Environmental Justice and the March on Washington
Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and the past week has been abuzz with anticipation. As part of a huge celebration in D.C., there are panels and ceremonies taking place as well as a march that occurred on Saturday, August 24th. Many social justice groups have been involved, like the NAACP and People for the American Way.
The original March on Washington, which took place in 1963 within the throes of the Civil Rights Movement, is made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s involvement. We remember it mainly due to his historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The March isn’t always remembered for its true purpose. It was called the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," addressing not only civil rights, but economic rights too. Years of marches, protests, and boycotts all over the country culminated in a massive gathering, taking a collective struggle to Washington and President Kennedy’s doorstep.
As the anniversary of the March on Washington approaches, everyone is examining current issues to gauge the progress (or lack thereof) our society has made in race relations and economic equality since the original march. In 1963, protestors called for equal access to job opportunities, voting booths, and quality schools. Many believe that nothing much has changed since then, and an uptick in recent incidents are causing people to, once again, call for the same things in 2013. Others would say that while racism and discrimination in America are not as overt as they were during the Civil Rights Movement, they are present in more subtle ways.
Subtle racism includes glossing over or ignoring the histories, struggles, and societal contributions of minorities. It comes in the form of cultural appropriation and accusations of people of color being “too sensitive” or “pulling out the race card.” It comes in the form of employers passing over a resume, despite its merits, because the name is “too ethnic,” or the applicant has distinguished their race as something other than white. It also comes in a dangerous form of city planning that places certain communities within the radius of landfills, factories, and refineries. The consequences of this planning are cloaked by the promise of jobs, which are in high demand, especially in low-income areas. But as working women and men come home, able to feed their families, they also face the rising costs of healthcare that come with working and living in the vicinity of a toxin-spewing facility.
The latter point has drawn environmental groups like Green for All and Greenpeace to the 50th Anniversary March, calling for an increase in safe, green jobs and environmental protections. In a time when unemployment is high and the concept of sustainability is popular, it seems like these things should be a no-brainer. Companies, schools and organizations all over the country should be tripping over themselves to provide environmental sustainability-based education, job training and employment opportunities to a wide array of people. However, there are only a small concentration of education and job-training programs available and they’re not as accessible as one might like. Concurrently, it doesn’t help that while the number of “green” jobs are slowly rising, there just aren’t enough for all those that need them. This could be improved with greater strides towards a renewable energy economy; but I digress…
Fights for the right to live in a healthy community among people of color have not always been identified under the term “environmental justice,” but they have long been fought. From the farm workers’ rights protests led by Cesar Chavez in California to the sanitation worker rights protests supported by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Tennessee, there has always been a place for the Environmental Justice movement in the Civil Rights Movement. They are one in the same. Because Environmental Justice is connected to the issues of employment, health, and discrimination, it deserves to be discussed in every one of the week’s panels and speeches.
50 years since the original March on Washington, the call to level the playing field and to provide everyone (regardless of class, race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) with access to a high quality of life is still extremely relevant. So enjoy this week’s events, but don’t forget that until everyone in this country is able to experience the fullness of freedom, that our work is not done; not now, not ever.