A week before the state’s First-in-the-South Democratic primary, environmental and social justice leaders congregated at Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston on Saturday to discuss the impacts of climate change on equal rights, urging attendees to make their voices heard at the ballot box.
The event, organized by the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, National Wildlife Federation, National Action Network, International African American Museum, and South Carolina Wildlife Federation, brought Martin Luther King III, the son of Martin Luther King Jr., Aonie Gilcreast, chief adviser to former Flint, Mich. Mayor Karen Weaver, and local state Rep. JA Moore (D-Berkeley) to discuss their work on environmental justice.
A panel discussion during the second half of the event examined the challenges of working among tight-knit communities with local organizers including KJ Kearney (Conservation Voters), Tamika Gadsden (Black Voters Matter), Rahim Karriem (Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities), and others.
“Human rights also include economic, social, and cultural rights,” King said, “such as the right to housing, the right to healthcare, the right to education, the right to social security, the right to an adequate standard of living — which means poverty by definition is a violation of human rights — and the right to a safe environment.”
While the conversation broadly encompassed civil rights and environmental justice, the event repeatedly returned to discussions of local waterways as concerns grow over increased flooding across the nation.
“You in this area are consistently experiencing flooding,” King says. “Anybody who doesn’t question, ‘Is that normal —’ I’m not sure what planet you’re living on.
“We are witnessing an increase in extreme weather conditions, which have resulted in serious humanitarian challenges,” King continues. “Everywhere, people are talking about floods, fires, tornados, hurricanes and strange and unfamiliar weather patterns.”
Not only has flooding given rise to challenges regarding water to minority communities throughout the country, but access to clean drinking water is still a major concern for many.
The water crisis in Flint, Mich., which began in 2014 after the city began to draw its drinking water from the Flint River, has still not seen a full resolution. As the mayor of Flint, Weaver was at the forefront of addressing a crisis that she was urged to sweep under the rug.
“It was not a natural disaster, but a man-made disaster,” Gilcreast says. “So, the question came to her in a meeting, ‘Mayor, don’t say anything about what is taking place, because the government is going to get mad.’ And, she says, ‘Do you think the government would get madder than we are?’”
Gilcreast says he couldn’t help but wonder whether less-well-off communities in Charleston would receive the same treatment if a similar situation developed here.
The idea of using one’s power through their vote was in echo to the words of King.
“ … No one concerned about the environment and environmental sustainability, climate change, or environmental justice can be a person who just stands by in this electoral season,” He says. “We don’t need to stand by — we need to stand up.”
King also closed his speech with a nod to his father.
“We must stand together for freedom, justice, and equality for everyone, and be a part of a new global united front against racism and bigotry,” King proclaimed. “If we are able to come together to affirm our desire for a world for all, equal in dignity and rights, then we would be on our way to becoming the community my father envisioned and spoke about. We haven’t gotten there yet.”
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