The recent climate strikes and President Biden’s 2021 decision to join the 2015 Paris climate accord reveal that organizers and world leaders are intent on approaching the climate crisis as a global issue. Yet this progress overshadows the persistent prevalence of environmental racism at home: The Flint water crisis has yet to fully be resolved, and few know about “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile, predominantly Black area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where residents are 50 times more likely to develop cancer due to local chemical plants.
This is why the lesson proclaimed in the National Black Political Agenda by thousands of Black people who gathered in Gary, Ind., 50 years ago still matters for climate groups from the Environmental Defense Fund to the National Wildlife Federation. The climate crisis is a racial crisis, and it requires putting the “living environment before profits” and environmental morality before political expediency. Solutions will need to address both crises to be successful.
On March 10, 1972, thousands of Black Americans packed into a gymnasium in Gary to debate the future of Black Americans. Among the attendees to the National Black Political Convention were writer and nationalist Amiri Baraka, Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, Black politicians like Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.) and community organizer and reparations activist “Queen Mother” Audley Moore. People came to the convention with different hopes and ideas for the three-day meeting. But in his opening speech, newly elected Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher made their collective goal clear: “We must emerge from this convention with an independent, Black political agenda, a dynamic program for Black liberation that in the process will liberate America from its current decadence.”
Many herald what is now known as the “Gary Convention” as the start of a new political moment and ground zero for the precipitous rise in Black elected officials in the post-civil rights era. Indeed, much of the focus in Gary was on whether Black people should be beholden to the two-party political system or create an independent Black political party.
An underappreciated but prescient aspect of the convention was participants’ environmental protection platform. Even as they disagreed on the best political path forward for Black Americans, the activists in Gary asserted that climate change was a civil rights issue and that addressing it was essential to Black survival.
Gary organizers recognized that environmental matters were of concern to the wider American public given the creation of Earth Day in 1970. Yet the group expressed concerns about the motivations behind its creation. They suggested that Earth Day was a calculated move on the part of lawmakers to diffuse the antiwar and civil rights movements and compel White liberals to organize around a common, less contentious issues.
Many of the delegates who came to Gary had direct experience with environmental racism because toxic waste dumps, chemical plants and sewage outlets were purposely located in their communities.
So conference leadership tasked a cross-section of activists with using the meeting to highlight the intersections of climate change and racial justice. In state caucus groups they discussed the disproportionate effects of “noise, air, solid waste, sewage, rodents and pests, and lead poisoning” had on Black residential communities and denounced the industrial plants and government agencies that left Black people to “suffer the atrocities of pollution.”
They correctly predicted that cars were major sources of pollution and that “food products with excessive chemical additives” — the main nutritional options for low-income communities — would foster food insecurity and create another facet of environmental injustice.
Participants built a plan for a racially conscious climate change action. They tasked the environmental research team, a five-person collective that included grass-roots organizers, Black doctors like Alvin Poussaint and researchers from universities across the country, with creating a platform to be included in the National Black Political Agenda — a 68-page published document that delicately combined the priorities of various constituencies. The agenda included six action items for Black people looking to shape climate change discussions, including “educat[ing] Black community residents on the causes and effects of pollution” and setting community standards for maximum amounts of pollutants in their areas. Gary organizers also encouraged participants to explore how to reduce air pollution in inner cities and support those who “bring suit against corporations and other entities” that were responsible for polluting Black residential areas.
Thinking long-term, convention attendees advised local groups to try to “provide technical training and public service employment” in their communities to promote Black people’s “entry into environmental protection occupations.” Their ultimate goal was to install organizers in formal government positions to help create community-controlled programs to mitigate climate change. Finally, they called on all Black people to create “action groups” to combat the major polluters in their areas.
Those who came to Gary knew that there would be no progress for Black people unless they made protecting the planet a central part of their efforts to safeguard Black rights. Convention-goers ranging from Jessie Jackson to Black student organizers recognized White lawmakers’ efforts to de-racialize and de-radicalize environmental justice despite the fact that Black people’s experiences revealed a clear connection between environmental deterioration and racial discrimination.
When the convention closed, thousands of Black organizers returned to their homes equipped with action items to support climate change initiatives in their area. In Gary for example, a group of Black residents joined forces to support a bill to curb emissions of the U.S. Steel Corp., the primary polluter of the city. A few years later, environmental-justice organizing gained national attention when Black residents in Warren County, N.C., protested the state’s effort to dump thousands of truckloads of toxic soil in Afton, a rural, Black community.
Convention organizers’ environmental action platform was prescient. Indeed, their fears about “the policies and actions” of “industrial plants, motor vehicles, slumlords, and governmental agencies” polluting Black areas through poor housing conditions, toxic waste dumping and tax breaks for chemical plants and factories, are coming to fruition today.
Even more perceptive was organizers’ assessment that the focus and face of climate justice was and would continue to be White. Just as Earth Day whitewashed the Gary organizers’ environmental concerns, so too does the environmental justice movement in America remain segregated today. White environmental interests and dollars tend to focus on preserving wildlife and green spaces, while activists of color focus primarily on preventing industrial plants and chemical waste from uprooting or polluting their communities. Meanwhile the most recognizable climate change activists, like Greta Thunberg, are White, and activists of color remain relatively unknown and underappreciated.
That’s why we need to remember their solutions as well, particularly their calls to integrate environmental justice into all aspects of organizing. The Gary organizers left us a road map before they left West Side High School 50 years ago this month. Most important, they left us with one of the biggest lessons of this historic meeting: climate justice is racial justice.