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.

 

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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:

“We would first like to inform the black community about some of the environmental insults that are unique to the black area and of some of the forces that created and maintained the conditions. Secondly, we would like to tell the white community our definitions of environmental pollution and how ours might differ from theirs in hopes that we might create a common definition.”

Some prominent white liberals on Earth Day expressed solidarity with these sentiments. Ted Kennedy, speaking at Yale, insisted (paraphrasing Martin Luther King),

“None of us can segregate our moral concerns… We cannot forget that for millions of poor Americans, the desire for a better environment does not mean open spaces or country air or swimmable rivers. For these millions—in areas of urban and rural poverty—the real threats of the environment are still the ancient evils of ignorance, crime, and disease.”

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:

“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 that is not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.

“Environment is a problem perpetuated by the expenditure of $17 billion a year on the Vietnam War, instead of on our decaying, crowded, congested, polluted urban areas that are inhuman traps for millions of people.”

 

 


Sources and Credits:

Document Wisconsin Historical Society, Nelson Collection mss1020
Photographs Credit: White House photographer. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society, Nelson Collection mss1020 ph3764.
Research and Text Brian Hamilton
Editor Melanie McCalmont

References

1 Freddie Mae Brown and the St. Louis Metropolitan Black Survival Committee, “Black Survival: A Collage of Skits,” in Earth Day—The Beginning: A Guide for Survival, edited by the National Staff of Environmental Action (New York: Arno, 1970), p.98
2 Edward M. Kennedy, “On Violence,” in Earth Day—The Beginning: A Guide for Survival, edited by the National Staff of Environmental Action (New York: Arno, 1970), p.221

 

Rev - 24 January 2010