Black History Month is a powerful moment for environmentalists to acknowledge new research into Atlanta’s leadership in environmental justice.

Long before protesters demanded remedies for landfills and soil contamination in neighborhoods where people of color live, an Atlanta religious leader fought city hall for permitting sewage flowing downstream through the west side of Atlanta.

The combination of race, poverty, segregation, and environmental degradation emptied once prominent neighborhoods where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. raised his family. But recent re-investment is bringing people back. Few so far have acknowledged Atlanta’s early role in what is now a world-wide movement for justice.

Environmental historian Will Bryan found compelling evidence that the earliest activists for environmental justice began with a plan to protect Proctor Creek in 1900, when a furnace operator dumped raw sewage directly into the headwaters near downtown Atlanta. Dr. Bryan’s book (title The Price of Permanence Nature and Business in the New South, UGa Press) and lectures to his Georgia State University classes show a connection between later civil rights activism in Atlanta and the earliest protests against environmental degradation.

Neighbors led by a prominent African American pastor filed a lawsuit in 1901 against the city. The outcry led the mayor and council to build one of the first ever sewer plants in the city on Proctor Creek.

That early victory did not keep Proctor Creek safe from pollution, but it did establish the leadership of Black environmental activists pushing for public dollars to protect all the residents of Atlanta. Large public investments improving the environment waited until this century, with construction of Proctor Creek Greenway and Cook Park in Vine City.

Those advocates this year celebrated Atlanta’s role through the

Atlanta Music Festival’s focus on the arts and the environment. Short videos by award winning filmmaker Hal Jacobs told stories of African American sculptors, painters and singers from Cascade and English Avenue, Grove Park and Vine City working on the shoulders of those early activists.

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