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The Debt We Owe to MLK
Fifty years after his stirring speech, pollution and its link to poverty are among the factors holding back the achievement of Dr. King's dream.

Fifty years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, his powerful words remind us of the enduring impact the civil rights movement has had not only on the lives of African-Americans, but on us all.

A central theme of his speech, and the movement it embodied, is that the goals of freedom, equality and justice cannot be secured for any of us so long as they are denied to some of us. "We cannot walk alone," King said, because the common destiny of every American is "inextricably bound" to all the rest.

That fundamental belief helped advance the cause of African-Americans, but also of women, people with disabilities, gays, immigrants, and others still striving for the basic rights that form part of the promise of American ideals.

It’s hard not to think of King’s dream when reading Ted Genoways’s powerful account this week of the residents, 95 percent of them African American, of Port Arthur, Texas, a town that OnEarth rightly labels an "American Sacrifice Zone." These are people whose homes and health have been harmed for decades by giant Gulf Coast refineries churning out crude practically on their doorsteps, and whose fates would only be made worse by completion of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, which, if built, would deliver 830,000 barrels a day of the dirtiest fuel on the planet to their city for refining.

All too often, industrial pollution takes its heaviest toll on those who live in what King called "islands of poverty," the low-income quarters of our cities, the bottomlands of our rural communities, the industrial zones like Port Arthur where we've sacrificed environmental quality for corporate profits.

Were he alive today, it's not hard to guess what Dr. King would have to say about the appalling rates of asthma among low-income people living in the most polluted parts of cities like Houston, Los Angeles, and Cleveland. It's pretty clear what his position would be on subsistence farmers worried about the impact that fracking might have on local water supplies, or the plight of millions of people struggling to cope with rising sea level, drought, wildfires, and other front-line impacts of climate change.

And we know he would have both grieved and condemned the death and destruction visited upon the people of New Orleans eight years ago, when Hurricane Katrina skipped unimpeded across coastal buffer lands ravaged by decades of oil and gas operations, to slam into the Crescent City.

"I have a dream," Dr. King said 50 years ago this week. "It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."

Part of this great leader's genius, part of his strength, part of what inspires us still, is his recognition that the American dream is not just for the few, it is the sum of all our dreams. That’s what has guided one movement after another in our national quest to build that more perfect union of our forebear's own dreams. Countless decades from now, it will still be what matters most.

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image of Bob Deans
Bob Deans spent 30 years in the newspaper industry as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other publications and is a former president of the White House Correspondents' Association. Currently NRDC's associate director of communications, his most recent book is Reckless: The Political Assault on the American Environment. MORE STORIES ➔