MLK, Jr. and Environmental Justice: ‘Order Before Justice’


Dedicated to Greg Jacobs aka SHKG Humpty Hump

April is the cruellest month, / breeding lilacs out of the dead land, / mixing memory and desire, / stirring dull roots with spring rain. 

— T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

 

In April 1964, Rachel Carson was murdered by pesticides and the tyranny of chemical companies. The same year, Martin Luther King, Jr. published his heart-breaking, awe-inspiring Why We Can’t Wait. Exactly five years later in April 1968, Dr. King was assassinated. That day, April 4th, one year before his death, Dr. King presented his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in which he named racism, militarism, and materialism the dangerous triplets afflicting America. In April 1970, American environmentalists celebrated the first Earth Day. However, over fifty years later, we are still waiting…Waiting for racial justice. Waiting for ecological justice. The original title for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech was “Normalcy-No More.” Yet, the constrictions of normalcy have calcified more than ever: conspicuous consumption, human rights horrors, ecological collapse beyond comprehension.

Fast forward to April 2011: As The Occupy Movement erupted, my son, Zazu Shock was born on my 40th birthday, his due date, an unassisted home birth a few blocks away from the heart of Oakland Occupy. I dedicate this April installment to Zazu’s namesake, his uncle, SHK-G who died unexpectedly April of last year.

Every thought, word, action we put forth, no matter how tiny or huge, whether on the streets or in the offices, underground or above, either hurts or helps the wave of prosperity to ensure a bright future for humanity, and for all life on this planet & beyond. Zazu Dreams is a beautiful example of keeping our work and our play focused on our most crucial mission, securing our survival and our freedom. Let every breath, we take help that wave.[1] —SHK-G Humpty Hump (a “creative extremist” in MLK, Jr.’s playbook)

While living in Ithaca Ecovillage in 2016, Zazu, my then five-year-old son and I, shared the beautiful opportunity of meeting Dorothy Cotton. In the early 1960s Cotton had taught nonviolence direct action and citizenship education hand-in-hand with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In her introduction to MLK’s exquisitely poetic and still ragingly relevant Why We Can’t Wait, Cotton writes: “Martin’s decision to go to jail was a crucial turning point for the civil rights struggle”

Echoing Martin Luther King, Jr, each of us everyday must face our own moral and tactical decisions. We may not be in MLK, Jr.’s position to decide whether or not to boycott an entire business community as he did in Birmingham, 1963. However, each day we face the decision whether or not to change our habituated behavior, to co-create new infrastructures that support ecologically just behavior, and collectively hold unjust corporations, institutions, and federal and local governments accountable to sustain our transformative lifestyle activism.

For this month’s Mother Pelican installment, we continue our detour from our exploration of digital-technology exploitation.

1. His first gift is the way MLK, Jr. understood how we must simultaneously confront the twin specters of prejudice and poverty; a commitment that is essential to guide us through insidious multi-dimensional oppressions. In my climate justice book, Zazu Dreams, I follow this intersectional approach: “Only by understanding that all forms of oppression are interconnected can we recognize that all forms of emancipation are equally interconnected.” Social justice and environmental regulations are inextricably bound. And, that is exactly why there is hope—why we can and must collectively act to halt both environmental and humanitarian disasters.

2. His second gift is the way MLK, Jr. broke down institutional processes of tokenism applied to maintaining structural racism. The same analysis can be insightful as we decipher how corporate attempts to distract us from real ecological crises replace our potential for action with hyperconsumerism.[3]

3. Finally, rooted in nonviolent direct action and collective prayer, Dr. King embodied methods of community rebuilding after we systematically dismantle abusive infrastructures. The same methods can be applied to how we can learn from trees. We will explore this in next month’s Mother Pelican installment.

 

Let’s unpack Dr. King’s first gift: Intersectional Oppressions and Intersectional Emancipations. The history of the United States of America is founded on institutionalized violence against marginalized peoples over centuries and humanitarian abuse and ecological destruction by the same power corruption. MLK, Jr. declared:

 

[F]or two hundred years, without wages, black people, brought to this land in slave ships and in chains, had drained the swamps, built the homes, made the cotton king and helped, on whiplashed backs, to lift this nation from colonial obscurity to commanding influences in domestic commerce and world trade. …Whenever there was hard work, dirty work, dangerous work—in the mines, on the docks, in the blistering foundries—Negros had done more than their share.

