By Rick Reynolds
(Photo from Creative Commons)
Say what? Ecological equality?? While most Americans know about Martin Luther King Jr.’s enormous contribution to the struggle for social equality, fewer, I suspect, are aware of his views on ecological equality.
As an employee of Bensonwood, where social and environmental consciousness has been rooted in its mission for decades, I have always wondered about the extent to which a connection exists between social and environmental justice. Anyway, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death seems like a good time to explore the fullness of his vision.
“Largely unexplored is the reality that King was a great ecological thinker,” according to Drew Dellinger in his 2014, Common Ground Magazine article, “Martin Luther King Jr, Ecological Thinker,” and upon which this post is based.
In his article, Dellinger compiled and commented on the King quotes that so beautifully connect the dots between social and environmental justice. Interestingly, these words resonate even more in 2018, as they pertain to the precarious state of affairs we’ve faced since the 2016 US election and its impact on everything from race and gender relations, to internationalism and nativism, environmental regulation and deregulation and war and peace.
In Dr. King’s worldview, the nations and the peoples of the world form an interlacing network of relationships, all linked to the various social injustices. In a 1967 TV interview, at the height of civil unrest in the U.S., the emergence of environmental concerns and the perils of the Cold War, King said:
“All these problems are tied together. One cannot be concerned just with civil rights. It is very nice to drink milk at an unsegregated lunch counter—but not when there’s Strontium 90 in it.”
Later, elaborating, King said,
“It would be foolhardy for me to work for integrated schools or integrated lunch counters and not be concerned about the survival of the world in which to be integrated.”
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King shared his ecological view with this prescient and haunting line:
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
In Dellinger’s words, “King’s phrase, ‘network of mutuality,’ is perhaps as good a definition of ecology as any offered by an ecologist.” The author then asks, “Is it possible that recovering the ecological and cosmological dimensions of King’s vision could help inspire our present work to link issues, connect ecology and social justice, and build a culture with a viable future?”
In his last months on Earth, King delivered a “Christmas Eve Sermon on Peace” at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, in which he intimated his ecological views while drawing lines between connectedness, justice and non-violence:
“If we are to have peace on earth we must develop a world perspective. . . Yes, as nations and individuals, we are interdependent.”
Then, seemingly channeling such environmental mavericks as John Muir and Rachel Carson, King concludes:
“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated.”
In perhaps one of his most poignant quotes, King offered this admonition:
“We’ve played havoc with the destiny of the world. Somewhere we must make it clear that we are concerned about the survival of the world.”
King never lost his sense of optimism, stating that going against the natural laws of the universe would ultimately be self-defeating, believing in…
“…the inevitable decay of any system based on principles that are not in harmony with the moral laws of the universe. Somehow the universe is on the side of all that’s moving toward justice and dignity and goodwill and respect.”
Somehow, indeed. In the current political environment, where setbacks to social and ecological progress can feel insurmountable, our prospects can seem dire. But as King so optimistically proclaimed:
“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Lastly, it’s interesting to note that with his assassination in April of 1968, King never lived to see that iconic Apollo 8 portrait of an Earthrise from moon orbit: a wake-up moment for the world taken only a few months after his death. Likewise, King never witnessed the outpouring of 20 million Americans participating in Earth Day 1970, nor did he experience the popular emergence of ecological consciousness and the urgent environmental concerns over global warming that followed. Despite this, underpinning all his views was the interrelatedness, interdependence and the connectedness of the universe.
At this juncture in American history, when social and ecological justice appear to be under assault, it is now more important than ever to remind ourselves how the two are inextricably linked, and to remember the man who somehow knew.