2011 MLK Day: Remembering Martin Luther King the Environmentalist

Before Martin Luther King was assassinated, he had broadened his Civil Rights agenda to include advocating for the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and the sanitation workers striking in Memphis.

Courtesy americaslibrary.gov

On MLK Day, I like to remember Dr. King as the environmentalist. Memphis sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis, Tennessee on February 12, 1968.  They wanted higher wages, and better hours and vacation time. “An unhealthy work environment” was “the subtext” as the workers “were exposed to hospital waste and rotting food, which drew rodents, roaches, and birds.” (Dianne Glave, Rooted in the Earth Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage, 131)

Dr. King arrived to support the sanitation workers at a rally on March 18. He continued his support with his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3rd at the Mason Temple in Memphis, saying,

“It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis.”

Thank you Dr. King for being an environmentalist–before environmentalism was en vogue–for African Americans, for the impoverished, for Americans!

Lunch with Sierra Club’s Rita J. Harris in Memphis

What a great afternoon. I spent time with Rita J. Harris, the Regional Representative and Environmental Justice Organizer with the Sierra Club. We went to Boscos Restaurant & Brewing Company and her office, both in Memphis.

The Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships is part of the Sierra Club. Over our meals of salad, shrimp, and artichokes, Rita shared about her work at the Sierra Club.

Dotted all over Memphis are industrial companies polluting the environment and people. As a result, residents, particularly the impoverished, are exposed to air and water pollution. Carcinogens in pollution have long been shown to cause cancer, miscarriages among women, and deformities in newborns.  In addition, the many waterways including the Loosahatchie River and McKellar Lake are sources for catching fish, fish often poisoned by chemical pollutants like PCB’s and mercury. When people eat fish that looks seemingly healthy, they are ingesting these poisons.

Rita and Dianne Outside Boscos

Rita is passionate about environmental justice, fighting to protect marginalized people and the fragile environment. She works with citizens in monitoring air pollution levels, seeking to pass laws to regulate environmental inequities, and checking that the groundwater piped into homes is safe.

In the short history of environmental justice in the United States, we have environmental heroes including Benjamin Chavis and Robert Bullard who have served in the community striving to eliminate environmental racism. I count Rita among them.

She responded saying, “I know there are many others, and the fight for environmental justice has been brief if you compare the time it has existed with the long history of the Sierra Club, or other efforts that are over 100 years old. The EJ movement began back in the mid-1980s, but there are many EJ activists, community fighters, and I probably fall short in their shadows.”

Photo by Dianne Glave

Faith Temple COGIC in Memphis: Promoting Health

Bophelo means life in South Africa!

Faith Temple COGIC in Memphis, Tennessee promotes bophelo, holistic healing drawing on spirituality and healthcare. On Sunday, July 11, 2010, the church offered a health-screening to members and visitors.

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Anyone could get their blood sugar or blood pressure tested.

Photos by Dianne Glave

Getting to Know the Tennessee Clean Water Network

Renée and Sandra at Huey's // Photo by Dianne Glave

Last week Thursday on July the 1st, I had dinner with two people who are committed to environmentalism at the Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN): Renée Victoria Hoyos, the executive director and Sandra Upchurch, a board member. The organization started in 1998 and Renee has been the director since 2003. The TCWN is a non-profit organization “working on behalf of the environment, clean water and public health.” (http://www.tcwn.org/about)  

Renée left Knoxville that same day, stopping in Fredonia, the latter in western Tennessee, before meeting Sandra and me for dinner. Some community members in Fredonia contacted TCWN in 2005 for help: “the TVA Megasite Certification program had just certified 3800 acres of prime farmland for the I-40 Advantage facility.” (The Current: Newsletter of the TCWN, vol. 11, issue 1, Winter 2010, 3) The controversy over land use clearly inpacts Fredonia, a community in which many of the members  are descendents of enslaved people; yet the community was and still has not been consulted.

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When Renee arrived in Memphis, the three of us shared a meal at Huey’s in midtown. The restaurant is known for their hamburgers. The Hearth Healthy Huey Burger, one of four healthy options on the menu, was great! The conversation about the environmental justice in Tennessee was also enlightening. 

Both Renee and Sandra serve impoverished people who lack legal representation when it comes to the environment.  Personally, I am excited about the much-needed work Renée, Sandra, the staff, and board members are doing in Tennessee to protect the water and the people who base their very existence and life on the rivers, creeks,and lakes in the state.

I look forward to learning more in the near future. 

Unless Otherwise Noted, Images Courtesy of 

The Hatchling: Struggling . . . Action

Hatchling on a Memphis Sidewalk

 Action expresses priorities.     

~ Mohandas Gandhi 

Walking in Memphis along a tree-lined street, I noticed a hatchling on the ground. That baby bird had some big feet disproportionate to its body. I stopped. Of course, I stopped. Frightened with three people hovering over it, the bird kept moving and hopping. It was directionless, lost, and vulnerable. 

I wondered if a cat would ultimately get my bird. Some wild animals like foxes make their way into downtown Memphis so who knows what else awaited the hatchling. 

Eventually, I walked away looking back several times at the bird. We reached Methodist Hospital, our destination, but I was still thinking about that bird. Maybe I should have tried to grab it, find the nest, and put it back. 

At  the hospital, I took the elevator with an elderly woman who reminded me of my grandmother. She got off at her floor and looked around lost hauling her oxygen tank. I said to my colleagues as the doors closed, I should have gotten off and helped her. Another moment, another chance missed. She reminded me of the bird–directionless, lost, and vulnerable.

Gandhi Finger Puppet

In the hospital finally at a meeting, I was in a pensive mood. The colleague we were visiting had a pile of little finger puppet on his desk. Someone picked one up. Another said something about the puppets. My colleague, the host of the meeting, picked up the Gandhi finger puppet and said, “That’s for you.” I held it in my hand. Put it on my finger. I said, “Why Gandhi?” He said, “You know, environment . . . justice . . . the thing you do.” 

Description on Gandhi Finger Puppet

Stepping  out the building the grandmotherly woman was waiting by the door probably for her ride. She was making it through ok.  My colleagues and I walked back to work and the hatchling was gone. Who knows what happened to my baby bird. Maybe it made it.

I shoulda. I coulda. I am certainly no Gandhi but in the struggle, I need to move from thinking to acting like the great man. That thing I do responding to the bird, the woman, to creatures, to people.

Photographs by Dianne Glave