Fifty years after Selma, it’s worth remembering that the continued exploitation of poor blacks by whites also includes their environmental exploitation, as (largely) white-owned companies use their neighborhoods for toxic dumping grounds and to site the most hazardous and polluting factories.
The South has long been a region where fossil fuel industries have pretty much had their way with mostly poor, black, brown, and Native American communities, mainly due to lax regulations and poor environmental and civil rights law enforcement. Just this week in Alabama, the environmental group Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) filed a civil rights complaint against the Jefferson County Department of Health for allowing Walter Coke, Inc. to continue emitting air pollutants over predominantly black communities (Grist wrote about this last April). A University of Alabama at Birmingham study found a correlation between low birth weight and household proximity to coke plants in Birmingham. It’s the second civil rights complaint GASP has filed on this matter in as many months.
“North Birmingham has historically served as a dumping ground for polluting facilities,” said long-time environmental justice scholar and activist Robert Bullard, who’s helping lead environmental justice activities in Selma. “The neighborhood was an environmental ‘sacrifice zone’ when I did my student teaching at a high school in the area way back in 1968.”
The latest concern, and one of the largest, for environmental justice activists in the South is a gigantic “clean coal” facility under construction in Kemper County, Miss. As Grist writer Sara Bernard recently reported, the operation is already taking an economic toll on the surrounding communities and provides no guarantees that it won’t add to pollution already saturating the state’s land, air, and water.
That plant is owned and operated by Mississippi Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, which owns numerous dirty coal plants around the South, and has funded the work of recently discredited climate denier Wei-Hock Soon. Just so happens that Southern Co. is also a sponsor of the Selma 50th anniversary event this weekend. (Mississippi Power is not a sponsor, but two of Southern’s other subsidiaries, Georgia Power and Alabama Power, are sponsors.)
One would hope that sponsoring civil rights commemorations wouldn’t get these companies off the hook for hurting black people in the present. Of course, the executives of these companies almost certainly also support politicians who want to roll back black voting rights.