 

The Industrial Revolution was disastrous not only for the planetary body, but for the black body. Dr. King continues: “The Negro’s economic problem was compounded by the emergence and growth of automation. Since discrimination and lack of education confined him to unskilled and semi-skilled labor, the Negro was and remains the first to suffer in these days of great technological development.” (17). Megacorporations ranging from manufacturing (like U.S. Steel) to the meat packing houses profited from racial injustice. Slaughter houses were the origin of today’s Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—known as CAFOs. We now know that these mining and agribusiness industries also profited (and obviously continue to do so) from ecological injustices.

Whether he was standing up to racial bigotry or economic devastation, MLK fought one in the context of the other—the struggles were never separate. He stated: “[T]he Negro knows that these two evils have a malignant kinship”(16). MLK’s understanding of “malignant kinship” between multiple systemic oppressions invites us to confront intertwined oppressions. Patterns of violence are multicausal; they are complex, multi-dimensional problems that will not be solved with tokenism and oversimplified quick fixes.[4] We know that in more complex, diverse societies, you see less ethnic violence, less violence against nature, less violence overall.

Yet, we are not only taught that we are separate from each other, separate from nature, and that social issues are separate from one another, we are taught that the only way to address social issues is by responding to each one individually rather than as a complex whole. The historical and contemporary horrors of systemic racism and classism exactly parallel the institutional injustices that feed climate crisis. It is not climate crisis that is the actual obstacle to survival, it is our unwillingness to examine and overcome the obstacle not the obstacle itself that will destroy us.[5]

In his extensive “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a detailed reply to the criticisms about his choice to boycott the white business community of Birmingham—then the most segregated city in all America. Acknowledging the extraordinary horrors of daily physical and emotional violence against black and brown people, he wrote: “These were terrible deeds but they are strangely less terrible than the response of the dominant white community” (132). These realizations are our second gift. MLK asserted:

 

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

 

In counter-demonstrations throughout Birmingham, white moderates rallied holding up banners reading: “Order Before Justice.”

This social norm that requires “order” reflects the social norm that requires the familiar—an ethnocentrist desperate fear-of-the-unfamiliar.[6] This conformist desire for status-quo normalcy overrides both humanitarian justice and ecological justice. As it perpetuated various forms of genocide during the course of our country’s history, it now perpetuates ecocide. This fear of difference implied in fear of change demonstrates Einstein’s admonishment: “The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm, but because of those who look at it without doing anything.”

And, we know that “doing something” means we must live the personal as political; there is no “I gave at the office” when it comes to racial and ecological justice. My personal experiences remind me of another message from Dr. King: “We can, of course, try to temporize, negotiate small, inadequate changes and prolong the timetable of freedom in the hope that the narcotics of delay will dull the pain of progress.” This desire for a numbing of emotional and political consciousness runs rampant in not only the American mainstream but throughout our alternative communities and subcultures.

While I was attempting to raise my biracial—black-Sephardic son at Earthaven Ecovillage, I repeatedly encountered what MLK called the “poverty of conscience of the white majority.” I was repeatedly reprimanded for bringing attention to the necessity of directly addressing racial inequities, ecological hypocrises, and other structural violences. MLK emphasized the danger of what he called the “luxury of gradualism and procrastination” (155)—a pattern that tragically was central to this intentional community. For example, a parent in my community used the phrase “privilege of ignorance” when he was defending why his children didn’t need to learn about institutionalized racism. “Order Before Justice” was, in the 1960s, and is now today, a way to silence those of us who demand that we all must take racial and ecological action now. The censorship implied in “Order Before Justice” is wielded to prove one’s social credibility, one’s capacity to properly assimilate. Similarly, Murray Bookchin warns: “We are insane not only because of what we have done, but also because of what we haven’t done. We ‘tolerate’ too much. We tremble and cower with ‘tolerance.’”[7]

Someone who has powerfully resisted assimilation is Greta Thunberg. At the 2019 World Economic Forum, she decried: “Our house is on fire…I want you to panic.” With a similar passion, Dr. King poetically railed against the message that racial justice “takes time,” that we must wait for the right moment, the right set of circumstances, and only then take calculated, “appropriate” action. Racial inequities have been so dire for many centuries. The acceptance of tokenism and band-aids on one hand and the impotency-inducing argument for “incremental” change (91) on the other, is even more extraordinarily dangerous now in the context of climate chaos. He repeatedly warned that although any movement towards freedom may feel adequate, the opposite is true!

