The Turkey Creek section of Gulfport, Mississippi, a predominantly African-American neighborhood of century-old shotgun houses and one-story cottages surrounded by pine forest and freshwater marsh, is a small place with a long history of what people today would call “environmental challenges.” In 1906, for example, the Gulf Coast Creosote Company constructed a wood processing plant directly adjacent to the wooded waterway that gives Turkey Creek its name. Eighty-two years later, in 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shut down the plant and designated it a hazardous waste site under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, requiring the plant owners to take “corrective action” to treat, store, or dispose of toxic materials. In 1957, the state located a Mississippi Power coal plant less than two miles from Turkey Creek, at the convergence of Bayou Bernard and the Biloxi River. After a long struggle led by the NAACP, Sierra Club, and local grassroots groups, the plant burned its last piece of coal this April and switched to gas. During the Vietnam war, containment of a stockpile of Agent Orange at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport was breached; the defoliant migrated from the site via the area’s deep storm ditches and contaminated the Turkey Creek basin. In 1982, a massive chemical explosion at the nearby Plastifax Corporation left behind a superfund site. “It lifted the entire house while I was on the living room floor playing Atari with my cousins,” Derrick Evans, a Turkey Creek native, environmental organizer, and civil rights educator, told me.
One subtler, but potentially more damaging, threat to the area stems from the convulsive expansion that Gulfport has undergone. This formerly sleepy seaside town has transformed itself in recent decades into an overbuilt, under-infrastructured, traffic-choked, gambling-boat-fueled, post-modern exurban object lesson. Turkey Creek has suffered more than most. The wetlands in and around the neighborhood have endured “progress,” as defined by the sprawling subdivisions, light industrial enterprises, strip malls, and bedroom communities that make up modern-day Gulfport. In 2001, the Mississippi Heritage Trust named Turkey Creek to its list of the state’s ten most endangered historic places. “Gulfport is a giant textbook of incompatible land use,” Evans said. “I mean, there’s a waste-water treatment facility in the middle of a city golf course.” (Gulfport South Wastewater Treatment Facility is situated in the Bayou Vista Golf Course, directly opposite the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.)
Perhaps the most tragic consequence of this unchecked development is increased flood vulnerability, all along the Gulf Coast, but felt most acutely in low-income African-American neighborhoods. “When I was a girl, the streets and ditches would fill up with water during storms, but the wetlands absorbed much of it,” Rose Johnson, a lifelong Gulfport resident and the first black president of the Mississippi Sierra Club, told me. “Wetlands are crucial for poor communities with aging sewer lines and drainage, no sidewalks, pollution from industrial plants, and other bad development.”
The damage wrought on Gulfport in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina represented a collection of the unpaid civic and social debts rung up during this extended period of irresponsible growth. The storm turned large swaths of this small coastal city into an inland sea. Floodwaters cut the roads and washed away bridges. Among the areas hardest hit by the 25-foot storm surge and flooding was Turkey Creek. More than half of the community’s 50 homes flooded to the rafters. The winds removed a dozen roofs.
The morning of the storm, Evans was in Boston, preparing lecture notes for the fall semester at Boston College, where he was an instructor. Evans has deep roots in Turkey Creek; his family descends from the original eight families of emancipated slaves that founded the settlement in 1866. He knows its history as it evolved through generations, from its origins in the brutal Reconstruction era, through the indignities and violence of state-sanctioned segregation, and into the more recent epoch of embedded bias and municipal disenfranchisement.
So as Evans watched CNN and witnessed the destruction of his hometown, he felt a sinking dread. “I was certain my mother was dead,” he said. Evans knew the way of things in Gulfport, the South, and, in truth, the rest of the country: Help was going to start with the white neighborhoods, rich first and then poor; and there was no saying when, or if, it would reach Turkey Creek, Turnkey, Old North Gulfport, West Gulfport, Moss Point, East Biloxi, Gaston Point, or any of the African-American neighborhoods in the five linked cities of the Gulf Coast. The same held for the Vietnamese community in Biloxi’s Point Cadet, or any place where the impoverished and people of color—often one and the same—lived. Evans jumped in a car and drove south as fast as he could.
