Civil Rights and Environmentalism: A Shared Path

Written by Sam Watt, edited by Ran Cheng

Environmentalism is among the largest ongoing movements in the world right now. With a topic that intrinsically encapsulates all human activity and ramifications that reach every corner of the globe, it is easy to forget that there was once a time when environmental and conservationist efforts were niche, abnormal, and even looked at with contempt. That was the state of the environmental effort up until the mid-late 20th century. What happened next, was a change that must have been the merger between some of the most powerful and contested ideologies ever. The civil rights movement, which had garnered worldwide support by the 1970s and had etched the legacy of Black Americans in history (as well as that of other minority groups that gave their blood, sweat, tears, and lives for this cause), was met by two events which would become the basis of environmental justice. These events are considered to have pushed modern environmentalism into the limelight. 

The ‘Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp.’ case (1979) and ‘The North Carolina PCB Protests’ (1982), preceded several other mainstream cases of significance for civil rights activists and environmentalists alike. They both confronted, for the first time, racial inequalities in governmental distribution of waste. Specifically, they addressed how waste was routinely dumped in “poor, African-American and Latino communities” far more than in predominantly White, middle-upper class areas. These events intertwined the two social movements, and brought with it, an understanding that the two are fundamentally inseparable.

As the bond between civil rights and environmentalism became stronger, the power that the civil rights movement had garnered began to lift ecological efforts to the national stage. Emerging studies at the time cemented this relationship, as several statistics such as, “US Americans of color … are 75% more likely to live in communities that are next to oil, gas facilities or other polluting industries” were released and validated. As the strength behind this combined front continued to grow, leaders who were known as prominent civil rights activists began to bring their cultural and political prowess to the environmental scene. With their efforts, the rate of change for this up-and-coming social movement increased tenfold. 

One example of this was Rev. Benjamin Chavis, who at the age of 23 was part of the Wilmington 10: a group of 10 civil rights activists who were wrongfully convicted and unjustly imprisoned for a decade. In 1987, Rev. Chavis led the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice to produce a report titled ‘Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.’ This report revealed that race was unquestionably the most significant factor when determining the location of hazardous waste sites. Gaylord Nelson is another activist who was heavily involved in both movements. Nelson, the then Governor of Wisconsin, stood on the platform at the Lincoln Memorial as he watched Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I have a dream” speech, and routinely used his political power to support both fights. He made an effort to rally the “progressives [that] fled a Republican Party under the sway of Joe McCarthy” and formed a coalition that “used its regulatory power and tax revenue to address pressing social and economic problems”(Wisconsin Historical Society, 2023). Nelson epitomized the link between environmentalism and civil rights, famously saying, “Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit” (Wisconsin Historical Society, 2023). He also organized the first Earth Day, which is now recognized every year by over a billion people. 

As support grew for this multi-scalar movement, international leaders began to meet and take action. For example, in 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit took place in Washington DC, where African American leaders convened with Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American, Pacific Islander and international leaders. This summit produced “the 17 principles of environmental justice” that are still used as the base for environmental justice organizations today.

Such is the relationship of interconnectedness between these two groundbreaking movements. While most consider environmentalism a modern global issue that impacts all of humanity, many of those who fought for civil rights have been paving the way, and lifting it up through political and social barriers for decades.

Image Citation

Holdosi. 2013.


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