Written by Cory Campanizzi, Assassination Historian
For over a decade now, I have been approached by people who know my research interest and have been asked, “What did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say, if anything, about a concern for the environment?” To be honest, it has been a question I had asked also, and as someone that researches the U.S. political assassinations of the 1960s and environmental sustainability, I knew I had to find the answer! And after careful contextual consideration of Dr. King’s work, I determined that he had much to say about the larger biosphere and how environmental justice deeply affected his views during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Environmental studies, for which I’m formally trained, widen environmental sustainability's purview into a broad multi-disciplinary approach, including areas within the social sciences. As a social science, psychology can provide a profound understanding of how humans function within the environment through an emerging discipline known as the psychology of sustainability. Within this emerging discipline, I discovered the deepest connection to how Dr. King orchestrated his thought toward commencing a global concern for all that inhabit this small planet.
Dr. King’s concerned approach would question the conscience of the government and corporate interest involved in the Vietnam war during his April 4, 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York, New York. This speech, titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” would come exactly one year before his assassination and brought forth the conditions of environmental devastation, and his greater pathos- the destruction of the family and village. King reminded the audience, “They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops, they must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees.” King then concludes, “We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village.”
Again, Dr. King would provide a greater connection during his September 1967 keynote speech at the annual APA (American Psychological Association) convention. In a room full of Ph.D. psychologists and psychiatrists he proclaimed, “you have given us a great word… maladjusted” he continued: “There are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted.” “We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.” King further clarified and moved for “creative maladjustment”. He was striving towards a focus on how individuals must refuse to accept the way in which injustices are normalized and through ‘creative maladjustment’, correct conditions of economic inequality, oppression, racism, war, and the undercurrent of environmental injustice within these same communities that manifest by way of air pollution, multi-source point water contamination, and over-industrialized land usage.
In what would be his final act of evoking economic and environmental justice, Dr. King would work directly with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. On February 1, 1968, two garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, in an attempt to shelter from the rain, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Conditions worsened for black sanitation workers, as the new mayor, Henry Loeb refused to sideline unsound trucks and refused to pay overtime for men forced to work long into the evening. Worsening wage conditions also gave way to workers using welfare and food stamps to feed their families. Beginning on February 11, along with the local chapter of the NAACP, the sanitation workers unanimously decided to strike. King was asked on behalf of Reverend James Lawson, to peacefully lead a march after a sit-in for union recognition was rejected by mayor Loeb. After a speech on March 18 in Memphis, King then returned on March 28 to lead a march that ultimately ended in violence instigated by an outside group, and resulted in the death of a black teenager. Despite the tragedy, the strike would continue, and with his denouncing of the violence, King would return on April 3 to deliver his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The next day, he would be assassinated on the balcony of the Loraine Motel. He was only 39 years old.
King’s lasting legacy of concern for the environment is captured in his insistence on caring for not only the physical environment but those that inhabit it as well. It is through the use of non-violent civil disobedience, coupled with the ability to use creative maladjustment that we can be led to resist perceived normality in fossil fuels used for energy production, the insistence on sensible and sustainable innovation for transportation, renewable energy technology, and energy storage development. It would also be pertinent to identify how King would respond to the ongoing transition to more sustainable development and how the effects of this transition weigh on not only this country’s natural resource reserves but the global community’s as well. It is this last question that perhaps is what eludes us the most.