American civil rights activism and the environmental movement established their first links in Warren County, North Carolina, in 1982. The state had selected a small, predominantly African-American community for the site of a toxic waste landfill. Local residents resisted the state’s decision, arguing they had been targeted for the dump because of their race. The NAACP organized a blockade of the first toxic shipments to the site; protesters were arrested, including civil rights activists and leaders such as Benjamin Chavis, from the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice. The protesters failed to dissuade the state from forcing the landfill on Warren County, but Chavis, who would eleven years later become the youngest president of the NAACP, emerged with a new insight about the environment and racism, which he now viewed as no different than the older conjoined challenges of integration and equality before the law. He coined a new term, “environmental justice,” which he defined as resistance to the “deliberate targeting of ethnic and minority communities for exposure to toxic and hazardous waste sites and facilities, coupled with the systematic exclusion of racial minorities in environmental policy making, enforcement, and remediation.”
In 1983, the General Accounting Office published an early report detailing the alarming number of hazardous waste sites located in African-American neighborhoods. In 1987, Chavis’s United Church of Christ issued its own report, Toxic Wastes and Race, an investigation that revealed, among other statistics, that three out of every five African Americans and Hispanics lived in a community abutting a toxic site or facility. Then, in 1990, Robert Bullard, a sociologist and civil rights activist, published Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, a study of how the lessons of the civil rights movement could be used to empower African-American communities waging environmental justice campaigns. He called on leaders to “infuse egalitarian principles into the larger environmental movement.” In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, known as the Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. It directed all government agencies to consider environmental justice in their decisions, to create an environmental justice plan, and to bolster the existing environmental justice office within the EPA.
Despite these developments, a focus on environmentalism has always been a source of tension among African-American civil rights campaigners: White Americans have historically dominated the membership and staff of the largest environmental groups, which even today remain primarily focused on wildlife and health issues whose import seem removed from the everyday experiences of the urban, the poor, and people of color. What’s the urgency of protecting owls and promoting pesticide-free produce when many African Americans live with little access to wilderness or fresh vegetables of any kind? (A report published last year by the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform found that the chance an African American lives near a power plant or toxic facility remains almost double that of the general U.S. population. Children of color are almost twice as likely to suffer from asthma caused by proximity to factories, incinerators, and heavy-diesel traffic transport routes.)
Friction between old guard environmentalists and civil rights activists was mutual and never really disappeared. In 1999, Bullard told Earth First! Journal that there had been “a lot of conflict and misunderstanding” between green groups and their would-be environmental-justice-oriented allies. “We are just as much concerned [as whites] about wetlands, birds and wilderness areas,” said Bullard. “But we’re also concerned with urban habitats, where people live in cities, about reservations, about things that are happening along the U.S.-Mexican border, about children that are being poisoned by lead in housing and kids playing outside in contaminated playgrounds.”
The global and all-encompassing causes and effects of climate change have become a bridge across this divide. Just as environmentalists began to consider how habitats and climate intersect with public health and racism, civil rights activists began to see that their interests couldn’t be separated from energy and water policy. Although Evans didn’t use the term that day as he raced to his hometown, what he was thinking of was something called “climate justice.” A relatively new concept in environmental and civil rights, climate justice emerged at the end of the twentieth century as a way to describe climate change as a global phenomenon with a disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color.
The first known use of the term dates to 1999 in “Greenhouse Gangsters vs. Climate Justice,” a report published by the Transnational Resource and Action Center. The paper, which focused largely on the role of international oil companies in the creation of climate change, stated what, 16 years later, remains the basic premise of climate justice: “The poor are most vulnerable to the effects of climate changes.” Citing research from the United Nations Environment Programme, the report suggested that climate change, and its related droughts, storms, and floods, would do the most damage to countries and people dependent on traditional ways of life: farming, fishing, and forestry; the global south would be impacted worse than the global north; anyone unable to flee climate change would suffer in deeper ways than those who could.
