Juneteenth and the Fight for Environmental Justice

Jun 19, 2024 | Catch the Green Tea, Young, Gifted & Green Blog Series | 0 comments

Today, as we celebrate Juneteenth and the hard-won freedom of enslaved Black Americans, I can’t help but reflect on the continued struggle for justice and equality that has defined the Black experience in this country. As a Black woman from Memphis with both Mississippi and Texas lineage, I see the echoes of slavery’s legacy playing out in the environmental oppression of my community. The very land we live on, the air we breathe, and the water we drink have all been tainted by the forces of environmental racism. Study after study has shown that communities of color, and Black communities in particular, bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to toxic waste facilities, polluting industries, and the effects of climate change. This is no accident – it is the inevitable result of a system built on the exploitation of Black bodies and the unfair distribution of environmental harms.

In Memphis, we see this play out in the shadow of the shuttered Firestone tire plant, which for decades dumped toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater of the predominantly Black neighborhood of Boxtown. Or in the asthma rates that soar among children living near the Interstate 240 corridor, choked with diesel fumes. The climate change-fueled floods that devastate economically distressed housing, the heat islands that scorch our urban core – all of these are manifestations of the same oppressive system. As Fannie Lou Hamer, the legendary civil rights activist, said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” This Juneteenth, I’m reminded that the fight for racial justice is inextricably linked to the fight for environmental justice. We cannot achieve true liberation until we dismantle the structures of oppression that poison our land, our air, and our water.

The roots of environmental racism run deep in this country, intertwined with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. During the Great Migration, millions of Black Americans fled the rural South, seeking refuge in urban centers like Memphis. But instead of finding a promised land, they were relegated to the most polluted, neglected neighborhoods – the dumping grounds for society’s refuse. “Environmental racism is the new Jim Crow,” writes civil rights leader and scholar Reverend William Barber. “It’s the continuation of the sanitation crisis, the water crisis, the housing crisis, the health care crisis that Black people have been experiencing for decades.” This sentiment is echoed by Audre Lorde, the acclaimed Black poet and activist, who said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” For Lorde and others, the fight for environmental justice is inherently tied to the larger struggle for racial, economic, and social justice.

As the impacts of climate change become ever more dire, that interconnectedness has become even more apparent. Extreme weather events, rising temperatures, and other climate change-driven phenomena disproportionately harm marginalized communities – amplifying existing inequities and vulnerabilities. As Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Kenyan environmentalist, observed, “The environment and the development of a country are inextricably linked.” In other words, you can’t have true progress or prosperity without a healthy, sustainable environment – and you can’t have a healthy environment without addressing the systemic injustices that have degraded it.

On this Juneteenth, I’m proud to stand alongside my fellow environmental justice warriors like Dr. Beverly Wright, founder of the FIRST Environmental Justice Center in history in New Orleans, LA and moved by our great ancestor, Chicago Native and the Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement Hazel Johnson. Together, we’ll keep pushing forward, demanding clean air, clean water, and a healthy, sustainable future for all. Because I know that my freedom is bound with the freedom of my community, and the freedom of our planet. As Fannie Lou Hamer powerfully proclaimed, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I’m sick and tired of seeing my people, my neighborhood, my city poisoned by the forces of environmental racism. I’m sick and tired of the same old empty promises and political platitudes. And I’m sick and tired of a system that prioritizes profits over people, that allows multinational corporations to extract our resources and dump their waste in our backyards. I also know that I come from a long line of fighters – Black people who refused to accept their oppression, who stood up and fought back with every ounce of their being. That’s the legacy I carry with me, and that’s the spirit that fuels my work as an environmental justice activist. I know that the battle for liberation is far from over. But I also know that together, we can build a better, more just, and more sustainable world. A world where everyone can breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live in a healthy, thriving environment. A world where true freedom is within our reach.

HAPPY JUNETEENTH, MANE!

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