Former MLK colleague commemorates environmental justice movement with NC roots

A former colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to members of the Duke community under the stained glass windows and between the pews of the Duke Chapel on September 15.

Civil rights activist Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., Divinity School ’80, recent President’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and former colleague of MLK, joined Catherine Coleman Flowers, current vice chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and General Practitioner of the Nicholas School.

The event, titled “Environmental Justice: Past, Present, and Future,” was hosted by the Sanford School of Public Policy as part of the Duke’s Environmental Justice series and was broadcast live worldwide. It was intended to celebrate and highlight the anniversary of the 1982 Warren County protests that ushered in a new movement and academic field and changed the course of history.

“Now in 40 years we not only have a movement in North Carolina, we have a movement all over the world. The environmental justice movement is a global movement,” Chavis said. “The future is what we shape the future.”

The opening speech was followed by a discussion and question and answer session involving both speakers and moderated by Cameron Oglesby, a current graduate student at Sanford. As the discussion progressed, speakers addressed the history and origins of environmental justice, its importance locally and internationally, and more specific issues such as voter turnout, climate justice in rural areas, and Duke’s role in continuing to drive the movement forward.

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Chavis’ points focused primarily on the importance of unity in the movement, which spans ethnic groups, private and public corporations, states and nations. He also stressed that political participation should be a priority, particularly through voting and electing leaders who have a heart and background in environmental justice issues.

“Democracy is on the ballot paper on November 8th. Environmental justice is on the ballot on November 8th. On November 8, climate justice is on the ballot. Racial justice is on the ballot on November 8,” Chavis said.

Chavis was the youngest person to be elected Executive Director and CEO of the NAACP. He stepped into the role in 1993 but was then fired in 1994.

Chavis is also credited with coining the term “environmental racism.” He worked with MLK in the 1960s and was wrongly imprisoned for his involvement in the Warren County protests over the following decade.

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Coleman is an author, MacArthur Fellow, and Founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice who has devoted her career to researching and raising awareness of environmental injustices in rural and marginalized communities.

With her expertise on poor sanitation in rural communities, Coleman refined how global collaboration to improve sanitation can help those who have been historically marginalized, such as through “applying the Human Rights Framework [and] Sustainable Development Goals.” She also drew on her experiences abroad and at the White House to highlight the importance of collaborative and exchange programs.

Both speakers agreed that while the movement has made significant progress, more needs to be done. Still, they expressed hope and optimism as many young people, including at Duke, are passionate about the environmental justice movement.

“On this 40th anniversary as an optimist, I feel encouraged because I see young people. Young white, young black and latino, young pacific islander and asian. I see young people demanding climate justice. Don’t wait for the politicians and not even the public policy makers,” Chavis said.

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He continued with a lesson he learned from his time at MLK: “It’s not good enough to see an injustice. we [have to] have the courage to challenge that injustice, to change that injustice.”

“And we have nothing but opportunity today. We should want clean air, clean water and good, healthy food for all people,” Chavis said.

Closing the event, second year Meghna Parameswaran, who attended the event due to her involvement in a Bass Connections project and her interest in environmental justice, described the event as “well organised”.

“As soon as they walked out and started talking, I had tears in my eyes,” said Parameswaran.

“Just being in the presence of these amazing and amazing people has motivated me to do everything in my power to be part of this movement and to be in community with people like them.”

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