The report called for new global policies that would mitigate climate change while also “fostering a just transition ... to a healthier and more just environment to work and live in.” This meant taking action along two main fronts: first, addressing the causes of climate change through policy changes like emissions reduction; and second, advocating on behalf of impacted communities that have less of a voice.
Environmental degradation at that time had largely been understood in a localized context: Pollution was a bad thing, but it was limited to what was created in one place, and its impact was similarly limited to wherever that bad thing traveled. From the Louisiana Delta to its analog in Nigeria, poor communities everywhere live amid toxic effluvia that poison them.
But climate justice acknowledges the global nature of climate change and how it worsens poor people’s long-term prospects in the storm-prone, eroding habitats of a warming world. In 2000, environmental and human rights activists gathered in The Hague for the first international Climate Justice Summit. Among the delegates in attendance—from Nigeria, Ecuador, Tuvalu, and elsewhere—was Margie Richard of Norco, Louisiana, a predominantly African-American oil town at the mouth of the Mississippi River whose Shell refinery had twice exploded, in 1973 and 1988. Richard made news at the summit when she presented representatives from the oil giant with a plastic bag filled with toxic air captured at her home just outside the refinery.
The manifesto of the second Climate Justice Summit, held in 2002 in Delhi, India, sought to broaden the ethical scope of climate change, defining it as a “human rights issue.” Employing a greened Marxist rhetoric that married climate activism to leftist movements that had traditionally dismissed environmentalism as a bourgeois concern, the Delhi manifesto described climate change’s aggressors as primarily “industrialized nations and transnational corporations,” and its victims the societies and populations excluded from power. Whenever multinational talks on climate change have taken place, climate justice activists have been there to remind the participants of its agenda. As the leadership of the NAACP’s Climate Justice Initiative describes it on their website: “When folks think about climate change, the first things some people think of are melting ice caps and suffering polar bears. However, many fail to make the connection in terms of the direct impact on our own lives, families, and communities.”
Here in the United States, the fundamental tenets of climate justice—equity in disaster planning, relief, and burden sharing—are especially applicable in places like the Gulf Coast, where climate change compounds long and ongoing legacies of racial and economic marginalization. As a result, Hurricane Katrina was, for many Americans, the first introduction to climate justice in both theory and practice: The poor and powerless were more vulnerable to the extreme weather events that increasingly define a warmer, wetter planet than were the wealthy. Five years later, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill decimated the Louisiana and Mississippi fishing industries. “Katrina and the BP spill exposed a social, environmental, and human rights crisis zone across the Gulf Coastal plain,” said Evans.
A place like Gulfport is indeed a crisis zone, one that exemplifies the specific vulnerability of a single location exposed to harsh elements. But it is more than that: It is a U.S. emblem of a global problem. In Turkey Creek, Evans’s mother survived the storm—barely. One of his cousins, of which he has many—“If you’re black and from Gulfport, there’s a thirty percent chance you are my cousin”—commandeered a submerged 17-foot skiff, plugged it with a pinecone, and began paddling toward the homes on the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. They rescued more than 20 elderly residents that day, including Evans’s 70-year-old mother and 94-year-old stepfather, whom they found in their single-story shotgun house, up to their necks in murky water. But his concerns about what could have happened to her were no less valid. The Gulf Coast is where the world can see climate justice made plain.
On a cloudless morning in April, the local leadership of the EcoDistrict Initiative, a climate justice project founded by the NAACP, convened one of their semiregular organizational meetings in a small office at Gulfport’s city hall. In 2014, Gulfport became one of three EcoDistrict Initiative pilot sites (the others were in Longview, Texas, and Fort Walton Beach, Florida). The goal of the project is to develop “scalable” urban models and metrics for climate justice organizing. “Every community is going to have unique challenges, but right now identifying those challenges can mean success. Adaptation planning is only possible once people understand the ways they are under threat,” said Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program. Gulfport, given its coastal location, low incomes, and large African-American population, seemed a natural home for such an experiment.
