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How Civil Rights Worked Lead Me to Environmental Justice Litigation
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How Civil Rights Worked Lead Me to Environmental Justice Litigation

Managing Attorney of Earthjustice's Northeast office, Courtney Bowie

People often ask me why environmental justice is important given my background as an attorney for civil rights. Earthjustice feels like my home and I feel that it is the exact same work that I have done in fighting for equality for all. The fight to keep the environment safe is the most important thing.

Managing Attorney of Earthjustice's Northeast office, Courtney Bowie

My personal answer to why I do this work is that it is because I went to law school to become a civil rights lawyer. My uncle’s stories from Mississippi in the 1960s inspired me as a child. He left his position as priest in a small Episcopal church, New Jersey, to move to Mississippi and register Black voters. He was taken into custody, jailed and forced to pick cotton. His safety was constantly in danger because he wanted Black people to vote.

Voting was and still is a pathway to full citizenship. The vote allows citizens to elect their leaders and have a say in how they govern themselves. They can also be heard and, with time, elected people who will protect and preserve their interests in their country and community.

My uncle and his family lived with me in Mississippi for a brief time in the 1980s. I came to realize that some of those responsible for jailing him, as well as other civil rights advocates, were still in government or in the immediate vicinity.

Sheriffs deputies talk with Martin Luther King Jr. during the Meredith March Against Fear in Mississippi in 1966.

During the 1966 Meredith March Against Fear in Mississippi Sheriffs Deputies meet Martin Luther King Jr.

Bob Fitch via Stanford Libraries

I asked him how he coped with it and he laughed and replied that he prayed for them. He continued fighting. He had shifted from voting to economic justice, and he ran a Mississippi Delta community development corporation by the time I arrived.

I learned how to garden in his large yard while I was with him. It was horrible. It was unbearable, no matter how early you went out to pull weeds and turn ground. The sub-tropical humidity in Mississippi made it feel like a sauna from the moment the sun peeked above the horizon.

My uncle, like many Mississippians, had a healthy distrust of almost all things, including the government, food in packaged foods, restaurants that didn’t prepare food the same way he did, doctors, and the government. The garden was both a means of consuming food from the ground and a protection from food insecurity. We felt some comfort in growing our own food, even though the government, medicine and neighbors could all kill us without too much consequence.

Working in my uncle’s huge garden in Dallas was my first exposure to the land, having moved from the suburbs of Dallas in the 1980s. Mississippi was my first encounter with insurmountable, tangible injustice.

My family’s experiences led me to pursue civil rights and social justice through litigation in South Carolina as an attorney at Southern Poverty Law Center, and later at the American Civil Liberties Union. I worked with Indigenous clients at the ACLU of South Dakota, North Dakota, helping them to protect their ancestral lands, rights, and lives through the protection of their environment.

Indigenous water keepers march in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline at the Sacred Stone Camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota in 2016.

Native water keepers march against the Dakota Access pipeline near Cannon Ball, North Dakota in 2016.

Joe Brusky / CC-BY-NC 2.0

As I was representing clients in the South or on the Plains, my goal was to obtain freedom and protection for me. This work is about equality and protection for people. My uncle’s work to protect our bodies and register Black voters in Mississippi and to prevent us from eating poisonous, high-priced junk food at grocery stores led to my work. My work to protect Black, Indigenous and People or Color (BIPOC), children from abuse school discipline and protect Indigenous organizers’ rights to peaceful demonstrations is all directly connected to the work of environmental justice.

Martin Luther King stated, “Injustice anywhere is an attack on justice everywhere.” Pollution anywhere is a threat eventually to everyone, even if not immediately.

Now I am focused on the living environment. This includes the air we breathe, the toxins and pollutants in our world and the burning of fossil fuels which contributes to the heating of our planet and the resulting natural catastrophes that disproportionately harm or kill poor people, people with different backgrounds, and people who live in countries that contributed less.

This work is a continuation to the work I have done since the Earthjustice work, like traditional racial injustice work, is deeply rooted. It is about keeping all people safe and attempting to peacefully co-exist on this tiny planet.

Medical assistant Jennifer Martinez draws blood from Joshua Smith that will be tested for PFAS levels in Newburgh, New York, in 2016. PFAS, which have been linked to cancer and are also known as forever chemicals, have been detected at dangerous levels in Newburgh, Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh, Rockland County, Poestenkill, and dozens of communities on Long Island.

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