Naadiya Hutchinson speaks at a climate rally in front of the Supreme Court building in D.C. on July 6. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)
Naadiya Hutchinson speaks at a climate rally in front of the Supreme Court building in D.C. on July 6. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)

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The Informer is getting ready for Earth Day on April 22 by celebrating the earth all month long. Our theme for April, in connection with the international Earth Day theme, is “Invest in Our Earth.”  Since this time last year, our newsroom has put increased emphasis on continuing coverage about the environment and how it impacts Black DMV residents — we added this Our Earth section, for one thing! Stay tuned on Twitter (@WashInformer) or Instagram (washinformer) for environmental facts, nature pictures and information about how the Informer celebrates our earth. 

Spring blooms and warmer weather this month make it easy to appreciate natural beauty in our city. It’s a good time, not only to read about the environment, but also, to get out into it. Organizations all over the DMV offer a bonanza of ways to get involved throughout the month through opportunities to volunteer, learn and just enjoy springtime. 

But for me, Earth Month is also a time to reflect on why all of that matters. What do cherry blossoms and green grass have to do with other, more abstract things that I care about: health and wellbeing, jobs and justice. 

Environmental hazards in our region, which range from lead pipes to air pollution to flooding and heat exposure, all hit Black communities and low-income communities hardest. Those hazards — many of which will become more frequent or more severe as the world continues to warm — impact our health and our communities’ stability. Caring for the Earth isn’t just about saving polar bears. It’s about saving us. 

“This is fundamentally a movement about the future of our children,” Ben Jealous told me in an interview after a rally a few weeks ago. The former head of the NAACP recently took the helm at the national environmental group Sierra Club. 

“I was prodded into this move, to get back involved in the environmental movement, by Lou Gossett Jr. who said to me quite plainly: ‘The planet is dying and it won’t matter who’s in first class on a dead planet,’” Jealous said.

Black History and Earth Day 

Around the first Earth Day in April 1970, activists in St. Louis, Missouri, put together a series of skits titled “Black Survival” about how environmental issues impacted Black residents of urban areas. At the time, few others had begun connecting environmentalism to the fight for civil rights or economic justice. 

But “Black Survival” foreshadowed many of the issues that sit front and center in today’s environmental justice movement, including lead poisoning and air pollution. It was developed and performed by a short-lived environmental group called the St. Louis Metropolitan Black Survival Committee, chaired by Mrs. Freddie Mae Brown, a Black social worker.

“How long must we wait before the world is free of pollution? Must we first stand on the brink of extinction, and be devoured by rats and cockroaches and wars that never end,” the script reads. “Our rich white brothers deny the Black, the Indian, the Chicano, and the poor, food to eat… [They] aren’t concerned about poor people being unemployed, they don’t care about the lousy schools, or cops who whop the heads of the poor. And they don’t care about the expressways that displaced our neighborhoods and the problems of pollution they bring in. As a matter of fact, they never cared at all about the problems until they started calling them environmental problems and saw that the mess in the food, water, and air wasn’t just killing poor folk but was killing them too.”

But “Black Survival” was notable partly because it was an exception. While around 20 million Americans participated across the country, very few of the protesters turning out on April 22, 1970 were Black. The Philadelphia Tribune — one of the nation’s oldest African American newspapers — published a story later that week with a headline reading “Less Than 100 Blacks Take Part in Gigantic Earth Day Rites Here.” The crowd in Philadelphia had at least 25,000 total people.

In the early 1970s, most civil rights leaders saw the environmental movement as a distraction from the true fight for equality. And the early environmental movement, led primarily by upper-class white environmentalists, excluded Black, brown and poor Americans from the conversation — sometimes intentionally. It would take nearly two decades for scholars and activists to force the environmental movement to own up to its racial blindness by documenting the alarmingly disproportionate number of hazardous waste facilities sited in Black communities.

Since then, the environmental movement has heavily increased its focus on how environmental harms hit minority and low-income communities hardest, in the U.S. and globally. Earth Day has become a global event, too: according to the official Earth Day international network, more than a billion people across the planet mobilize for the event each year.

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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