We celebrate yearly the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his work toward social justice, civil liberties, and equal rights for all. A central theme that Dr. King threaded throughout the civil rights movement embodied the goals of freedom, equality and justice which, according to his immortal words, could not be secured for any of us so long as they were denied to some of us. Upon reflecting on Dr. King’s great legacy, nature and the environment are not the first topics that come to mind. The seeds for our nation’s environmental justice movement may have been planted by King’s legacy. Environmental justice is based on the principle that all members of a society have the right to clean air, water and soil. There are early indications of Dr. King’s ecological consciousness and environmental concerns visible through his many sermons and speeches.
Several of Dr. King’s quotes bring nature to civil rights such as: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.” “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” “We have flown the air like birds and swam the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.” “The cities are gasping in polluted air and enduring contaminated water.” King’s sacred view of nature, based in African American tradition, aligns with African and other indigenous tradition, mystical traditions and much of the eco-spiritual thinking that would later develop. King wrote, “Although God is beyond nature he is also immanent in it. Probably many of us who have been so urbanized and modernized need at times to get back to the simple rural life and commune with nature…We fail to find God because we are too conditioned to seeing man-made skyscrapers, electric lights, aeroplanes, and subways.”
Dr. King voiced opposition to the ecological threat posed by nuclear testing and the specter of nuclear war in the following statements: “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.” “We cannot walk alone,” King said, because the common destiny of every American is “inextricably bound” to all the rest. Dr. King believed that the best hope for the future involved building mass, direct-action movements for justice. According to King, this would require connecting not only people, but issues and movements as well; expanding to encompass the planet itself.
In July 1967, Dr. King stated, “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.” Dr. King’s statements on ecology and the environment, made before ecological thinking came into view, are not detailed through his various sermons and speeches; rather gives hints and glimpses. Although ecological themes were never fully developed, Dr. King’s vision was ahead of its time in linking social justice and ecological consciousness.
Dr. Betty Whitted Holley is an Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics and African American Religious Studies at Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, OH. She serves as the African Methodist Episcopal Church representative on the Creation Justice Ministries board.
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This blog shares the activities of Creation Justice Ministries. We educate and equip Christians to protect, restore, and rightly share God's creation.