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Why the Voting Rights Act and Freedom Summer matter in the climate justice struggle

Grist, June 25, 2014

By Brentin Mock

Today marks one year since the U.S. Supreme Court effectively gutted the historic Voting Rights Act of one of its signature civil rights protections. The reverb from the Shelby County v. Holder decision was felt so widely that it brought environmentalists, labor groups, and LGBTQ advocates together under a pledge to help civil rights groups on the voting rights front. And it activated the Democracy Initiative, a progressive coalition formed by the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the NAACP [plus the Communications Workers of America] to fight for elections reform.

What does the Voting Rights Act have to do with climate and environment? Well, the main way for us to ensure that our governments protect us against environmental and climate catastrophe is to vote people into office who have our best environmental interests in mind. This is true from local government, where officials decide on land-use codes and waste-disposal practices, on up to the federal government, where national climate policies are made. The environmental movement needs as many voters as possible to hold governments and companies accountable for taming their pollution. It can’t do that if voters of color are vulnerable to discrimination.

The Voting Rights Act required states and other government units with long histories of discrimination to “preclear” any election administration changes with the federal government before implementing them, to ensure that they didn’t return to discriminatory practices. The Shelby v. Holder decision invalidated the formula used by the federal government to determine which political jurisdictions (states, county, districts) needed that preclearance.

Most of the areas that had been covered by preclearance were in former Confederate states, running from Texas all the way up to Virginia. But they also included Alaska, Arizona, and small parts of California and New York City. These are areas with huge populations of people of color and people who speak English as their second language.

Many of these areas also happen to have a heavy concentration of extractive fossil-fuel industries.

Put it all together and you find that many of the areas most vulnerable to voter discrimination are also vulnerable to localized pollution from drilling, refining, and industrial operations. Those activities are responsible for a lot of climate change-causing greenhouse gases as well. Given the huge profits of such operations, these are also areas where elected officials are heavily influenced by oil and petrochemical industry dollars.

Some environmental leaders understand this, and also understand that white Americans will be minorities in the U.S. by 2043. And they know that African Americans and Latino Americans are more likely to support climate change action than white voters. If we are to protect our climate, air, and water, the voting rights of all Americans need to be protected as well.

This is why green groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Food & Water Watch have joined dozens of other organizations in endorsing the Democracy Initiative. This is also why environmental groups are joining civil rights groups this week in Mississippi to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. That historic campaign brought thousands of people — white and black, Northern and Southern — together a half-century ago to help get African Americans registered to vote under the oppressive Jim Crow regime. The campaign ignited the revolutionary struggle for racial equality in the United States, and it has not ended. An effort of similar strength and solidarity is needed today for climate justice.


Brentin Mock is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes regularly for Grist about environmental justice issues and the connections between environmental policy, race, and politics. Follow him on Twitter at @brentinmock.

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