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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the EPA Observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, As Prepared

01/19/2012
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As prepared for delivery.

I am proud to join all of you to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We are here today to remember the life of a man who inspired us, and to express our gratitude and acknowledge our debt to Dr. King and the Americans who worked by his side. And we do this every year because we owe a great debt.

We owe a great debt to the thousands of people in Montgomery, Alabama – who for a year walked to work and to church and to the grocery store, rather than sitting in the back of the bus. We owe a debt to people like Congressman John Lewis, who faced life-threatening danger in the Freedom Rides and marching in Selma. It’s the same debt we owe to people whose names we never knew, who endured ridicule and abuse to have equal access to a lunch counter, because they knew that was the first step toward equal access to a university education and good jobs. And we owe a debt to people like the late Dr. Dorothy Height, who showed us how to honor Dr. King’s legacy by dedicating her entire life to working for justice and equality and opportunity for every American – up until her passing just two years ago, at the age of 98.

I hope you’ve all been down to the Tidal Basin to see the beautiful new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which was finally built and unveiled thanks to the leadership of our speaker today, Harry E. Johnson, Sr. I believe it stands as a tribute not just to Dr. King, but also to all who stood with him and those who followed in his footsteps. It is nothing short of extraordinary to consider what their work has meant.

I grew up in the years just after desegregation started to take effect. I came of age in the Deep South in the 60s and 70s. The fact is, the opportunity I have today to serve as the first African American Administrator of the EPA, under the first African American president, is an opportunity that was nearly unimaginable when I was a young child. The opportunities that so many of us have had were a direct result of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.

It is nothing short of extraordinary to realize that it was individuals who decided to walk in the Alabama summer, people who decided to march despite the threats, Americans who were willing to give everything to make sure their nation lived up to its founding principles. They were individuals, people and Americans just like us. And they rewrote the history of every life in this country. They left us with an extraordinary example to live up to.

There is something else we at the EPA owe to Dr. King and his legacy. It was the Civil Rights Movement that helped give rise to other movements in our history. The marches and demonstrations for equality and opportunity showed how effective those kinds of grassroots efforts could be on a wide range of issues. And environmentalism followed in the footsteps of the Civil Rights movement. Our agency was formed in 1970 after peaceful, grassroots actions by the American people demonstrated the need for protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink and swim in, and the lands where we build our communities.

Today we continue to take direct inspiration from Dr. King, especially in our fight for environmental justice. Environmental justice is one of my top priorities for my time at the EPA, and it is something we are working to include in each and every initiative and decision the agency makes. That’s because we know that environmental challenges and health threats have the capacity to limit opportunity and hold back the progress of entire communities. Addressing the disparities we see is another part of emulating Dr. King and living up to the example he set.

The question then is: how do we repay the debt we owe? We all know that Dr. King did not lead the Civil Rights movement in hopes that one day he’d see his name on a calendar. He did not lead that fight in hopes that we’d all come together to celebrate on the third Monday in January each year…and he didn’t do it in hopes that one day Americans would have the day off from work in his honor.

The best way for us to honor Dr. King – today and every day – is to strive to emulate his commitment to peace, justice and service in the challenges we face in our own lives. His legacy is an inspiration – but it is also a responsibility. We can spend a day honoring the man and his achievements. But to truly honor what he and so many others gave his life to, we have to get to work.

Thank you very much.