On the third Monday of every January, Americans reflect on the impact of one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr.
But MLK’s legacy extends far beyond the modern civil rights movement. In addition to championing equality for Americans of all colors, the Georgia preacher inspired America’s animal welfare and environmental movements, too.
On the eve of his assassination, for example, King was applying his policy of non-violent resistance to help sanitation workers strike for better working conditions in Memphis, Tennessee. King refused to stand by while Black Americans worked in unsafe and unsanitary conditions and for just a fraction of the money earned by their White counterparts. “You don’t get more environmental justice than that,” the executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, Eddie Bautista, told Grist. “All the environment really is is where you live, work, play, or pray.”
MLK Jr. often gets credit for inspiring the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – and he deserves it. But Bautista believes MLK’s impact extends far beyond civil rights, according to the news outlet. After all, MLK understood how race, health, poverty, and pollution are closely intertwined, and his lifelong commitment to environmental justice laid the groundwork for the Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
If King was still alive, Bautista is sure he would be advocating for climate justice, which continues to impact and oppress communities of color. “Climate change is an existential threat that a lot of these folks [in the civil rights movement back then] weren’t as aware of,” Bautista said. “But, if they were around today, these would be some of the same fights they would be fighting.”
But the environment wasn’t the only cause to benefit from MLK’s ongoing quest for social justice. Animal rights leaders also credit the preacher’s advocacy with sparking the nation’s conscience — and inspiring better treatment of animals. “Whenever we speak up for humans or other animals who are being oppressed, abused, or neglected, we’re honoring Dr. King’s commitment to social justice, peace, and equality,” PETA wrote on its website. MLK’s widow and son were so moved by their husband/father’s call for non-violence that they eventually became vegan.
My dad knew that in the fight against injustice, there are no permanent victories. I know my father would be proud of his granddaughter and the millions of other young people who are dedicated to eradicating the triple evils.
— Martin Luther King III (@OfficialMLK3) January 15, 2021
Decades after his death, MLK has become a federal holiday that’s commemorated with acts of service. This is a day to honor King’s legacy – even if you don’t have the day off of work. Picking up trash, donating to an animal shelter, or signing a petition to combat environmental racism are just a few easy ways to promote MLK’s causes. Together we can honor King’s legacy by sharing his commitment to people, pets, and the planet.