Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency hosted a ceremony celebrating the 20th anniversary of Executive Order #12898 on environmental justice in the Rachel Carson Green Room of its D.C, headquarters. The guest of honor there was Congressman John Lewis, the long-time civil rights champion who also was one of the earliest advocates for environmental justice in Congress.
In 1992, Rep. Lewis introduced the Environmental Justice Act, the first piece of legislation dedicated to abolishing racial disparities in how environmental protection was applied. He introduced this law along with his colleague in the upper chamber, Al Gore, then a senator for Tennessee, and who was also one of the earliest champs in the federal government for the cause. Both men helped get the executive order over the finish line two years later under President Bill Clinton, who signed it.
Yesterday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy presented Rep. Lewis with an award for his work in marrying environmental public policy with civil rights principles, which McCarthy has been pushing as a key element of the agency’s work.
In his keynote before the audience, Lewis recalled growing up in Jim Crow Alabama and asking his family why there was racial discrimination. “They said, ‘That’s just the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble,’” said Lewis, before turning to the many activists and government officials in the room to say, “Thank you for getting in the way. Thank you for getting in trouble – good trouble. For bringing environmental justice to all of the people in our nation. It is the right thing to do. It is the necessary thing to do.”
Lewis then gifted McCarthy with a copy of the graphic novel he stars in called “March,” which illustrates the story of the many civil rights demonstrations he participated in throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Watch this video clip from the ceremony:
Read more about the history of environmental justice over at my blog at Grist.org.