“In Gulfport, right there in the center of the hurricane corridor, you have all the necessary dynamics. The city also has a wealth of organizing assets,” said Patterson, pointing to groups like the NAACP and local civic and faith organizations. “It’s a strong foundation on which to build.”
And there are plenty of problems for the groups buttressed by that foundation to address. In the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Evans took trips around the Gulf Coast, visiting African-American and low-income neighborhoods. He heard the same stories everywhere: lack of resources, feelings of isolation, inequality in the aid response, oppressive and indifferent local planners and politicians. In early October, five weeks after the storm, Evans convened a meeting in Turkey Creek on the debris-strewn lawn of his great-grandfather’s ramshackle home to discuss these issues. Much of Turkey Creek showed up, as well as African-American activists and residents from other parts of the city.
“I told everyone to be alarmed about what the government and business community had planned for the city,” said Evans, a large man who likes to keep his head of unruly hair under a backward Red Sox cap. Entrenched interests, including people like then–Governor Haley Barbour and his friends, considered Katrina’s devastation an opportunity to achieve their development agenda. This included Barbour’s pet dream of expanding the city’s shallow-water port, which would require massive dredging and watershed destruction to make way for transport routes. Evans’s suspicion proved correct. Barbour would later redirect $600 million in Katrina funds from U.S. Housing and Urban Development intended for low-income housing recovery to port expansion.
He told the people gathered at that first meeting to find their voice in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and start fighting for a say in the planning for inevitable future environmental disasters. “The people responsible for decades of bad development, which increased the city’s flood vulnerability, especially in black neighborhoods—they were preparing developers’ wish-lists with no concern for the human or community impacts, or the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, or any understanding of ecology or climate change and the need for equity in adaptation planning.” The storm, he argued, should serve notice to people in marginalized communities—not just in Gulfport but around the world, among those most affected by bad planning, institutional racism, and climate change—to do something about it. “I told people, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’”
Running the meeting at city hall that day was Ruth Story, a 71-year-old retired teacher and former president of the Gulfport chapter of the NAACP. Story had been among those who attended Evans’s front lawn meeting in 2005. (She, too, is a distant relation of Evans’s.) Many area activists credit Evans with helping them understand the ways that environmental and planning issues intertwine. “The idea is to make communities stronger and more resilient, because the storms and heat waves are getting worse,” Story said. “Deep down, even if they think everything is an act of God, people around here know something is happening with the weather.”
Three of Gulfport’s best-known climate justice activists joined Story at the meeting: Kathy Egland, chair of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Committee; Howard Page, of the STEPS Coalition, a local environmental nonprofit; and Ella Holmes-Hines, a Gulfport city council member from the predominantly African-American Old North Gulfport neighborhood.
The meeting wended its way through a profusion of topics that exemplify the “intersectionality” of climate justice. There were new threats to Gulfport wetlands posed by a Louisiana developer and landfill owner named T.J. “Butch” Ward, as well as new ways to track the elderly during weather emergencies. “What about those electronic medical bracelets?” Story asked.
A discussion of the institutional racism of aid agencies, relief groups, and policy advocacy organizations consumed much of the meeting. This subject stirred up bitter memories from Hurricane Katrina, when the Red Cross and FEMA chose to locate their aid camps in Gulfport’s wealthier white communities, such as Orange Grove, and failed to visit or deliver supplies to African-American communities, leaving out-of-state church groups and private volunteers to fill the vacuum. Shortly after the storm, Joe Leonard, executive director of the Washington-based Black Leadership Forum, told the Associated Press, “The [Red Cross] did not do an equitable job of responding to all communities.” Rick Pogue, the chief diversity officer for the Red Cross, mustered this weak response: “The need was so great, we’d go first to the areas we could get to the easiest.”
The failure of the Red Cross especially troubled Egland, who as a teenager in the mid-’60s helped desegregate her high school in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a small city about an hour north of Gulfport. “They need to be held accountable next time,” she said. “We need to just keep having some very frank discussions about their fear of entering neighborhoods where people look like us.” (Egland likes to wear her glasses low on her nose, a habit that affords these sorts of statements considerable dramatic effect.)
