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Honoring MLK Day: Recognizing the Ties of Race and Place

Editor’s note: As we approach the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the nation prepares to honor his legacy, we are pleased to share this piece by Lauret Savoy that explores the connections between race and place. While the twin anniversaries of the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act have now passed, Lauret’s presentation of the braided connections between civil rights and conservation remain a source of inspiration.

The Fiftieth Anniversary of Ethical Horizons

On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, setting aside for the benefit of all Americans portions of this nation “where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man.”

A half century later, the wilderness preservation system has fomented debate even among friends of wild lands. Some suggest that the Wilderness Act has outlived its usefulness in this world of extensive environmental change. Others respond that the law, and ideas behind it, are more relevant than ever. Foes of the act aim to gut it.

The political climate in 1964 was quite different. That summer the 88th Congress passed not only the Wilderness Act, but another landmark piece of legislation—the Civil Rights Act.

Most Americans rarely consider these laws in the same breath. But we’d all do well to, because protecting “wild” land and ending Jim Crow segregation have more to do with each other than meets the eye.

The agendas of conservation and social justice movements had long intersected, braiding around each other, often colliding, and, at times, reaching common purpose. Their energies converged in 1964 with laws that redefined relations between citizens and the American land, in terms of rights and access for all versus restraints on where and how people could live with dignity.

Race and Place

A young woman contemplates the scenery of Grand Teton National Park during a Land Ethic Leaders workshop on wilderness at the Murie Center in 2014.

The two measures took very different pathways to becoming law. After years of pressure from conservation groups, 66 revisions, and 18 congressional hearings, the Wilderness Act was passed with overwhelming support in the U. S. House of Representatives and Senate. Today the system protects nearly 110 million acres of our public lands—about five percent of the nation’s land base—within national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and lands under the Bureau of Land Management.

The civil rights bill, by contrast, provoked the longest continuous debate in Senate history, as southerners filibustered for two months until a bipartisan coalition invoked cloture to allow a vote. Even after a watering down to placate moderate Republicans, the Civil Rights Act became the most sweeping law since Reconstruction aimed to protect voting rights, limit job discrimination, and ban segregation. Schools, libraries, swimming pools, as well as hotels, theaters, and restaurants now, by law, had to welcome every American regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin.

Both bills stirred up controversy around private property rights and the power of states, passing as bipartisan compromises. Both laws became the latest iterations of federal policies on race and resources formulated across more than a century and a half. The early 1870s, for instance, witnessed a Reconstruction Congress create Yellowstone as the country’s first national park, a “wonderland” preserved from private interests “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” At the same time legislation to safeguard the rights of once-enslaved African Americans, including rights to land, began to be dismantled. And the U.S. Army removed Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, “Sheep Eater,” and other tribal peoples to reservations from ancestral homelands now enclosed within the national park. In the words of its first superintendent, “Yellowstone is not Indian country.”

The Wilderness and Civil Rights acts are pieces of a larger, complex story about Americans coming to terms with their history, geography, and hopes. As an idea and as preserved land, wilderness never existed apart from human experience or from this society in which racial and economic injustice was part of the status quo. Civil rights, as a movement for justice and as law, evolved in response to systems of discrimination that, among other effects, circumscribed access to resources and mobility on the American land. Without these acts much more of this country and its opportunities would be fenced off with “no trespassing” signs—whether areas in the West worked by mines or other commercial interests, whether public facilities, businesses, workplaces or schools refusing many citizens.

The laws’ entwined legacies are complex. Yet the 50th Anniversary National Wilderness Conference (Wilderness50), organized by a coalition of federal agencies, non-profits, and others, took a step forward. Its planners recognized that “the assumptions of the Wilderness Act, valuable and pathbreaking in many ways” led to a “‘non-inclusive’ movement around the wilderness concept” that alienated many.

The work is far from over. More than two dozen wilderness bills, introduced by members of both parties, have stalled in Congress, while threats to wild lands are again ascendant. In June of 2013 the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and public schools remain more segregated by class and race than decades ago.

As he called to end the filibuster against the civil rights bill, Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen quoted Victor Hugo: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.” The time to desegregate ideas about who we are with respect to each other and to the American earth is now.

The fiftieth anniversaries of the Wilderness Act and Civil Rights Act offer a chance to recognize how all Americans have benefited from and inherited the legacies of both movements, including the idea of unimpaired access for all. In looking back to their roots to see the ties between race and place, we may become better equipped to look forward, aware of the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship as interconnected cultural, historical, and ecological beings. The ethical horizons both acts sought to broaden are still ours to reach.

Honor the Legacy of Dr. King: Share Your Dream

The image below is a word cloud representing the many different categories of dreams being shared on the non-profit King Center’s inspiring and innovative Share Your Dream website. To honor Dr. King’s legacy, we encourage our readers to share their dreams about how we can recognize, in Aldo’s words, “the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.”

Race and Place