Racial Reconciliation

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Beloved Community with the Earth and One Another

April 13, 2023
Racial Reconciliation

By the Rev. Melanie Mullen

Earth Day coincides with our remembrance of the martyrdom of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and that is appropriate, because both embody the heart of Becoming Beloved Community: truth-telling, restitution, and reconciliation. Dr. King’s final campaign before his assassination in Memphis was at the crossroads of labor, civil rights, and environmental justice, raising awareness about urban environmental issues and public health concerns that disproportionately affected—and still affect—communities of color.

Our commemoration of Dr. King’s death on April 4, 1968, and Earth Day on April 22 calls us to tell the truth about the injuries of corporate agriculture, the environmental impact of racial segregation, the often hidden but nonetheless indelible impact of toxic waste exposure, and the vulnerability of the poor to climate change. Environmental injustice illuminates the adverse effects of our collective actions on those without power and privilege in American society.

As King once said: “Before you finish eating your breakfast this morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured . . . We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of reality.”

King took some of the first steps toward environmental justice in 1968, the very week he was assassinated. He was in Memphis to assist Black sanitation workers striking for equity in pay and working conditions. Make no mistake: The Memphis Sanitation Strike was an action against unfair treatment and a cry to address environmental justice concerns.

Leaders throughout the rural South quietly took up that call. In 1982—14 years after King’s death and 12 years after the first Earth Day celebration—the majority Black community of Warren County, North Carolina, protested the state’s decision to build a toxic industrial waste dump in their backyard. People took to the streets for weeks to prevent over 60,000 tons of contaminated soil from being dumped near their homes. 

Under the leadership of the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., more than 500 individuals were arrested, and a new movement was born even as the state erected the dump, after which it quickly leaked. Behind the bars of a jail cell—not unlike King did in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”—Chavis called people to resist a new manifestation of injustice: environmental racism.

In this 2018 photo, Larry Monk stands where his father was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Flooding unearthed his father's vault and many other graves at the cemetery following Hurricane Matthew. (Photo by Gerry Broome)
In this 2018 photo, Larry Monk stands where his father was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Flooding unearthed his father’s vault and many other graves at the cemetery following Hurricane Matthew. (Photo by Gerry Broome)

Today, the region continues to suffer from the effects of environmental racism with the rise of industrial farming in the 1990s, a modern outcrop of the slave-based agriculture system. I’ve experienced the impact of this firsthand in my family’s 150-year-old, segregation-era cemetery in Goldsboro, North Carolina, which is still used today.

When we look to rural communities like these, we see how the dehumanization of people and the objectification of the Earth go hand in hand. Too often, the ecological harms we witness are not mere accidents or bad luck, but the result of conscious decisions made by leaders who abused land and people. We truly honor King and Earth Day when we play our part in the struggle for eco-justice and beloved community. Truly, racial justice is climate justice.

The Rev. Melanie Mullen serves as Episcopal Church’s director of reconciliation, justice, and creation care—charged with bringing the Jesus Movement to the concerns of the world. Before joining the presiding bishop’s staff, she was the downtown missioner at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, leading a historic Southern congregation’s missional, civic, and reconciliation ministries.