Martin Luther King Day 2012 Report

Five Reasons to Demand Eco-Justice for Black Landowners in Tennessee

This January 16, 2012, marks the 25th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday. We all know the story of Dr. King being called to Memphis in April 1968 on an environmental and economic justice mission involving 1,300 striking sanitary public works employees from AFSCME Local 1733.  The strike shut down garbage collection, sewer, water and street maintenance. Clearly, the Memphis struggle was much more than a garbage strike. It was also about human dignity and human rights.  Although Memphis was Dr. King’s last campaign, his legacy lives on in modern day garbage and environmental justice struggles.

If Dr. King were alive today, there is a good chance the 83-year-old civil rights icon would be standing side-by-side with the African American Harry Holt family in Dickson County, Tennessee, located just 160 miles east of Memphis, whose 150-acre farmland and well were poisoned with the deadly trichloroethylene (TCE) chemical from the leaky Dickson County Landfill.  The landfill is located just 54 feet from the Holt family’s property line.

In 2003, the Holt family and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) sued the city and county of Dickson, the state of Tennessee, and the company that dumped the TCE. And in 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sheila Holt Orsted and her mother Beatrice Holt filed a lawsuit against Dickson City and County governments seeking cleanup of alleged water contamination.  And after more than eight years of litigation, on December 7, 2011, a settlement agreement was finally worked out with the Dickson City and County governments. The county spent more than $3 million and the city almost $1.9 million fighting the black family.  However, the family’s legal battle did not end in December since the state of Tennessee, a defendant in the Holts’ civil rights case, did not settle. The case is scheduled to go to trial later this year.

Here are five reasons why on this MLK Day we should demand eco-justice for the black landowners in Tennessee.

The treatment of the Holt family is a clear civil rights violation of equal protection under the law. The discriminatory and differential treatment of the Holts at the hands of the state of Tennessee is a violation of their civil rights guaranteed under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Clearly, the U.S. is not yet in a post-racial era. Race still matters.

The right to clean water is a basic human right.  The poisoning of the Holt family’s well water and the failure of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to protect them from environmental harm are clear human rights violations. On July 28, 2010, the United Nations, through Resolution 64/292, recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights.

The Holts’ toxic nightmare on Eno Road is the “poster child” for environmental racism. The United Church of Christ 2007 Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report describes the poisoning of the Holts’ well and the government response as the “poster child” for environmental racism.  The Dickson case conforms to the national trend in which African Americans and other people of color make up the majority (56%) of the residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities, nearly double the percentage in areas beyond two miles (30%).  They also make up more than two-thirds (69%) of the residents in neighborhoods with two or more clustered facilities. Nationally, African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.

Toxic racism steals black health.  Harry Holt died of cancer in January 2007.  His daughter, Sheila Holt Orsted is recovering from breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, even though Caucasian women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than African-Americans, African-American women are more likely to die of the disease. The industrial solvent TCE is widely known to be harmful to humans. A 2011 EPA study found that TCE is even more dangerous to people’s health than previously thought—causing kidney and liver cancer, lymphoma and other health problems. This new EPA study lays the groundwork to re-evaluate the federal drinking-water standard for TCE:  5 parts per billion in water, and 1 microgram per cubic meter in air.

Toxic racism robs black wealth.  Poisoning of black land with toxic chemicals robs blacks of their wealth and widens the wealth gap between blacks and whites. Today, the typical white family has 20 times the wealth of the typical black family. That’s the largest gap in 25 years. This theft has robbed African American landowners of wealth that would normally be passed down to their offspring. This phenomenon is not unique to Tennessee. The world learned of this stolen legacy in the discriminatory treatment of black farmers at the hands of the USDA and their long wait for justice. And in December 2010, President Barack Obama signed a bill authorizing $1.25 billion dollars in appropriations for the Pigford II lawsuit after Congress approved the legislation in November 2010. According to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, from emancipation to 1910, blacks amassed 15 million acres of land of which 218,000 black farmers are full or part owners.  A steady decline of black land ownership began after 1910 through theft, intimidation, discrimination, back taxes, and economic loss.

Finally, in the spirit of Dr. King, it is fitting that we lift up the Dickson, Tennessee case, a struggle that epitomizes the civil rights leader’s final campaign in Memphis involving garbage and human rights.

Robert D. Bullard is the Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States: Building Environmentally Just, Sustainable and Livable Communities (APHA Press 2011). He can be reached at: Read other articles by Robert D., or visit Robert D.'s website.