A closeup of a sign worn by a demonstrator reading, "Remember King."

Thousands of people came to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., August 26, 2023, for the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington when in 1963 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about his dream of a more just and equitable America.

(Photo: Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Climate Movement and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

In a divided America, there is at least one universal left, and that is the shared world we inhabit.

It may not surprise readers of this newsletter when I say that my great American hero is the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. To mark the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, I’ve been reading Jonathan Eig’s very fine new biography and re-reading for the umpteenth time the unsurpassable three-volume account of King and the civil rights movement by Taylor Branch.

And as ever I come back to the same place: King’s heroism came from his unmatched ability to combine the prophetic and the practical. We have plenty of great Americans who exemplified one or the other, but perhaps only Lincoln comes close to mixing them with the same alchemical power. King had many tools that lent him strength: He was able to listen, capable of keeping his ego in check, naturally empathetic, grounded from youth in the (not inconsiderable) politics of the church. He had the support of a strong family and a stronger wife; all of that allowed a kind of low-key and appropriate messianism that never overwhelmed him. He wasn’t a saint (the job description of prophets and saints are very different) but he was radiant.

But King also had the advantage of timing. He spoke to an America that could—in its middle—be moved by the two appeals that were his specialty: to the shared Christian faith of the great majority of Americans, and to a shared sense of America’s unique small-d democratic history. He was, obviously, no sucker: He knew as well as anyone the limits of both that faith and that history. But through those lenses America could glimpse his deeper truths.

This summer almost everyone has a) sucked smoke b) dodged floods c) endured preposterous heat. Many have hit the trifecta.

We’re not in that America any more, which perhaps helps explain why the many speakers at this weekend’s 60th anniversary of the March reached fewer souls. There’s little that’s universal left to appeal to in a deeply divided America. Which is why, as my last book argues, it was probably unwise of progressives to surrender the flag and the cross, but that Jordan has been crossed in reverse.

Still, there is at least one universal left, and that is the shared world we inhabit. No one invoked this more movingly on the weekend than Rev. Lennox Yearwood, one of King’s great heirs. The founder of the Hip Hop Caucus (and a board member with me at Third Act), Yearwood used his two minutes to get a lot across:

We stand here because climate change is a civil rights issue. We have a right to clean air and a right to clean water. And it’s critical for us to understand that this climate crisis that is happening from California to Arizona, where our mothers and fathers are literally cooking to death in their homes… And we understand right now that to be in this movement… that we must be intersectional environmentalists. And that means that we must connect the dots and break the silos. That means that racial justice is climate justice. And climate justice is racial justice. And we understand that we must connect a dot between voter suppression and healthcare and education. We understand that we must fight for those who are fighting for clean water in Jackson, Mississippi. And we must fight for those who are in Atlanta, Georgia, saying, stop cop city.

We applaud this administration for what they’ve done with the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law. We applaud them, but that’s not enough because you can’t put up solar panels on Monday and build pipelines for liquified natural gas on Tuesday. You can’t put renewable energy on Wednesday and discuss an all-of-the-above strategy for fossil fuels on Thursday. And so what we are calling for right now are three main things that first, that we must stop the expansion of petrochemicals across this country right now. And secondly, we must ban vinyl chloride, that explosive chloride that exploded in East Palestine. And the last thing, if the administration is watching right now, we must declare a climate emergency!

To unpack a little, as the scholars say, it seems to me that Yearwood is making at least two key points. One is that there are specific parts of the climate crisis that are far worse for poor people of color, here and around the world, and that empowering them is a key task, both for practical reasons of power and moral reasons of justice. It’s a point made with great grace by Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the transcendently nerdy author of the Green New Deal, in an essay that came out this morning in Hammer & Hope, the new online magazine of Black politics and culture. As Gunn-Wright put it

More than 170,000 green jobs have been created in the wake of the IRA, a majority of them in red states, some of which, like Texas and Georgia, have the largest and fastest-growing Black populations in the country.

I should be happy about that. I want to be happy about that. By “derisking” clean technology through public subsidies and other forms of industrial policy, the IRA is succeeding, at least in its mission to spur private investment in clean energy and low-carbon goods. And after 40 years of exclusively neoliberal economic policy, that is something to celebrate. But the transition to clean energy, like every other economic transition, is inherently distributive and redistributive—especially in a capitalist society—and this time, we need Black people to significantly benefit. Yet, with the exception of a few targeted policies, the IRA and the debates that have emerged since its passage suggest that the U.S. is again (at this big age!) relying on white supremacy to decide how to allocate the power and resources that come from going green.

Her recommendations are tremendously useful (the whole essay is essential reading), and they include some clear specifics:

For the green transition to be equitable, racial justice must thread through all the decisions about how it is structured and how public resources are distributed. One of the best ways to do this is to expand Justice40, a Biden administration initiative that aims to direct 40% of the benefits of federal clean energy and other climate investments to disadvantaged communities. The White House should update that order to include all of the programs in the IRA, and agencies should ensure that 40% of the funding (not nebulous “benefits”) are going to the communities identified by the White House’s new screening tool to identify communities that have faced historical environmental and economic injustices. In programs where it is not possible to ensure that 40% of funding reaches frontline communities, as with individual tax credits, agencies need to create partnerships with community organizations and local governments to try to increase tax-credit participation among eligible Black households.

This seems inarguable to me. But to the degree that it requires a big movement to get it done, it requires an elevated sense of justice that I’m not sure we have at the moment. In King’s world, a concern for justice grew out of both religion and patriotism, and with those gutted it’s harder to reach the broad middle.

But it also—and this is the second part of Yearwood’s message—seems inarguable that we have a rare moment to establish that new universal. This summer almost everyone has a) sucked smoke b) dodged floods c) endured preposterous heat. Many have hit the trifecta. Yes, some people have had it worse than others, and since this is America those people are likely to be poor and Black. But we’re at the point where everyone can start to feel the threat. (Even asocial billionaires, though they tend to respond by buying up land they imagine will offer an escape). That collective fear/sadness/anger/maybe a little hope constitutes a shared self-interest—one that we can build on to make the kind of broad movement that might make justice real again.

I think it’s likely we’ll get to see this strategy play out in the months ahead at a place that Gunn-Wright mentions in her essay: Calcasieu Pass, Louisiana, site of yet another proposed giant LNG terminal. And I imagine that Yearwood, concentrating on his work with Beyond Petrochemicals, will be heavily involved. But that is a story to come.

For now, enough to end with this thought. Were MLK still alive (and it’s not impossible—his friend and colleague Harry Belafonte was born two years earlier and just died in May) it seems certain to me that the climate crisis would be at the top of his agenda, because he was drawn to any project that emphasized commonality. The Poor People’s Campaign, which he was building when he was murdered, was a multiracial effort to unite impoverished people for radical change; the climate movement is perhaps the first truly global campaign, designed to bring everyone who lives beneath our shared sky on board. As Dr. King put it, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Climate change is the ultimate proof of that truth.

© 2022 Bill McKibben