Environmental awareness: Activist bemoans lack of concern by African-American churches

smitchell@tri-statedefender.com | 3/6/2008, 6 p.m.


A trio of North Memphis girls participate in an environmental protest. (Courtesy photo)

Toxic waste and contaminants are destroying minority communities “while the black church stands by and does nothing,” says a local activist.

Rita Harris, regional representative/environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club, says toxic waste emissions and the unsafe dumping of deadly chemicals are killing people of color while environmental protection remains a non-issue for African-American congregations. The Sierra Club, established in 1892, is the nation’s oldest conservation entity or “green organization.”


In Douglass Park, these children are learning to link environmental awareness with action. (Courtesy photo)

Repeated attempts to reach out to African-American pastors have come up empty, says Harris.

“We are in the business of educating. That’s what I do – educate and make people aware of what is going on. Our people are being subjected to high levels of contaminants in the environment. It’s making us sick, just killing us,” says Harris.

“But we just haven’t stirred the kind of interest and support from pastors like I hoped.”

The historic role of the African-American church as a mobilizing force makes it ideal for organizing whole communities in some plan of action, says Harris

“The black church was so vital during civil rights. Today, our people are in a fight they don’t really understand. But, our message did get through to one pastor – Rev. Ralph White of Bloomfield Baptist Church,” says Harris.


Tennessee’s only oil refinery is located in the Riverview Community near McKellar Lake. (Courtesy photo)

“The chemical plants and toxic waste sites on President’s Island are extremely hazardous to that south Memphis community. It’s one of the most toxic in the city, and he is the only pastor who is taking on environmental protection issues.”

Rev. White considers himself a civil rights and environmental activist. He led daily pickets against hazardous waste expansion several years ago.

“We felt as a church that it was important to raise concerns about toxic contamination and the health of community residents, especially on behalf of our seniors and children,” he says. “People must be educated about the correlation between a high toxic environment and the illnesses that develop in those living near hazardous sites.”


Rita Harris, regional representative/environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club.
Harris says people are suffering the effects of “environmental injustice.”

The term “environmental justice,” according to a national study, refers to ‘race being the most predominant variable in where landfills, chemical plants, and toxic waste sites are located.” That is, “people of color in disproportionately large numbers live in hazardous waste host communities, and therefore, people of color are not equally protected by environmental law.”

Harris says the United Church of Christ “Toxic Waste and Race: 1987-2007” research project found that minorities on all socio-economic levels are at-risk.

“Most people of color populate contaminated areas near polluting sources,” said Harris. “The church doesn’t see it as a big deal because people aren’t dying in great numbers. But illnesses from contamination are manifested as we grow older: liver, kidney, and colon diseases – cancer – the effects are seen in our elderly.”