Waste: America's Dirty Secret
March 2015 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. It was a momentous occasion, with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama among the thousands who walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Veterans of the original march returned, including 103-year-old Amelia Boynton Robinson and Rep. John Lewis, both of whom were savagely beaten the first time they tried to cross the bridge. Even in a wheelchair, Mrs. Boynton was determined to cross that bridge again.
That week turned out to be a pivotal point in my life. Several events took place in Selma leading up to the emotional commemoration of Bloody Sunday, and I was invited to speak at one of them. The venue was the historic Brown Chapel AME Church, where the Selma to Montgomery march originated in 1965. It's now recognized as a sacred place for the voting rights movement. My speech was about how environmental injustice and poverty intersected in the raw sewage that flowed from forgotten people's homes.
Knowing we would both be in Selma, Karenna [Gore] had reached out to me to discuss our mutual work, and I readily agreed. I knew that climate change was going to make the raw sewage problem worse, and it seemed like this could be an opportunity for us to bridge a gap and bring together people who cared about the environment with activists on the front lines of environmental justice. We met at the church moments before having to take our seats in the pulpit to wait our turns to speak.
"My speech was about how environmental injustice and poverty intersected in the raw sewage that flowed from forgotten people's homes."
The church was already full of people there for the program, or just to sit in such a legendary place, when a group arrived and sat in the first row. I immediately recognized Reverend Dr. William Barber, who stood out among the others. I greatly admired Barber’s Moral Monday movement in North Carolina. He had mobilized a diverse coalition of activists to protest for causes such as health care access and voting rights, and had become a force to be reckoned with. I was delighted that he was there.
Barber has a huge presence, both in physical stature and in speaking style. His voice is a velvet baritone that he can lower to a mere whisper or raise to a resounding crescendo. A Duke University-trained theologian, he mixes scholarly and people-centered liberation theologies. Some compare him to Martin Luther King Jr. for his powerful oratory and ability to inspire a crowd. That day, he spoke about the principles of his moral movement, and how we should not get hung up on terms like "right" or "left" but instead choose right over wrong. I made a mental note to learn more about him because I had seldom heard a national leader frame the way forward with such clarity. I thought he might also be an ally in the campaign to bring equal access to sanitation to rural communities, and my instincts, once again, were right.
"...we should not get hung up on terms like 'right' or 'left' but instead choose right over wrong."
I also briefly met a reporter named Paul Lewis, who was the Washington correspondent for The Guardian. He was on his way to Uniontown, which was the face of environmental justice in Alabama at the time because coal ash was being dumped there from Tennessee. He and I talked about the possibility of The Guardian's breaking the story about the parasite study once it was peer-reviewed and published in a scholarly journal.
The people I connected with that week would change the trajectory of my life over the coming years. One of the most impactful was Karenna. She was preparing to launch the Center for Earth Ethics (CCE) at Union Theological Seminary, where she had earned her master's degree in divinity. She asked me to be a part of it.
After our time in Selma, I visited with her in New York and discussed her vision for the center. It would study the climate crisis through a moral lens, searching for solutions to environmental injustice in the context of history, culture, and spiritual beliefs.
Copyright © 2020 by Catherine Coleman Flowers. This excerpt originally appeared in Waste: One Woman's Fight Against America's Dirty Secret by Catherine Coleman Flowers. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.