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Dr. King's Legacy Four Decades After His Death in Memphis

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Growing Just and Green Black Communities

This April 4th marks the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee.   Dr. King was called to Memphis in 1968 on an environmental and economic justice mission involving 1,300 striking sanitary public works employees from Local 1733.  The strike shut down garbage collection, sewer, water and street maintenance. Clearly, the Memphis struggle was much more than a garbage strike.  The "I AM A MAN" signs reflect the larger struggle for human dignity and human rights.  Although Memphis was Dr. King's last campaign, his legacy lives on even to this day. 

Memphis again this year will take center stage on April 2-6 when an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people and several national conferences descend on the city to commemorate Dr. King's death.  The city will host the 10th National Action Network (NAN) 2008 Convention and the Dream Reborn Conference, seeking to deepen and strengthen partnerships to grow smarter and make communities of color healthier, greener, cooler, and more just. 

Toward a Darker Shade of Green 

The Memphis gathering offers an excellent opportunity to commemorate the life, death, and legacy of a great American hero.  It also provides the nation with a time to take stock of the many on-going environmental and economic justice and human rights struggles taking place across the nation.  Memphis offers a space for veteran and emerging leaders to develop new strategies for making African Americans and other people of color communities some of the "best places" to live, work, and play. 

Seldom do places where African American are in the majority make the ranking as the richest, healthiest, cleanest, greenest, fittest, safest, most walkable, most livable, and most sustainable.  Making communities of color more sustainable and "greening the ghetto" through innovation, opportunity, and community enrichment with more vibrant planning and healthier living is the right and just thing to do.     

As was true in Dr. King's era, everyone produces garbage but everyone does not have to live next to where the garbage is dumped.  In 2006, U.S. residents, businesses, and institutions produced more than 251 million tons of municipal solid waste, which is approximately 4.6 pounds of waste per person per day.  Far too much of this garbage and toxic wastes end up in poor and people of color communities. 

Memphis has changed since Dr. King's death.  The city's black population grew from 39.2 percent black in 1970 to 63.5 percent black in 2006.  The nation is also very different in 2008 than it was forty years ago.  Nationally, the black population grew from 11.1 percent of the U.S. population in 1970 to 13.4 percent in 2006.  Hispanics now make up 15 percent of the U.S. population.   

Whites are now in the minority in nearly one in ten counties. Non-Hispanic whites now make up less than half the population in 303 of the nation's 3,141 counties.  Nationally, people of color topped 100 million for the first time in 2006, about a third of the population. By 2050, people of color will account for half of U.S. residents.  Non-Hispanic whites, who were 67 percent of the U.S. population in 2005, will drop to 47 percent, growing only 4 percent from 2005 to 2050.

Taking Back Black Health 

If Dr. King were alive today, there is a good chance he would be leading the fight to bury toxic racism and environmental injustice.  He would be leading the charge to take back black health.  Forty years after the tragedy in Memphis, low-income and people of color communities are exposed to higher levels of pollution than the rest of the nation and these same populations experience certain diseases in greater number than more affluent white communities.  Ironically, people of color are disproportionately represented among the record 47 million uninsured Americans. One-third of Hispanics and one-fifth of blacks were uninsured in 2006, compared with just over ten percent of whites. 


African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.  In 19 states, African Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to live in neighborhoods where air pollution seems to pose the greatest health danger.  A similar pattern holds true for Hispanics in 12 states and for Asians in seven states.

African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group in the U.S. for most cancers.  The death rate for all cancers combined is 35 percent higher in African American men and 19 percent higher in African American women than in white men and women.  Lung cancer accounts for the largest number of cancer death among both black men (31%) and black women (22%), followed by prostate cancer in men (13%) and breast cancer in women (19%). Breast cancer is a major killer of black women.  Black women under the age of 50 are 77 percent more likely to die from the disease than white women of all ages. 

Toxic Wastes and Race.  A 2007 United Church of Christ Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report found African Americans and other people of color make up the majority (56%) of the residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities, nearly double the percentage in areas beyond two miles (30%).  They also make up more than two-thirds (69%) of the residents in neighborhoods with clustered facilities.  Forty of 44 states (90%) with hazardous waste facilities have disproportionately high percentages of people of color in host neighborhoods, on average about two times greater than the percentages in non-host areas (44% vs. 23%).  Nine out of ten EPA regions have racial disparities in the location of hazardous waste facilities and 105 of 149 metropolitan areas with hazardous waste sites (70%) have disproportionately high percentages of people of color, and 46 of these metro areas (31%) have majority people of color host neighborhoods.  

Dirty Power Plants.  More than 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant-the distance within which the maximum effects of the smokestack plume are expected to occur-compared with 56 percent of white Americans. 

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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