I never would have guessed that when I applied for the Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program at Wheaton, I would end up not in the Global South but in the Deep South city of Birmingham, Ala. On several occasions, some locals have told me that, actually, the South is like a “third world country,” due to its areas of higher poverty rates or underdevelopment. But I often jump in to point out that the term “third world country” is actually rather crude because it assumes that some blessed countries have arrived at full development, while others just aspire to be like them. In reality, all nations have areas for improvement, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think the United States is any different.
The organization I’m interning for, Gasp, “originally launched in 2010 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to address the Birmingham area’s long-standing air pollution issues,” according to their website’s “About” page. To this day, the organization is laser-focused on ensuring healthy air for everyone in Greater Birmingham. Before I came to work for them, I definitely took air for granted. Breathing is the first thing that all of us do, and the last, but I don’t spend much time worrying about it in between. However, I’m learning that breathing without a second thought is actually a privilege that not everyone enjoys.
Birmingham’s pollution problem is as old as the city itself, which was founded just after the Civil War by a company that hoped the region’s unique mineral deposits and railroads would explode into an industrial hub like its namesake, Birmingham, England. Air pollution from industrial plants peaked in the 1970s, when the federal government forcibly shut companies down as the first enforcement of the Clean Air Act (CAA), the law that gives the federal government power to define air quality standards and punish polluters who breach those limits.
My pastor’s dad remembers what it was like during those dark years. He laughed as he told me the city would advise commuters not to come to work when the air was bad, which, I guess, is Alabama’s version of a snow day. Of course, those announcements are a thing of the past and most people who don’t remember them might not even know that Birmingham is still one of the most polluted cities in the United States. People in northern Birmingham know better.
Gasp’s mission is to advocate for clean air for everyone, but our eyes are trained north where there are still two coke plants (not the soda, coke is a high intensity fuel refined from coal) and several new recycling facilities operating within yards of residential homes. Imagine your childhood backyard overshadowed by brick smokestacks that belch out plumes of white and black smoke, and your street running along a mountain of piled up coal ash. I love the colorful front porches, but most houses are muted by a layer of dusty ash. When you drive through the neighborhoods, you can smell, through rolled-down windows, the rotten-egg odor of sulphur dioxide and the moth-ball smell of naphthalene.
Gasp is pretty convinced that the companies are still violating the CAA. We know that the health department hasn’t penalized them for a list of code violations, and that the few air studies that have been conducted in the last year don’t match reporting from the companies themselves. This is the air people breathe everyday without a second thought. Obviously, where you live matters. It determines what air you breathe.
Who you are also matters. When I first learned I was going to Birmingham, just out of curiosity, I checked it out on the Cooper Center’s Racial Dot Map that displays 2010 census data as a map. I have looked up my hometown and Chicago to get a window into the racial segregation around the US, but I was shocked by Birmingham’s clear line between the Black North and the white South. Back in the 1960s, Birmingham championed segregated housing and, naturally, Black people were zoned to live near the plants. Even after “separate but equal” was ruled unconstitutional, it just wasn’t possible to sell a house in a polluted area and buy a house somewhere else. So Birmingham remains segregated, and Black people in the city breathe more polluted air.
Gasp does what it can. When a company applies for a permit to pollute, we publish official statements pointing out the reasons that the permit should be denied or more strict. We lobby for government agencies to enforce pollution permit violations and to make pollution and public health information available to residents. We give lectures at county schools, neighborhood council meetings and local universities to remind people that pollution is still a problem in Birmingham. We help concerned residents organize protests, sign petitions and register to vote. Since the onset of the pandemic, we have been distributing healthy food and masks on the weekends in northern neighborhoods since many people who live there are at high risk for COVID-19; not only because they may be elderly and uninsured, but also because they’ve been exposed to more air pollution, a proven risk factor.
It’s enough to keep me plus our four staff very busy, but often, it’s hard to imagine that these efforts make a difference. I drive to the office, jump onto some Zoom meetings, spend hours sifting through documentation of the pollution, making flyers for rallies and coordinating donations to distribute, but at the end of the day, toxins are still raining down on my friends’ homes.
I was particularly discouraged after driving home from a protest we organized in Montgomery, the capital. Gasp has been trying to meet with Alabama Governor Kay Ellen Ivey for two years to ask if the state would advocate for the northern Birmingham communities to receive federal EPA resources that could help people move away from the plants. Of course, Governor Ivey doesn’t stand much to gain since the responsible companies also pay quite a bit to our governor’s political campaign. (Alabama is one of five states that allow unlimited campaign donations from corporations.)
After she wouldn’t return our letters and calls, all we could do was protest in our cars. On the drive back to Birmingham, my coworkers were really happy with the turnout and were already starting to plan our next action. But, I couldn’t help but doubt that any amount of noise we make will overcome the industry’s hold on politics. I asked myself, will we ever see change? How do we make our voices heard so that they matter? How do we get justice? I was encouraged only when I remembered that these same questions were asked in this city before, by Civil Rights activists.
Before I moved here, I had only heard of Birmingham through Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and Dudley Randall’s The Ballad of Birmingham, a poem commemorating the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. Although all cities have racist foundations, Birmingham made a name for itself as the “apartheid of the South.” King came to Birmingham to confront racism head-on and therefore win Civil Rights for every city in the United States. Today, Birmingham still has much to teach us about how to make change for justice.
It takes time. Although I see daily that inequalities still exist, I often find myself thinking that the fight for rights was won a long time ago. Statues and museums suggest the Civil Rights Movement is limited to the past, ignoring the present reality of Black people who say, “I can’t breathe” and mean both from police violence and environmental violence. What’s more, I catch myself thinking that the Civil Rights Movement was one big march that’s often a blur in our history; King was there, and he said something that everyone agreed was important and a few people got arrested. In reality, people were marching in Birmingham for years before their pictures started making national headlines. Gasp has been working in northern Birmingham for almost 10 years now, and we still have the long haul ahead of us.
It takes a community. Is it just me, or do we think of the Civil Rights Movement as King’s handiwork? Few people know that, without the insistence of Fred Shuttlesworth, a thrice-bombed, once stabbed, oft-jailed Birmingham preacher, King would not have marched in Birmingham in the year of his famous letter. We don’t honor or know the names of thousands of regular folks who were jailed alongside King. I didn’t know that a Wheaton graduate, Rev Herb Oliver ‘47, came to Birmingham to make sure that police violence was accurately documented during the worst years of the KKK. Many people worked together to set the stage for the victories that came later. Even though I am only with Gasp for five months, and even though Gasp is only four people, we’re part of a bigger team including lawmakers, other organizations and alliances and the communities themselves.
Change does come. I mentioned that it took a lot of people working together to make the Civil Rights Movement, but we forget that the activists who participated were unpopular radicals who disrupted business as usual. Now, like in the 1960s, there are a lot of people who are comfortable with Birmingham’s status quo, especially those who are privileged enough to afford living in the southern suburbs and don’t think about breathing polluted air. But I know that someday, when change comes, history will remember the fight for environmental justice in Birmingham and my friends who were in it together for the long haul.