Environmental Justice Requires MLK’s Fierce Urgency of Now

Your Take: Dr. King invoked the imagery of mountains and streams. Today he would speak directly about climate change that threatens the earth.

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The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

More than 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about race in America and invoked the imagery of this nation’s natural beauty to inspire and encourage collective action and to implore our sense of justice to “roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Five years later, in 1968, just hours before his untimely death, he said he was standing on the “mountaintop,” looking into the promised land.

If he were alive today, his words might include a more literal message about the mighty streams and mountaintops of this country. Our American geography—our soaring mountaintops, rushing rivers, amber waves of grain, our purple mountains’ majesty above the fruited plain—is truly in grave danger. So are the communities that rely on it.

The new National Climate Assessment confirms this. As the congressionally mandated report finds, the effects of climate change are real and imminent. The report reads, “Certain types of extreme weather events with links to climate change have become more frequent and/or intense, including prolonged periods of heat, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts.”

Our cornfields are parched from years of drought and then drowned in monsoon rains. The seagulls, fish and fisherfolk of an entire region are smeared with oil. Our coastlines are drenched, and even our subways flooded. Our mountaintops are destroyed for the sake of the coal that lies beneath them. Our public lands are threatened by hydrofracturing that endangers our drinking water and that has, by deliberate legal loopholes, been shielded from impartial scrutiny. Breaks in oil pipelines and derailments of “oil bomb” trains bearing ultravolatile shale oil warn us against transporting these products of “extreme extraction”
 techniques.

Not only our wildlife suffers. Unprecedented droughts in California, Russia, central Africa and Australia force up the price of food globally, and famine kills. Farmers find their wells filled with water so chemicalized that it flames up when a match is lit next to the kitchen faucet. Our small towns are despoiled, our homes destroyed and our seacoasts are ravaged by the melt-off from glaciers.

Near the end of his life, King named “materialism” as one of the deadly triplets afflicting America, saying:

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

At that point King did not yet know how potentially deadly materialist greed would become—and that the materialist greed of giant corporations selling fossil fuels would have such a profound impact on the earth. We believe he would have spoken out against these industries using their wealth and power to try to prevent the urgently needed shift to wind, solar and truly clean sources of energy.

Half a century ago, it was the murder of civil rights workers, deaths in Vietnam, suffering of garbage workers in Memphis, Tenn., as well as the dream of racial justice, that called King to call us into action.

Today it is the climate crisis—bringing famine and devastation on whole nations—that has come upon us, and the dream of a shared and sustainable abundance, that must call us into action, walking the path that King walked.
 We must cry out with the fierce urgency of now. Now is the time for the fierce urgency of our convictions, for us to break our silence on all these disasters. Now is the time to raise our voices for our dreams—the ones we understood 50 years ago, and the ones we are discovering today.

The Rev. Oscar Tillman is a member of the NAACP national board of directors and chairs the board’s National Black Church Leadership Initiative on Climate Justice. Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of the Shalom Center and a member of the steering committee of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate.

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