The Poor People’s Campaign, which revived King’s anti-poverty efforts, is taking a modern focus on the environment after the Flint crisis
June 11, 2018 — The Poor People’s Campaign’s attempt to stage a “moral revival” across dozens of US states echoes much of its 1968 antecedent – a guttural cry to shake America from a miasma of racism, poverty and militarism. But the modern version has also opened up a new battleground – the environment.
Last week, as several hundred protesters tried and failed to gain entry to the Kentucky statehouse, concerns over healthcare roiled the crowd. But the campaigners also decried the pollution of air and water by the state’s mining industry, which has sickened residents and contributed to a sprawling, existential crisis – climate change – that was barely on the horizon when Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.
“The police were blocking us from the statehouse, which tells us that even people with black lung aren’t welcome there,” said the Rev William Barber, a North Carolina pastor and a rousing progressive voice who has taken on King’s mantle in the campaign, referencing the disease suffered by some coalminers. “We understand the connection between systemic racism, voter suppression and ecological devastation. They are interlocking injustices and we can’t ignore any of them.”
Black majority churches are increasingly speaking out on environmental issues, jolted by reams of evidence showing that people of colour are far more likely than whites to live next to sources of harmful pollution such as coal plants and landfills.
The toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as well as high-profile pipeline protests such as the one staged by the Standing Rock tribe in North Dakota, have also helped install the environment as a central plank in the Poor People’s Campaign.
This has set up a theological collision with some evangelical conservatives who view the Earth as a resource for humans to exploit. “God has blessed us with natural resources. Let’s use them to feed the world. Let’s use them to power the world,” Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and devout Christian, . Under Pruitt, the EPA has moved to roll back dozens of regulations aimed at maintaining clean air and water.
Barber is derisive of this attitude, which he says stems from a disastrous misunderstanding of a passage in Genesis in which God gives man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”.
“Dominion in this sense means to care for, not destroy,” Barber said. “The first commandment is to take care of creation. To destroy creation is fundamentally irreligious. It’s a violation. It’s a sin. Pruitt says he believes in God but you’ve never seen him pull out scripture that shows Jesus said we must help corporations poison the water.
“You get white so-called evangelicals who say they are against abortion but say nothing about environmental devastation that is destroying lives and stunting children. The president may have chosen the worst person to run the EPA but ultimately Earth is the only place we have to live. A lot of people of faith are now articulating that not taking care of Earth is an affront to basic theology.”
Barber, a 54-year-old man who walks with the aid of a cane due to an advanced type of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis, grew up with an acute appreciation of clean air and water. A pulp mill near his North Carolina home “filled the air with all sorts of smells and toxins”, Barber recalls. His father, also a pastor, helped workers at the mill get adequate insurance to help pay for cancer treatments.
Since then he has helped galvanize his flock against toxic waste dumped in rivers in North Carolina and Virginia, visited black families in Alabama who endure raw sewage in their back yards, headed north to see the retreating ice in Alaska and allied with the Apache tribe over concerns a copper mine will taint their drinking water.
“This is real for me,” Barber said. “Where there’s pollution a community will get a cold but poor people will get pneumonia. The love of money is the root of all evil and it’s the root of all environmental devastation. It’s a dangerous self-destruction.” The Poor People’s Campaign is demanding the US shifts to 100% renewable energy, curbs oil and gas drilling and ensures clean drinking water for its citizens.
These goals stem from an environmental movement that King did not live to see or fully embrace. But there is evidence King was cognizant of what was at stake, praising the beauty of the world and lamenting that “cities are gasping in polluted air and enduring contaminated water”.
Just five months before he was shot, King’s famous speech A Christmas Sermon on Peace contained key ecological touchstones. “All life is interrelated,” he said. “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
Last year, Barber met with Pope Francis, who has perhaps now eclipsed Al Gore as the world’s most famous environmentalist. The pope’s called climate change “a global problem with grave implications” and warned the Earth is “beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”. Francis added that Christians who believe that God “invites us to subjugate the Earth” are mistaken.
There are allies closer to home, too. Black pastors have started to organize various outreach efforts to engage their communities on issues such as climate change and energy efficiency. “We focus on the election, we focus on poverty, we focus on Black Lives Matter,” said the Rev Kip Banks, a senior pastor in Washington DC. “Equally important is the environment.”
While stressing the urgency of climate change can be a hard sell, the presence of heavy industry, asthma-ridden children and foul smells is immediately apparent to the communities that are burdened with them.
“We are called upon to care for the Earth, not deplete it,” said the Rev Leo Woodberry, who spearheaded a campaign to halt a proposed wood pellet mill in the small North Carolina town of Hamlet, a majority black area already surrounded by a cluster of industrial plants.
“African Americans are far more likely to have asthma, our children are more likely to die than white children,” he said. “People stand up in church and say they need a respirator. We are pushing and pushing and pushing so that something is done about it.”