Dr. King, Civil Rights and Environmental Justice


Reflections from the MLK National Historic Site in Atlanta, GA

By Camille Vincent, SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at the MLK National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia.

Growing up in the South, including four years at Spelman College, a historically Black school in Atlanta, I felt the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. as ever-present. The “I Have a Dream” speech on the Lincoln Memorial. The civil disobedience, marches and boycotts. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of ‘65.

Like many, I’d come to recognize Dr. King as an icon but my vision of this famous figure was that of a giant standing on his own. Only recently, when I signed on as an SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at the MLK National Historic Site, did I come to understand the greater context of Dr. King’s life, his cause and his extraordinary achievements. I also discovered that while he stood tall, he did not stand alone.

As a young boy, Dr. King grew up in a home where family, religion, and education were held as the highest values. One story I always tell while giving tours of King’s birth home is the importance of togetherness in the King Family. They never had a meal without Daddy King (Dr. King’s father) sitting at the head of the table. Before eating, each of the children was asked to recite a Bible verse and discuss its meaning. These ordinary household scenarios helped King to become an informed and devoted leader. King continued this spirit of togetherness in his own family even in the midst of his vital work, and all four of his children went on to become activists and speakers in their own rights.

His wife, Coretta Scott King, continued his campaign after his death by spearheading the creation of the National Historic Site. Working with her late husband’s mother, Coretta had King’s birth home rebuilt and converted into a museum. As the number of visitors soon became overwhelming, she turned to the National Park Service to ensure that her husband’s childhood home would be protected and shared with future generations. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site was created in 1980, and since then it has expanded to include dozens of other significant structures, including a Visitor Center, the D.R.E.A.M. Gallery, and Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King’s father had been pastor before him.

When I visit the church where Dr. King gave his earliest sermons, or walk through the dining room where the Kings discussed ethics over family meals, I now see more than a famous figure – I see a real person and the myriad links he holds with the people and events of his time. Much the way one connects the dots while walking the halls of Ellis Island at the Statue of Liberty National Monument or taking in the battlefields at Gettysburg National Military Park, you start to see that nothing stands alone.

This interconnectedness is also one of the most important principles of conservation: everything you do impacts others, and even small actions have big consequences. Dr. King recognized that social justice could not be achieved without environmental justice – including healthier living environments for underprivileged communities, and universal access to clean air, water, and soil. As he said in his 1967 Christmas sermon:

“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 directly, affects all indirectly. … Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? … This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”

Could these ideas make Dr. King one of the earliest leaders of “environmental justice?” I think so. Dr. King’s actions not only led to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but hand-in-hand with these came the Clean Air Act in 1963, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. King recognized that the great movements of his time – civil rights and environmental justice – were inexorably linked.

As we commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and celebrate the Centennial of the National Park Service that helps to advance these two movements, we should all remember that these causes are still linked – and that our service on behalf of the environment will always be service on behalf of human rights as well.

Camille Vincent is an SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at the MLK National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana and earned a BA in History with a concentration in United States and African-American History from Spelman College.