Malcolm X’s Contributions to Environmental Justice Live On

"The future belongs to those who prepare for it today." - Malcolm X

As communities around the world celebrated Malcolm X‘s 97th birthday, he was remembered as more than a prominent figure in the Civil Rights movement. His speeches decried environmental oppression decades before the wider public recognized the importance of environmental justice. He was a genius community organizer, and he empowered his community, using the power of his tongue as his sword. 

In celebration of Malcolm X's birthday, Georgia Conservation Voters Education Fund (GCVEF) served as one of the sponsors of the 31st Annual Malcolm X Festival in Atlanta’s West End Park. The celebration has been a staple in the Atlanta community and the West End neighborhood for nearly three decades, providing the community with a chance to uplift with live music, vendors, dancing, performances, amazing food, and community love.

Echoing Malcolm X’s call in "The Ballot or the Bullet," Georgia Conservation Voters engages with the community in an equitable future with political engagement. At the Malcolm X festival, volunteers talked about how individuals can use their voices to promote clean water, clean air, abundant wildlife, scenic landscapes, and economic opportunities for all Georgians. 

GCVEF Organizing Director Wan Smith and GCVEF’s entire team of organizers work side by side with community residents to engage in the civic process and advocate for justice in energy, government and our neighborhoods. Thus, Smith upholds Malcolm X’s maxim that “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” 

With deep ties to the community, Smith has worked to ensure that communities have a say in what happens in their neighborhoods and on their electricity bills. In 2021, she worked with community stakeholders to help ensure that plans for a resiliency hub would meet community needs and take community input into consideration. This resiliency hub aims to use solar + storage to provide at least 8 hours of critical services for low-income residents serve neighborhoods and the Atlanta University Center in West Atlanta thanks to a collaboration led by Groundswell through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Solar Energy Innovation Network.

At the festival, Smith reminded her community that Georgia Public Service Commissioners are elected officials who oversee critical decisions about electricity, gas, and broadband. Most importantly, they regulate Georgia Power. The Public Service Commission makes decisions impacting the cost of utility bills, which energy sources power Georgia homes and businesses, and who bears the burden of pollution tied to energy production. 

Smith isn’t just talking about energy equality though. She is moving her community towards energy resilience. At the Malcolm X Festival, she explained the importance of challenging the at-large method of electing Georgia Public Service Commissioners, which is currently the subject of a voting rights lawsuit

Malcolm X remains one of the most dynamic, dramatic, and influential figures of the 1960s, and his words and work remain relevant today — more than 57 years after his assassination with environmental justice groups. Leaders like Smith remain inspired by ideas of cultural unity, self-respect, and uncompromising resistance to environmental oppression. Malcolm X was (and still is) a polarizing figure in the US, but his influence on environmental justice is undeniable. Malcolm X served as an unrelenting truth-teller about environmental oppression. Although Malcolm X's firebrand rhetoric sometimes overshadowed the complexity of his message, his political and cultural influence grew far greater after his death — especially among those passionate about environmental activism. He believed in the dangers of environmental racism, and he stood on the frontline of his community's fight to eradicate racism and segregation. 

Although Malcolm X’s speeches were recited years ago, his ideas on environmental oppression are eerily relevant. Topics X addressed during the ‘50s and ’60s — such as freedom, equality, and justice — are still pertinent in 2022, and the continued environmental justice efforts across the country and around the world speak to the impact and the importance of his legacy.