Jackson Calls on Minorities to Take Up Environmental Battle


Declaring that the right to breathe clean air is as basic as holding a job, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Monday in Los Angeles that the time has come for minorities to enlist in the environmental movement.

Addressing an enthusiastic crowd of 300 predominantly Latino students at East Los Angeles College, the civil rights leader was joined by Earth Day Chairman Denis Hayes and local political leaders and activists in calling on minorities to join what until now has been a mostly white middle-class movement.

“Over the years I’ve led many demonstrations--the right to public accommodations, the right of open housing, the right to be free of a third world war, the right to register and vote,” Jackson said. “Yet none of those rights are more basic than the right to breathe free. For unless I have the right to breathe, the right to drink good drinking water, no other right can be realized.”

Using a rhetorical style that has come to characterize his public speeches, Jackson led the students in repeated chants: “We have a right to breathe free. We have a right to breathe free. We have a right to clean drinking water. We have a right to breathe free. Save the children. Save the Earth. Save the children. Save the Earth.”


In calling on minorities to become environmental activists, Jackson hit upon a dilemma long acknowledged but ineffectively addressed until now by the nation’s major environmental organizations. Their memberships consist largely of what Hayes called “upper-middle-class, well-educated, politically active, 35- to 60-year-old white folks.”

But Jackson and others asserted Monday that minorities have as vital a stake in environmental issues as anyone, in large part because minority neighborhoods often are targeted for controversial facilities such as hazardous-waste incinerators and garbage dumps.

Jackson told the cheering noontime crowd, “It does not matter to me really who has been involved in the environmental organizations. You don’t have to be a part of the organization to be a part of the movement. Whoever breathes is an environmentalist. Whoever drinks water is an environmentalist.”

Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) told the rally that “many of us have been sitting as victims in our neighborhoods . . . and we’ve been silent because we thought somehow this was a white folks’ movement. Guess what? We’re moving in. We’re organizing. We’re going to work because we’re not going to be victims any more. We’re going to demand justice and equality on this issue.”

William Robertson, head of the Los Angeles County AFL-CIO, said the labor movement also has come to realize the importance of environmental issues.

“I must confess that labor (10 years ago) had a division in its ranks on the environment,” Robertson said. “Well, we’ve had a good awakening. We recognize now that even if jobs were a real concern--which I submit they are not--we must be concerned about the environment, principally for our kids and our grandkids.”

In an interview after his speech, Jackson rejected suggestions that working for a better environment will cost jobs in the minority community.

“It is unfathomable to try to trade off jobs for breath because without breath you cannot work, and if you work and can’t breathe for long, then you work for naught.”


Environmentalism may also be good politics for the still-ambitious two-time presidential contender, who has had only mixed results so far in his long-sought desire to expand his “Rainbow Coalition” into mainstream white America.

When the first Earth Day took place in 1970, Jackson said minorities were not involved, largely because they had just come through a grueling battle for the right to vote and other civil rights.

“It seemed as if the right to breathe was not a basic threat to us. It’s clear that it is now,” he said in the interview.

Robertson and Hayes both endorsed a proposed November ballot initiative, known as “Big Green,” that would put new controls on pesticides, logging of ancient redwood forests, offshore oil drilling, and chemicals that damage the atmospheric ozone layer and accelerate global warming.


Jackson’s appearance in East Los Angeles was part of a four-state, six-city “National Environmental Justice” tour with Hayes leading up to the 20th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22.