On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation on the issue of civil rights and declared, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue… as old as scriptures and… as clear as the American Constitution.” The president had long viewed civil rights as a historical injustice and private moral issue but this was the first time Kennedy embraced civil rights as a public moral issue. JFK refused to take comprehensive federal action to stop racial violence and segregation for nearly two years. It took thousands of brave civil rights activists waging nonviolence to educate the president.
Today the American people are in a similar position with Obama’s intransigence on environmental justice. President Obama has acknowledged the danger of our fossil fuel addiction and the necessity to fight climate change. But Obama has failed to take an ethical stand. Obama must be clear that environmental justice is a public moral imperative that demands action. Man-made climate change threatens the existence of every species on Earth and immediately threatens the most vulnerable and impoverished human beings. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline running from the dirty tar sands of Alberta to the American Gulf Coast is currently the greatest obstacle to stopping climate change. If we don’t stop the pipeline, NASA climatologist Jim Hansen said it’s “game over” for stopping climate change. Stopping climate change is the greatest moral imperative that challenges humanity.
Between Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960 and his speech embracing civil rights as a moral issue in 1963, civil rights activists fought to awaken the conscious of the nation. During the sit-ins of 1960, thousands of African American students and youth endured intimidation, physical violence, and jail for the right to eat at a lunch counter. While he was campaigning for the election of 1960, JFK told the nation that he supported the sit-ins. Shortly after being elected though, Kennedy allowed dozens of “Freedom Riders” to be beaten and their bus firebombed as they attempted to desegregate interstate travel throughout the South. Despite thousands being jailed and beaten, activists kept pressuring Kennedy. In 1962, James Meredith enrolled as the first African American at Old Miss. Meredith’s courage to demand equal rights and a good education was met with a mob of thousands of violent segregationists. President Kennedy was forced to call in 23,000 federal troops to restore order. Slowly civil rights activists were forcing the president to act. Martin Luther King’s 1963 Birmingham campaign was the tipping point for the movement and Kennedy’s consciousness. After men, women, and children were blasted with fire hoses, shocked by cattle prods, and mauled by attack dogs, President Kennedy came to see civil rights as a moral imperative that must be urgently addressed.
Despite inspiring millions of youthful Americans, when Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961 his actions and rhetoric ignored the issue of civil rights. Like Kennedy before him, Obama tapped into the deep well of American optimism and gave hope to millions. Yet also like Kennedy, Obama has simply paid lip service to the most important social justice issue of our day, environmental degradation. In many ways Obama has been more disingenuous than Kennedy. JFK never promised the nation that he would call for civil rights legislation or commit federal troops to enforce desegregation. Obama promised the nation that he would free us from the “tyranny of oil,” “heal” our dying planet, and “slow” the rising oceans. If Obama allows the Keystone XL to be built, he would further addict us to oil, scar our dying planet, and contribute to the rising ocean.
Like the civil rights activists and JFK, our current environmental movement (if you want clean air, fresh water, and a toxin free atmosphere, welcome to the movement) must engage in nonviolent direct action to convince President Obama that climate change is a moral injustice. Today a historic direct action campaign is currently underway to stop the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. 1,253 courageous citizens have already been arrested to arouse the conscience of the nation. Yet this is only the beginning. Without direct action and the suffering of thousands of activists, Kennedy would not have been driven to catharsis. Kennedy’s timid stance on civil rights had the effect of emboldening civil rights activists and elevating the importance of nonviolent direct action. We too must continue to be emboldened, inspired by the imagination of eco-activists like Bill McKibben and Tim DeChristopher, and focused on waging nonviolent direct action.
Through our dedication and suffering, President Obama will come to see environmental devastation as a public moral imperative. President Kennedy understood that “We face… a moral crisis as a country and a people.” With each sit-in, teach-in, lock-out, and bold act of environmental civil disobedience, we will arouse the conscience of this nation. We will give our president an ethical education and stop this pipeline for the sake of all of humanity.
Waging Nonviolence is hiring a writer to interview leading movement figures and analysts and produce one Q&A-style article per week. The writer will work with our small editorial team to identify the interview subject each week. For the most part, we’ll be looking to hear from activists, organizers and scholars who can shed light on… More
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Excellent article. Great comparison between Kennedy and Obama.
Nonviolent direct action by citizens organized to oppose this pipeline is certainly justified in relation to the environmental damage it would cause or reinforce, and so it’s a legitimate way to try to stop it. But the question is how that action should be shaped and targeted. The tens of thousands of Americans who marched, did sit-ins and used civil disobedience to bring down segregation didn’t target President Kennedy — they targeted the authorities and institutions that were responsible for creating and maintaining segregation. If you want a president to be part of solving a problem, protesting in front of his house is unlikely to enlist his sympathy. If Obama decides to stop this pipeline, he’ll do it because he believes the environmental cost outweighs whatever short-term energy supply would result. It won’t be because he was the target of protests. Obama didn’t decide to build this pipeline and he won’t profit from it. The nonviolent direct action should be aimed at the people who made those decisions — while the president is lobbied aggressively on the basis of the public interests and needs that he would serve by making the right decision.
I think there’s a lot of sense in your comment, Tom. The challenge, however, would be to find a target that is as likely to attract the attention of potential protesters and the media as the White House. Besides, this is an unusual case where the decision really does seem to be in the president’s hands.
The Tar Sands folks, at least, have been very intent on trying to avoid seeming hostile or confrontational toward the president. I’m not sure it’s even fair to say that they’re “targeting” him, rather than simply reaching out to him, trying to address him. It seems like they’re trying to out-lobby the lobbyists. I’d love to know what he thinks of these peaceful protesters calmly lining up and in some cases getting arrested outside his house. If I were him, I might bring my daughters to the window and say, “Look at this wonderful thing these people are doing!”
With the country uneasy and clamoring for jobs his capacity to follow through on environmental concerns may be trumped by the need to create jobs.
The green economy, infrastructural work and high speed rail are all possibilities. But the GOP will do everything in its power including the fool governor from Ohio who vetoed federal funding for high speed rail in his state to undermine any attempts Obama and friends take to do this.
I find it hard that anyone would support the GOP anymore-unless they have a lot of money or are invested in oil stocks. There is no vision to the GOP platform…”free markets and no new taxes” amount to two parrots sitting on a telephone wire talking to themselves.
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While I actually like this post, I think there was an punctuational error shut towards the finish of your 3rd section.