The South will rise again. This phrase resonated throughout the southern region of the United States after the defeat of the Confederacy. Well, the South has risen again, but not as the denizens of white supremacy foresaw. The South rose again under the leadership of Americans like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who made the promised potentiality of democracy more accessible to those who had been excluded. This was the civil rights movement.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the South rose again. This time when people who were the victims of environmental racism and practices sited polluting facilities in poor and people of color communities. These courageous efforts become the environmental justice movement, which spread across the United States and the world. Even the United States government started with Executive Order 12898 and President Clinton acknowledged the disparities in health, death, and economically devastated communities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established an Office of Environmental Justice. An Inter-Agencey Working Group, made up of all federal agencies was created to ensure that states and the federal government addressed and remedied issues that led to environmental injustice that impacted people of color, low income communities, environmentally overburdened communities, vulnerable communities, and tribes. Now the Trump administration and its proposed cuts threaten to not only roll back the clock but also to increase the millions of people threatened by death, disease, and increased weather-related disasters due to pollution and climate change.
Why is the South rising again? There are more polluting facilities in the South than anywhere else in the nation. Persistent poverty, high unemployment, the scarcity of jobs paying a living wage and access to affordable health care looms as one of the greatest threats in over fifty years.
Across the South, everyday people and the leaders of grassroots community-based environmental justice organizations mobilized to join the Peoples Climate March on April 29th in Washington DC. Most of these organizations were led by people of color. A group calling itself the Southeast Coalition had groups coming from Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. The Coalition is made up of state-wide networks in each of those states representing scores of environmental justices in the south.
“Our aim,” said The Reverend Leo Woodberry of Florence, South Carolina, “is to ensure that the issues impacting the people most affected by climate change are lifted up and addressed. Generally, when one hears the words climate change images of polar bears and melting glaciers are conjured up. We insist on putting a face to the problem because no matter where you go on this planet, the people most adversely impacted by climate change are overwhelmingly black and brown”.
The Southeast Coalition has already begun implementing a multi-state strategy around renewable energy, community education, organizing and activism. Despite what may be perceived as a downturn in the policies related to environmental justice and climate change, the Coalition is committed to ensuring that the South as well as the United States and the world rises again.