“All Life is Interrelated”: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Environmental Justice Legacy

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered for his powerful civil rights legacy and his nonviolent protests that inspired half a century of peaceful protest in support of equality. As a visionary orator and leader, he shepherded the movement against segregation and racism in the 1950s and 1960s that transformed America. As a reverend and scholar, he engaged with poignant issues such as equality, poverty, and the Vietnam War, through his prolific writing.

Now, more than fifty years since his death in April 1968, the implications of Dr. King’s work can also be understood in connection with the modern environmental movement. While his speeches and writing may not have directly addressed conservation, many of the central tenets of his work continue to inspire those fighting for the preservation of wildlife and our public lands.

“All life is interrelated”

In Dr. King’s famous Christmas Sermon of 1967, he said:

“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.”

Drew Delinger, in his opinion piece on the subject for the New York Times, believes this a “sentence that could easily have been uttered by John Muir or Rachel Carson,” suggesting Dr. King would find camaraderie amongst the pantheon of American conservationists.  

NWF volunteers at an Earth Day Rally in Detroit, MI, in 2010. Credit: NWF Great Lakes Regional Office (All rights reserved)

Although in the larger context of the speech, this sentence referred to globalization and the way nations were connected to support global peace and an end to war, it also touches on ideas that became central to the environmental movement in the 1970s. The movement, kicked off by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and buoyed by the momentum of the first Earth Day teach-in in 1970, focused on the interconnectedness of human and natural systems as a means to fight pollution and promote healthy ecosystems. It reflected the ideas put forth by Dr. King that no issue stands in a vacuum. Rather, protections for the environment are deeply related to protections for humans from harm based on their race, economic status, or social status.

Dr. King’s powerful reference speaks to ways in which we engage with wildlife and ecosystems–but even more broadly, to the heart of the American conservation movement. Along with our peers in the conservation and environmental justice movement, the mission of the National Wildlife Federation is to unite all Americans to ensure wildlife thrive in a rapidly changing world.

The Modern Environmental Justice Movement

Dr. King did engage directly with these values when he supported the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, in March of 1968, shortly before his death. That spring, the workers protested the unequal assignment of dangerous working conditions to black workers, as they were more exposed to hazardous chemicals and dirty air and water in their daily work than their white counterparts and for far less pay. The strike symbolized Dr. King’s engagement with the early days of the environmental justice movement, a movement that calls for equality and justice for people of color and economically disadvantaged minorities in the level of environmental safety they are provided in their homes and at work.

“Access to clean, fresh water is an American right, and yet the citizens of Flint are charged some of the highest water rates in the nation for water poisoned with lead.”- Mike Shriberg, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center.

This movement has only grown stronger since Dr. King’s death. In the words of former Attorney General Eric Holder, Dr. King “helped to plant the seeds for what would become our nation’s now-thriving environmental justice movement.” The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the majority of residents are black and corrosive water caused lead to leach into the drinking water for years, is the most well-known recent example of a grassroots movement pushing back against environmental injustice.The National Wildlife Federation has worked closely with environmental justice leaders in Flint as part of the ongoing fight to ensure clean drinking water for all citizens. Across the world, the ideas that marginalization and climate change are inextricably tied to issues of inequality have moved to the forefront of global climate discussions.

What does this mean for wildlife?

Snowshoe Hare (National Park Service photo)
Snowshoe hares are particularly threatened by climate change. (NPS Photo/Jacob W. Frank)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for the total equality of all races, classes, and nations. He believed that the government had a duty to protect its people from oppression, and to enforce laws preventing the exploitation of vulnerable people. As he said, “All life is interrelated,” so it follows that the wellbeing of humans is deeply tied to the interconnectedness of healthy ecosystems that include abundant wildlife, healthy lands, clean water and air, and safe environments for both humans and wildlife to thrive. And, since wildlife can’t speak for itself, it falls on the rest of us to provide a voice for the vulnerable creatures – the threatened and endangered species like the loggerhead sea turtle or the gray wolf, and the rapidly declining, climate-sensitive species like the lynx or the Snowshoe Hare. NWF is grateful to Dr. King for his legacy that has shaped in part our intentional efforts to build a conservation movement to protect our country’s great wildlife and natural habitats, and that is inclusive of all people.

We need strong government action to protect the wildlife and public lands we cherish. We need justice for the wildlife that can’t speak for itself. We need strong institutional values to uphold Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy – to eradicate injustice anywhere, and to promote justice everywhere.