Was MLK an environmentalist?

January 20, 2013

Nature and the environment certainly aren’t the first topics that come to mind when reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Civil Rights movement predated the environmental movement by a decade.

But as a visionary, King talked about many issues that touched on justice and spoke against the separation of moral judgement from technological advancements. And King’s legacy gave fruit to the environmental justice movement, which seeks to ensure the right to a clean and healthy environment to all people.  Also, he often framed issues in the universal terminology of the natural world.

We’ve compiled a list of choice quotes from King that bring nature to Civil Rights. What do his words mean to you?

1.  “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 destiny, affects all indirectly.”

2. “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

3. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.

4. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

5. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

6. From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring. From the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring. From the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, let freedom ring. But not only that: Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

7. “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”

8. “We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.”

About the Authors

Alison Hawkes was a Bay Nature editor from 2011-2017. Before Bay Nature she worked in journalism for more than a decade as a former newspaper reporter turned radio producer turned web editor with each rendition bringing her closer to her dream of covering environmental issues. She co-founded Way Out West, a site dedicated to covering Bay Area environmental news.