Home Climate justice Former MLK colleague commemorates environmental justice movement with NC roots

Former MLK colleague commemorates environmental justice movement with NC roots


A former colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed members of the Duke community under the stained glass windows and among the pews of Duke Chapel on September 15.

Civil rights activist Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., Divinity School ’80, recent President’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and former MLK colleague, joined Catherine Coleman Flowers, current vice chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and Nicholas School Practitioner in Residence.

The event, titled “Environmental Justice: Past, Present, and Future,” was hosted by the Sanford School of Public Policy as part of Duke’s Environmental Justice series and broadcast live worldwide. It was meant to celebrate and mark the anniversary of the Warren County protests in 1982, which ushered in a new movement and a new academic field and changed the course of history.

“In 40 years, we now not only have a movement in North Carolina, we have a movement all over the world. The environmental justice movement is a global movement,” Chavis said. “The future is what we shape the future.”

The opening statement was followed by a discussion and Q&A involving both speakers and moderated by Cameron Oglesby, currently a graduate student at Sanford. Throughout the discussion, panellists touched on the history and origins of environmental justice, its importance locally and internationally, and more specific issues such as voter turnout, climate justice in rural areas and the Duke’s role in continuing to move the movement forward.

Chavis’ points mainly focused on the importance of unity in the movement, covering all ethnic groups, private and public companies, states and nations. He also stressed that political engagement should be at the forefront, particularly through voter turnout and the election of leaders who have a heart and experience in environmental justice issues.

“On November 8, democracy is on the ballot. On November 8, environmental justice is on the ballot. On November 8, climate justice is on the ballot. On November 8, racial justice is on the ballot,” Chavis said.

Chavis was the youngest person to be elected executive director and CEO of the NAACP. He entered the role in 1993, but was later fired in 1994.

Chavis is also credited with coining the term “environmental racism”. In the 1960s he worked alongside MLK and over the next decade was wrongfully incarcerated for his involvement in the Warren County protest.

Coleman is an author, MacArthur Fellow, and founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, who has dedicated her career to researching and raising awareness of environmental inequalities in rural and marginalized communities.

Using his expertise in poor sanitation in rural communities, Coleman explained how collaborating globally to improve sanitation can help those who are historically marginalized, for example, by “using the human rights framework ‘man [and] Sustainable Development Goals. She also cited her experience working overseas and at the White House to emphasize the importance of collaboration and exchange programs.

Both speakers agreed that although the movement has made significant progress, there is still much to do. Yet they expressed hope and optimism because of the number of young people, including at Duke, who are passionate about the environmental justice movement.

“On this 40th anniversary as an optimist, I am encouraged because I see young people. White youth, black and Latino youth, Pacific Islander and Asian youth. I see young people demanding climate justice. Not waiting for politicians and not even waiting for public policy makers,” Chavis said.

He followed up with a lesson he learned from his time working with MLK stating, “It’s not just good enough to see an injustice. We [have to] have the courage to challenge this injustice, to change this injustice.

“And we only have opportunities today. We should want clean air, clean water, good healthy food for everyone,” Chavis said.

At the end of the event, sophomore Meghna Parameswaran, who attended due to her involvement in a Bass Connections project and her interest in environmental justice, described the event as “beautifully organized”.

“As soon as they came out and started talking, I had tears in my eyes,” Parameswaran said.

“Just being in the presence of these incredible and wonderful people has motivated me to want to do everything I can to be part of this movement and to be in community with people like them.”