How Martin Luther King Jr. Changed The Way We Think About Climate Justice

By path2positive

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did more than point out social injustices – he dug at their root cause while mapping the extent of their growth. In recounting his father's legacy, Martin Luther King III explained how his father had "devoted his life to achieving civil equality in our democracy, but that was only the beginning. The poor and disenfranchised – too often those in communities of color – still disproportionately bear society's harms through no fault of their own. That truth has compelled the fight for social justice across the spectrum: labor rights, women's rights – and yes – environmental rights."

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work on injustices perpetrated directly against communities of color was regularly in the headlines throughout the civil rights era, but he also sought to rectify the secondary and less obvious ramifications of those harms. “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly,” explained King.

Every action and inaction – intended or not – carries with it a consequence. It’s no secret that environmental degradation impacts communities of color the hardest – forcing many to breathe unhealthy air and drink unclean water. These hazards are immediate and worthy of attention; and still, just beyond the horizon, awaits a greater danger.

As it stands, the U.S. is without a regulation on emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane gases, the two leading causes of climate change. According to the NAACP, in cities like Detroit, Ohio, Chicago, Memphis, and Kansas City, people of color regularly suffer illnesses from exposure to toxic facilities that emit these gases and others. In addition to their immediate impacts, these fossil fuel byproducts also contribute to the severity of natural disasters, from which, less affluent communities are less able to escape.

As climate change progresses, super storms like Sandy will devastate poorer communities more frequently and with a greater force than ever before. Rising sea levels have already displaced communities along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, where a football field of land is lost daily. So how do we address these secondary consequences in a world of immediate problems?

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King wrote, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: a collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” Unfortunately, America appears to be stuck on step two, negotiating the evidence of climate change with an incoming presidential cabinet and host of representatives who deny its existence. The problem in addressing this issue does not rest solely on our inability to convince them otherwise — it is partly due to our inability to mitigate expectations.  

Carly Schwartz recently explained that the fight for the climate is often envisioned as a singular battle with a definitive triumph, and that's where Americans have gone off track. Instead of an all-or-nothing approach toward climate solutions, we must be realistic about our goals. This is less a compromise and more of an effective strategy dating back to the Gospel of Jesus.

Jesus went from encouraging his disciples to abandon their flock to pursue one lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7) to later commanding that they "...Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Matthew 10:15). Jesus understood doubt well – he knew that every situation was different and that he would not win over everyone immediately (John 20:24–29).

Our climate advocacy could take a note from both the Synoptic Gospels and the persistent flexibility of King’s methodology. King moved America toward a better version of itself, but he did not achieve his dream overnight. Rather, he relentlessly spoke to crowds big and small. At first, his outreach connected with only the few who would listen, but his persistence made room for him to expand.

On January 16th, we will celebrate King’s legacy by noting his many achievements, and those are worth recognizing. But this year, I ask my readers to think about King’s long-tail approach, and what that process may teach us about our own climate communication strategies. I ask that you think about how we as concerned people of faith may better apply that process to our own methods of communication in 2017.


Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside.

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