Lessons from MLK: Transformative Change Takes Time

As an environmental advocate, I have long looked to the Civil Rights movement for lessons in how to create positive change. But right now, as my colleagues and I focus on passing clean energy and climate legislation in the Senate, I have been reflecting on one aspect of Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy in particular.

King was a transformative figure. He challenged conventional thinking on what was possible in civil rights. But what he accomplished did not happen overnight. In fact he didn't live to see it.  Instead, civil rights were built over time.

People of color did not find justice with one law. But the Civil Rights Law of 1964 got America moving in that direction, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and numerous court cases continued the march toward equity.

The clean energy and climate bill now before the Senate can accomplish the same thing. It will not be the final step in America’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions, but we believe it is strong enough to usher in the clean energy future.

This bill will create millions of jobs, provide a pathway out of poverty for American families, enhance our national security, and tackle climate change. We are convinced that the long-term benefits of shifting to clean energy are of historic proportion for American citizens, but it will take unwavering commitment and determination to get there.  

The politics are tough.  Many interested in maintaining business as usual, including the coal and oil industries, strenuously oppose the bill. Meanwhile some of those who usually call for change worry the current bill does not solve all our climate challenges.

It is true, it does not. No one bill could. We can not jump from the 19th century into the 21st in one leap. But we can get moving, and the bill before the Senate is strong enough to usher in the clean energy future.

Right now, we need to let our senators know there is broad, grassroots support for this bill. Again, the Civil Rights Movement provides an important lesson--the power of inspiring leaders.

The environmental movement has passionate voices that urge us on, from established leaders like Al Gore and Van Jones to young activists like Jessy Tolkan. We need their guidance now, but we also need citizens across the country to add to their voices to the chorus calling for clean, sustainable change.

Carried forward by the memory of MLK, we can realize the vision that will heal the planet and create a strong future for America.