavan, secretary, Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)

In 2011, the burden of environmental degradation still falls disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color – and most often, on their youngest residents: our children.

This is unacceptable. And it is unconscionable. But through the aggressive enforcement of federal environmental laws in every community, I believe we can – and I know we must – change the status quo.

That’s why the Justice Department has integrated our environmental justice goals into all of our enforcement efforts and comprehensive strategic plans. And that’s why we are seeking out and seizing new opportunities to collaborate more effectively with our EPA partners.

Several recent efforts reflect our agencies’ renewed, and strategic, focus on environmental justice issues – including our work in re-establishing the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, in co-hosting last month’s listening session in Atlanta, and in coordinating and strengthening our outreach to environmental justice leaders and experts.

Today, together, we are approaching environmental justice as what it is – a civil rights issue. By examining environmental requirements in conjunction with our civil rights laws, I am confident that we can do a better job of assuring fairness and advancing justice.

I want you to know that – at every level of the Justice Department, just like here at the EPA – this work is a top priority. And, for me, it is also a personal calling.

One of my great honors as our nation’s Attorney General, is the opportunity to extend the work that my late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone Jones, began in the federal government. Some of you knew Vivian personally. And others may know her story.

Vivian Malone Jones in class at the University of Alabama, 1963. (Photo credit unknown)

In 1963, Vivian became one of the first two African Americans to enroll at the University of Alabama. Governor George Wallace, who had famously demanded “segregation now” and “segregation forever,” tried to block her. But – with the support of the movement that Dr. King helped to launch and with the help of the Justice Department that I am now privileged to lead – Vivian summoned the courage to walk through the doors – and into the classrooms – of the University of Alabama.

In 1965, she became the school’s first black graduate. And, upon graduation, she moved here to Washington, D.C. where she began her long career in public service.

Vivian’s first job was in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. And she ended her career at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Atlanta office, where she served as Director of Civil Rights and Urban Affairs – and as a committed advocate, and pioneer, in the work of ensuring environmental justice.

Vivian was – like Dr. King, like her fellow public servants, and like many of you here in this room – unable to sit on the sidelines when there were wrongs to be righted and needs to be met. She knew that one person could make a difference. She believed that a single ripple of hope could give birth to a wave of change. And she refused to accept that our nation’s environmental problems, and threats, could be heaped disproportionately on our most vulnerable communities.

This work was at the center of her life. In my own efforts to extend it, I am grateful for your partnership.

With your continued dedication and our collective contributions, I am confident that we can succeed in meeting our responsibilities to our neighbors now at risk and in need, to our global partners, and to future generations. And I am hopeful that – at long last – this country can become the place, and be the global example and beacon of environmental justice, that Dr. King once envisioned.

Thank you all for your commitment to this work – and for the critical public service that you provide each day. I am grateful – and proud – to call you my colleagues. And I look forward to all that we will accomplish together.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.

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