By Gina Carroll
I was having lunch with a friend a couple of weeks ago and I asked her if she knew anyone with asthma. This is part of my own little inquiry into how common asthma is in Houston. And sure enough, my friend said her son, too, is asthmatic. So we started talking about asthma as an epidemic in Houston and how many people we know who are afflicted by it. I began to launch into my involvement in Mom’s Clean Air Force– how I had a petition going and how much I wanted to get more African-American mothers involved. My friend is a lawyer and a judge. She is an active citizen and a children’s advocate. In other words, she is politically plugged in. So of course, I was trying to recruit her.
But she devastated me when she said in essence that cleaning up the air in Texas is impossible because polluters would rather pay lobbyists and fines than take the actions necessary to curb their dirty emissions. What she said about polluters is right on the money. But her use of the word impossible gave me pause. Impossible? Really? If my proactive, in-the-know friend thinks clean air efforts are futile, then what’s the use in trying? I was very discouraged about this viewpoint, especially as I continue to encounter it in my attempts to recruit my friends.
But the truth is, this effort is not impossible. Whoever thinks so does not know African-American history! We have a long and impressive record of fighting “impossible” challenges. In fact, the very essence of our American experience has been surviving and achieving in the midst of extreme adversity.
I was reminded of this last week as I viewed Oprah Winfrey’s celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides. You may know that the Freedom Rides marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. People of many races and ethnicities, mostly college students from all over the country, decided to take buses into Southern states in order to challenge segregation laws. On those buses, they encountered the most extreme hatred and violence at the hands of state officials, the KKK and Whites who resented their attempts. Many of the Freedom Riders were severely beaten and arrested. Many of the buses were attacked and burned. The violent response to the peaceful demonstrations was so extreme that President Kennedy ordered a stop to the Freedom Rides. But even after the Presidential order was issued, buses kept coming, full of peaceful protesters who were determined to succeed in changing laws and forcing the country to look at itself. Desperate to stop the violence, John Seigenthaler of the Justice Department called student organizer, Diane Nash, and urged her to cancel the rides. He said, “You’re going to get your people killed.” She responded, “We all completed our Last Wills and Testaments last night.” She told him if the first group were all to die, others were prepared to follow.
The Freedom Riders were relentless. And their tenacious trek was widely covered by the media. Our country had an opportunity to see right on our televisions the ugliest side of racism and discrimination. And as a result of the Rides, laws were passed, starting with the desegregation of interstate buses.
We often do not act until we are utterly fed up with the way things are. Or we take action when we are tired to death of conditions that affect us acutely. The Freedom Rides are a powerful example of this.
Air pollution is an insidious oppressor. Even though it is making our children sick and taking the lives of infants and adults prematurely, it’s not so in our faces that we perceive its impact so directly (except on Ozone warning days, of course.) But this fight, like the Civil Rights fight, is not about such amorphous things as the air. It’s about people—people making decisions that impact everyone adversely and some in profoundly disparate ways—corporate decision makers who would devalue the lives of infants and children in order to protect their financial bottom line and legislators who are more concerned about keeping their offices and pandering to their largest contributors than caring for the health and welfare of the families they are charged to represent and protect. It’s about people like children whose families cannot afford the cost of allergy and asthma medications and infants who never get a chance at a normal life.
Click HERE for a refresher of what’s at stake for African-American folks.
As long as we recognize that this is a people-to-people thing, there is always hope. And there are lots of folks who are making a difference— just look at what one mother accomplished with Utah Moms For Clean Air; and the victory of the Bay Area for Clean Environment parents against cement companies; or how West Harlem Environmental Action Committee took its air quality back from polluters; and what C’BS ALife Alla is doing to change his communities environment for health with his Hood Health initiatives. People are taking to the street and the Internet to be heard and felt. And legislators are listening—just look at Senator Carper’s pledge to do the right thing and Senator Lautenberg’s acknowledgement that we must protect the health of children and seniors.
The clean air fight is not an impossible fight, especially compared to other fights we’ve undertaken and won. You don’t have to fill out your Last Will and Testament to participate in efforts to make and support change.
Photo Credit: Gerald Holly, staff photographer for The Tennessean. (1960)