Issues & Views
Almost every day the media discovers an African American community fighting some form of environmental threat from land fills, garbage dumps, incinerators. lead smelters, petrochemical plants, refineries, highways, bus depots, and the list goes on. For years, residents watched helplessly as their communities became dumping grounds.
But citizens didn't remain silent for long. Local activists have been organizing under the mantle of environmental justice since as far back as 1968. In 1979, a landmark environmental discrimination lawsuit filed in Houston, followed by similar litigation efforts in the 1980s, rallied activists to stand up to corporations and demand government intervention. More than a decade ago, environmental activists from across the country came together to pool their efforts and organize.
In 1991, a new breed of environmental activists gathered in Washington, D.C., to bring national attention to pollution problems threatening low-income and minority communities. Leaders introduced the concept of environmental justice, protesting that Black, poor and working-class communities often received less environmental protection than White or more affluent communities. The first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit effectively broadened what "the environment" was understood to mean. It expanded the definition to include where we live, work, play, worship and go to school, as well as the physical and natural world. In the process, the environmental justice movement changed the way environmentalism is practiced in the United States and, ultimately, worldwide.
Because many issues identified at the inaugural summit remain unaddressed, the second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was convened in Washington, D.C., this past October. The second summit was planned for 500 delegates; but more than 1,400 people attended the four-day gathering.
"We are pleased that the Summit II was able to attract a record number of grassroots activists, academicians, students, researchers, planners, policy analysts and government officials. We proved to the world that our movement is alive and well, and growing," says Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University in New Orleans and chair of the summit.
The meeting produced two dozen policy papers that show powerful environmental and health disparities between people of color and Whites.
"This is not rocket science. We live these statistics every day, and the sad thing is many of us have to die to prove the point," says Donele Wilkins, executive director of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.
At the 2002 Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN) launched its Healthy and Safe Communities Campaign, which targets childhood lead poisoning, asthma and cancer in the Black community. "We are dead serious about educating and mobilizing Black people to eliminate these diseases that cause so much pain, suffering and death in the Black community," says Damu Smith, executive director of NBEJN.
Birth of a Movement
More than three decades ago, the concept of environmental justice had not registered on the radar screens of many environmental or civil rights groups. But environmental justice fits squarely under the civil rights umbrella. It should not be forgotten that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis on an environmental and economic justice mission in 1968, seeking support for striking garbage workers who were underpaid and whose basic duties exposed them to dangerous environmentally hazardous conditions. King was killed before completing his mission, but others continued it.
The first lawsuit to challenge environmental discrimination using civil rights law, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc., was filed in Houston in 1979. …