Earth Day critics: black environmentalists see another side of pollution
Explore how two African American activists sought to put forward a broad definition of environmentalism that would marry ecological and social justice concerns.
This document is a 1970 article surveying African American voices critical of middle-class environmentalism.
Journalist David Hendin took up the topic in “Man and His World,” a new syndicated column dedicated solely to environmental topics. The column was part of a trend in journalism that extended its writing from ecological matters into structural changes in society caused by the growing environmental movement. These writers noticed changes such as the creation of environmental beats at newspapers and magazines which intended to increase such coverage permanently.
Hendin was not the first to write about the tenuous relationship between the emerging environmental movement and urban poor black communities. But Hendin was a writer that painted a more nuanced picture than others.
The media’s typical approach featured male political leaders who feared that a new cause would siphon off civil rights activists and leave their movement sapped of energy. CBS’s Earth Day special, for instance, included a white organizer retelling the story of a black man accusing him of being in Nixon’s pocket.
For this document, Hendin interviewed two black female environmental organizers. The first, Mary Lou Oates, had left her position in the McCarthy campaign in early 1968 reportedly because of her candidate’s inattention to the problems of urban city dwellers. She worked in 1970 for the National Welfare Rights Organization, a recently formed grassroots alliance aimed at protecting the rights of the poor—especially poor women and children—who made up the majority of those on welfare. The second, Freddie Mae Brown, also did anti-poverty work, but within the government at the St. Louis branch of the Office of Economic Employment—an executive institution Nixon reluctantly inherited from Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Oates and Brown did not push back against environmentalism, but rather placed themselves within it and attempted to widen its boundaries. Oates in this document identifies a middle-class bias prevalent among white activists, but she does not disregard ecological concerns. Rather, she encourages both those in her community and middle-class environmentalists to consider “a total environment,” one that includes air and water everywhere and does not overlook the distinct threats within the urban environment, such as lead paint and the lack of green space.
Brown’s St. Louis Metropolitan Black Survival Committee participated in Earth Day. With the assistance of several community organizations and black sororities from Southern Illinois University, they wrote and performed environmental skits at the local high school and YMCA. One of their characters, a professor able to convince his students to help him with a popular epidemiology survey of African American neighborhoods near industry and highways, voiced Brown’s goal:
Some prominent white liberals on Earth Day expressed solidarity with these sentiments. Ted Kennedy, speaking at Yale, insisted (paraphrasing Martin Luther King),
And Senator Gaylord Nelson, another veteran of the War on Poverty, sought a similarly broad definition of the environment in his Denver Earth Day speech:
|© Board of Regents of the Univeristy of Wisconsin System
Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
550 N. Park St, 122 Science Hall, Madison, WI 53706
Important Copyright Notice and Usage Permissions