The last item on the agenda was the most important: how to handle the upcoming tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. None of the activists wanted to commemorate the storm with the conventional cant about “civic grit” or prayers for the lost. The anniversary, they felt, would be best used in the service of climate justice. “We’re really going to have to keep it focused, or everyone will just start telling storm stories,” said Holmes-Hines, the councilwoman. “The stories are important—they tell us what needs fixing. But the purpose of looking back is to look forward.”
As the meeting adjourned without a firm plan, a flat-screen television on the wall broadcast footage of a white policeman in South Carolina shooting Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, in the back. It was an appropriate visual: Climate justice understands global warming as an amplifier of more familiar inequities, from poverty to policing. “The same disenfranchisement that leads to communities of color being underprotected in terms of environment and emergency aid also encourages police brutality,” Patterson told me.
After the meeting, I asked Story if it struck her as odd to comingle the fight against institutional racism with the more intangible, longer term one against climate change. “When I got involved in civil rights decades ago, I couldn’t have imagined the kinds of things we’re talking about now,” she said. “It seems like a long way from Selma, but it’s really the same road.”
Climate justice evolved from the concept of environmental justice, taking a broader view of what constitutes environmental distress, its causes, which people are most vulnerable to it, and how its burdens should be shared. “In the standard environmental justice framework, a coal plant next to a black community caused asthma,” the NAACP’s Patterson told me. “In climate justice, it still causes asthma. But it also fuels heat waves that make that asthma worse. It causes more and stronger storms that wreak havoc on the poor neighborhoods near the plant. It sees the coal plant as delaying the arrival of clean energy manufacturing jobs. And it underscores the historic absence and current urgency of frontline residents participating in community visioning, planning, and development.”
In 2009, the NAACP hired Patterson, a former staffer with the anti-poverty group, ActionAid, to launch its Environmental and Climate Justice Program. One of the first things she did in her new role was a joint project with the Indigenous Environmental Network, which analyzed sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions from domestic coal plants, and cross-referenced it with demographic factors that included race and income. The NAACP then used that information to assign plants a climate justice rating for coal pollution. “Coal directly impacts communities. It’s also the number one producer of carbon greenhouse gases,” said Patterson. The Mississippi Power plant, only a few miles from Derrick Evans’s mother’s house in Gulfport, received a D- rating. “So we went to Gulfport and asked what they planned to do.”
Activism tends to work best when there is a direct fight with a visible enemy: end segregation, protect voting rights, resist a toxic dump. The relationship among development, race, and long-range climate impacts aren’t always readily discerned. As a result, some organizers, and many of those they are trying to organize, take time to grasp the idea and warm to it. “It can be difficult to give a PowerPoint presentation about climate change to people working two jobs, just trying to eat,” said Sharon Hanshaw, a climate change activist who founded Coastal Women for Change after losing her home and beauty parlor business during Hurricane Katrina. “It’s a process, and you have to make meetings quick—right after work, offer some food. Then they’ll come again.” Or, as Patterson put it, “I’m constantly having to explain what ‘climate justice’ is to people. But the climate isn’t going to wait, which is why the EcoDistrict project is important. People will learn as they go.”
Large environmental groups must also be persuaded that race and poverty should be accounted for in their work. “The first time I visited the Sierra Club office, I was the only African American in the room,” Mississippi Sierra Club President Rose Johnson told me. When she asked the national president why there were so few people of color, he replied, “We don’t know how to approach them.” That response exemplifies much of the difficulty in gaining the support of African Americans for environmental causes. “Many people around here think environmental groups are only worried about whales and global treaties. Meanwhile, we’ve got contamination, asthma, cancer—and climate change is compounding and adding to the problems,” Johnson said. “When you live in substandard housing, heat and storms bring mold, and the electricity bills go up so high that people on fixed incomes die from heat strokes. In drought, seniors can’t grow anything in their little gardens. In a hundred ways, poor communities suffer the most.”