“We Shall Overcome,” the battle hymn anthem of the Civil Rights’ Movement, highlights our possibility of taking collective action, not being overwhelmed by the fact that action needed to be taken. “The full dimensions of victory can be found only by comprehending the change within the minds of millions of Negroes”(130). Only then will society change.

We shall overcome not through complacency or compliance, tokenism like greenwashing, or incremental steps that in reality set us back, like ostensible renewable energies, carbon offsetting, smart architecture, and other forms of greenwashing. We shall overcome through “creative protest” (104), creative intellectual, spiritual action-focused risk-taking. We shall overcome through a relentless commitment to our moral duty, our moral indignation in conjunction with our moral imagination.

We must follow MLK, Jr.’s lead to simultaneously challenge the “malignant kinships” of economic despair and racial /ethnic prejudice. Restorative justice and ecojustice leaders must fully commit to an intersectional web of relations that deracinates entangled underlying causes. Only then can we begin to decolonize interrelated systems of oppression (such as economics, compulsory education, food insecurity, health-care, transportation, and entertainment) through “decolonizing our thinking”(224)—that which Eduardo Kohn urges in his How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. We can transition from toxic normalcy to life-affirming relationships. Congruently, the tragic deaths of Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and recently my brother-in-law, Greg Jacobs, aka SHK-G Humpty Hump, all occurring in the “cruellest” month of April (T.S. Eliot), bring to light the vitality of death engendering new life. Just months after the Arab Spring uprisings, Zazu, now ten, was born on April 8th, 2011, my 40th birthday—his due date,[8] an unassisted homebirth in our Oakland apartment, blocks away from Occupy Oakland—the decentralized “headquarters” of the Occupy Movement. I invoke the juncture of Carson, King, and SHK-G’s April passing and my son’s April birth in the context of Earth Day 2022 as a memorial to embody decolonized consciousness through collective action. Their lifes’ work was not in vain.

Their collective passing stirs the possibilities of reconstructing our moral imagination within a “mosaic ecosystem” (William Cronon).[9] Dr. King declared, “When a police dog buried his fangs in the ankle of a small child in Birmingham, he buried his fangs in the ankle of every American. …I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (74, 86-87). These potent images apply not only to human interrelationships, but to our infinite interconnectedness with the other-than-human world—specifically trees. Next month, we will explore interspecies collaborations: how tree-knowledge as tree-living can be nourished through prayer-as-action.

Notes

[1] SHK-G, Humpty Hump, along with Noam Chomsky, Paul Hawken, Rabbi Lerner, Bill McKibben, James E. Hansen, David Orr, Karen Barad, Claire Colebrook, Arun Gandhi, Dalia Kandiyoti, Thom Hartmann, Henry Giroux, Stephanie Seneff, Eve Ensler, and Antonia Juhasz endorsed my cross-cultural, climate justice book: Zazu Dreams: Between the Scarab and the Dung Beetle, A Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene Era.

[2] Unless otherwise indicated, all citations refer to MLK Jr.’s Why We Can’t Wait, Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

[3] For example, the United States Forest Service, Department of Agriculture (USFS) has allowed Nestlé to illegally pump 25 million gallons of water a year using a permit that expired over 28 years ago, see Zazu Dreams Endnote 154, 114.

[4] See Peter Coleman’s Intractable Differences Program, Columbia University: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdrdhU8WrfA

[5] See Derrick Jensen’s “To Live Or Not To Live: The danger of the tragic hero mindset,” Orion, May/June, 2011: 13.

[6] Dr. Suzanne Simard, who has been called “the Rachel Carson of our time,” describes plants and trees as having “an incredible capacity to change things very quickly.” They do not cling to the familiar.

[7] Originally published in the early 1960s, Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Chico, CA, AK Press, 2004, 186.

[8] Two percent of babies are born on their due dates.

[9]William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indian, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983). Also, see Endnote 3 in Zazu Dreams: “When asked his religion, Einstein replied: ‘Mosaic.’ ” (85).

Previously Published on Mother Pelican

 

Image courtesy of author

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