This weekend we commemorated the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday when peaceful demonstrators marching for civil rights met a fiercely violent response in Selma, Alabama. While we recall the bravery of the marchers we should also remember that their attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge was more than a demonstration. It was a bold strategy to change the narrative and create the crisis needed to challenge policy decisions that kept Jim Crow in in place.
The organizers of the march believed that what happened at the Edmund Pettus Bridge would rivet the nation’s attention and hasten passage of the Voting Rights Act, and they were right. Yet, crossing the bridge at Selma was not a final act. It set the path to cross more bridges on the way towards building a society rooted in love, fairness and equity for all. As Denise Fairchild, President of the Emerald Cities Collaborative, stated emphatically at the Clean Power, Healthy Communities Conference, “the fight for Energy Democracy, picks up where the Civil Rights movement left off.”
Her comment is a profound statement as we honor the events of 50 years ago. The Civil Rights movement continued — seeking to overthrow the yoke of an economy rooted in slave labor and oppression of Black citizens. Today, the movement towards Energy Democracy seeks to transform and repair the relationship between the economy, the earth, and people — grounding solutions in fairness, inclusion and dignity where communities can rethink economic and political opportunity through our energy system.
How does Energy Democracy follow the path of Selma? While explicit racial discrimination and violence drew national attention and action after Selma, housing discrimination, transportation policies and suburbanization were creating a new level of discrimination. Many Black and Latino communities were left to live in industrial zones, near toxic release sites and coal burning power plants. The power relationship between the polluter and the community is skewed, limiting the communities’ ability to fully participate in the economy or in our democracy – especially communities on the frontlines, often of color and low-income.
Thus, the Civil Rights movement naturally led to the fight for environmental justice. In 1982, civil rights leaders in Afton, North Carolina led the way, organizing to stop the placement of a highly toxic landfill in their community. Afton, Turkey Creek, Cancer Alley, Richmond. The list goes on, but the story is the same — communities of color have suffered the greatest environmental degradations and even when solutions are sought they have been left out of the planning processes.
Fifty years after Selma, Energy Democracy can be our Edmund Pettus Bridge. To transform our economy and build a more just and equitable society, we need to be strategic, bold and visionary. We need to take on the entrenched power system that is set on maintaining the status quo at all costs — even if it means destroying the planet to maintain their profits.
What can we do? As we honor and remember those who come before us in the Civil Rights movement, we recognize the organizers of today building the bridge to Energy Democracy:
- The NAACP, under the leadership of its Climate Justice Initiative, recently passed a resolution on clean energy that recognizes environmental justice and climate justice as a civil right. They identified community ownership of clean energy as a solution that both builds local economies and tackles climate change and the environmental pollution that has ravaged communities of color for the last 50 years.
- The Climate Justice Alliance’s Our Power Campaign recognizes the intersection of climate change and the environment with our energy, food and economic systems. The Campaign boldly sets forth a vision for an economy that takes Civil Rights to a new level — one where frontline communities and communities of color are the leaders, decision-makers and drivers of a new future in which we all can thrive.
- Gulf South Rising is a collaborative effort among grassroots leaders in the Gulf Coast who are commemorating the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and 5th Anniversary of the BP Oil Spill by forging grassroots solutions to climate change. The collaboration brings together those most affected — Black communities along cancer alley, Southeast Asian immigrant communities whose seafood-based economy was devastated by the BP oil spill, and indigenous communities like the Houma nation who are literally watching their land disappear under rising waters.
These are just three examples of the countless organizers and leaders at the local, state, national and global levels seeking to create a new and transformative economy. We can move forward to a better tomorrow by joining these bold and visionary Energy Democracy activists today.