What Johnson is describing, really, is the deep suspicion that many African Americans—in Mississippi certainly, but elsewhere, too—have of government authorities. “There is a lot of mistrust in the community,” said Story, the EcoDistrict organizer. Some older black Mississippians grew up on stories of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, when “preparedness” meant armed whites forcing African Americans into work gangs filling sandbags on rain-thrashed levees along the Mississippi River. Many levees broke, sweeping away hundreds of African-American workers. “People here are fearful of anyone coming in, claiming to help, starting with the police, the same as in so many minority communities,” said Story.
After the EcoDistrict planning session at City Hall, I accompanied Story to a meeting with Glen East, Gulfport’s superintendent of schools. An affable middle-aged man, East has known Story for years, and is about as close as the EcoDistrict Initiative has to an ally in the staunchly conservative world of Gulfport municipal politics. East is no progressive on climate change. I asked him if he thought there was resistance among local officials to discussing climate change, and he declined to offer a direct response, calling it “an interesting conversation. But people down here are still trying to get the data right. There’s just so much propaganda.”
Story wanted to discuss with East the likelihood of Gulfport participating in an EcoDistrict project to install solar panels on public schools, in particular at a new facility that was slated for construction in an African-American neighborhood. The panels reflect common climate justice values: practical, grassroots-oriented, community based, and dedicated to reducing carbon-emitting fossil fuels. East said he was open to the idea, but worried that the panels could become unmoored during the next hurricane. “We don’t want them to become missiles,” he said. (During a hurricane, just about anything is a potential projectile.)
Story pushed gently for East’s support, but she was realistic. Mississippi state politics is not a hospitable environment for climate justice activism, to put it mildly. Officials at every level of government here act like an echo chamber for climate change denialism and fear-mongering. In January, Senator Roger Wicker was the sole Republican to vote against a resolution to recognize the existence of climate change—not that it was caused by humans, just that the Earth was warming. “The facts are in dispute,” Wicker said.
Hostility to climate change and environmentalism in Mississippi cuts across racial lines, too, with the widely held belief that green groups are more concerned with weather and wilderness than blue-collar employment and poor people. “You get pushback because people think you’re messing with jobs when you talk about clean energy and the climate,” said Story. Or, as East put it, “Here on the coast, you’re not going to find the Lorax speaking for the trees.”
The steps coalition operates out of a single-story brick building within sight of the beach in Biloxi. The group, which shares the building with a homeless services center called Loaves and Fishes, sits at the center of an intricate regional community—organizing Venn diagram. Those varied activism interests were one of the main reasons the EcoDistrict Initiative is located on the Gulf Coast. The national NAACP and Sierra Club represent two of the largest circles in the diagram, overlapped by dozens of state, city, and neighborhood groups, including two co-founded by Derrick Evans—the Gulf Restoration Network and the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health. More peripherally, disparate national groups like the Ocean Conservancy, the Environmental Law Institute, Oceanis, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lend technical assistance.
Howard Page, a full-time STEPS organizer, told me about a project that stretched from Turkey Creek to Washington D.C. NOAA, he explained, had enlisted STEPS to identify teenage candidates for its Coastal Community Resiliency Index project, which will teach up to 20 minority or low-income high school students how to conduct neighborhood resilience surveys across six categories: critical infrastructure, transportation issues, community plans and agreements, mitigation measures, business plans, and social systems. The NOAA program represents one way that the EcoDistrict Initiative and its constituent groups can bypass conservative, climate change-denying, GOP-controlled statehouses.
“These national organizations need us to get to the community,” Page said. “That’s the mission, to take technical information and bring it down to local communities.”
The NAACP’s Patterson admits that there is no hard metric for success for the EcoDistrict Initiative, but that the pilot cities will form the basis of a “strategy document” for fighting effectively for climate justice that will be used to empower communities across the country.
One day, Evans took me to a bend in Turkey Creek that was once used for baptisms, before pollution made the tradition impossible. In a perfect world, future members of his family would be able to return to these fouled waters. But for now, the EcoDistrict will have to be a first step.
“If climate change is our World War II, then the Gulf Coast is Normandy,” Evans told me. “We’re fighting. Waiting for the Allied forces to make landfall. The road to Berlin runs through here.”