Dreams that await fulfillment

On The Bay

Vision: The framework for the civil rights and environmental movements was put in place in 1963, but neither has entered the mainstream.

January 26, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IN 1963, a few weeks apart, two unrelated events occurred that would forever reshape the American agenda.

The first was Martin Luther King Jr.'s unforgettable "I have a dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial that August.

It was the crest of a wave that resulted in adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, extending long overdue rights to minorities.

Less-remembered is President John F. Kennedy's five-day, 11-state conservation tour that September, planned as a call to arms to heal America's deteriorating natural environment.

It didn't succeed apace with the civil rights movement. But Kennedy's tour became the germ of an idea that would flower into the first Earth Day in April 1970, former Wisconsin senator and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson has written.

The laws born of Earth Day's momentum, protecting clean air, clean water, endangered species and human health, rank along with civil rights legislation among the profound, civilizing achievements of 20th-century America.

Neither blacks nor environmentalists thought at the time of these triumphs that the struggle was over. Still, the framework for victory seemed finally in place.

Decades later, despite many advances in civil rights and environmental protection, proponents of both fret that neither the dreams of King nor those of Earth Day have truly entered the mainstream.

It's true that, save for a fringe few, no one proclaims themselves racist nowadays. It's even rarer is to hear someone embrace the degradation of nature.

But we are not very close to King's vision, "... where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."

Nor are we any closer to affirming the seminal question posed in an editorial by Fortune Magazine on the first Earth Day:

"Can a high-technology society achieve a safe, durable and improving relationship with its environment?"

Many blacks, even as they celebrate Martin Luther King Day, worry that the hoopla overshadows social, racial and economic injustices that persist.

Environmentalists know they must give people hope, must highlight progress, even as they know that report cards on Chesapeake Bay's vital signs have shown little sign of fundamental recovery for more than a decade.

Meanwhile, you hear all too often in the subtext of conversations among the public, "What is it they [blacks, environmentalists] want, anyhow; what will it take to satisfy them?"

Both causes are riled these days by President Bush's nominees for attorney general, John Ashcroft, and for secretary of Interior, Gail Norton. The former's views on civil rights are widely suspect, as are the latter's on environmental protection.

Clearly, neither fits definitions of overt racist or despoiler, but just as clearly, neither cares much about the issues of blacks or environmentalists.

To both groups, their nominations mock the progress made in the decades after King spoke, and three decades after Earth Day.

But Ashcroft and Norton are only the lightning rods of the moment. The fact is, true integration of the races, and development of a real environmental ethic are proving harder, across the board, than anyone dreamed.

The vision of Martin Luther King will have to await fuller cultural sharing, a more honest understanding of each other's views, blacks and whites seeing themselves as part of the same community.

Just so, too, for an environmental ethic, which won't happen until individuals in this highly individualistic nation see themselves as members of a community that includes nature, interdependent parts rather than something apart.

A bay hero

Few people outside the bay's science community will recall Don Heinle, who died at age 63 of a heart attack this week at his home in Redmond, Wash.

But few individuals played a more important role in the fight to restore the bay than Heinle, a researcher with the University of Maryland during the 1960s and 1970s.

"Don is the unsung hero of the Chesapeake," said Chris D'Elia, a longtime bay scientist and now vice president for research at State University of New York in Albany.

Heinle put his neck on the line as no other scientists did, publicly championing his research that showed the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state government he worked for were wrong in the strategy they were pursuing to clean up bay rivers.

His testimony was a major reason a federal judge in 1978 ripped the state-federal scheme, ordering them back to the drawing board.

For his efforts, the state tried to fire Heinle more than once. But he hung tough, pressed on with his research, and eventually convinced lawmakers that the only way to a healthy bay was to begin the expensive process of removing nitrogen from sewage and runoff.

Heinle took a job back in his native Washington around 1980. To me, he epitomized what scientists should be - meticulous and dispassionate in conducting research, but passionately engaged with the place they live in.

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