THIS BOOK was born from an essay, “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World,” that we wrote in the fall of 2004. We released the essay in pamphlet form at the annual conference of environmental donors and grantees, hoping to spark a conversation among insiders. What we didn’t expect was that it would be read and debated by such a diverse audience, from college students to corporate executives, everywhere from Italy to Colombia to Japan, or that it would become a projection screen for the hopes and anxieties of the broader progressive community in the United States.
After all was said and done, the passages of our essay that seemed to resonate the most with readers were those that criticized environmentalists for their doomsday discourse. The most quoted lines in the essay were these:
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an “I have a nightmare” speech instead.
We went on to contrast the environmental movement’s complaint-based approach to politics with King’s positive vision — and called on environmentalists to replace their doomsday discourse with an imaginative, aspirational, and future-oriented one.
What we didn’t know at the time we wrote those words was that King had given an “I have a nightmare” speech. In fact, he had given it just moments before he gave his “I have a dream” speech.
The setting was the August 28, 1963, March on Washington. Hundreds of thousands of people had crowded before the Lincoln Memorial, on the Washington Mall, to hear King and other leaders rally the country to support civil rights legislation. Millions of others watched on television, where the speech was carried live by all three networks….
The operating metaphor in King’s nightmare speech was the debt white America owed African Americans. “We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said, but “instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.” The words revealed King’s fears that the march wouldn’t be taken seriously by Congress and the White House. “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment,” he warned. Those who underestimated the movement’s power, he said, would have a “rude awakening.” It was perhaps the darkest and most discouraged speech King ever gave.
But then something strange and wonderful happened. A voice rang out from the back of the dais. It was Mahalia Jackson. “Tell them about your dream, Martin!” She could feel that King had dwelt too long in the dark valley — he needed to bring the crowd up to the sunlit mountaintop. Having heard him give riffs of the dream speech to earlier audiences, Jackson knew just what King needed to do. “Tell them about the dream!” she cried once more.
King seemed to address his next line — “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair” — as much to himself as to the crowd. He then pattered — “I say to you today my friend” — and paused, triggering soft applause from the tired audience and buying himself the time he needed to reorganize his thoughts.
King then seemed to find the words Mahalia Jackson had tossed him, and he began the new speech. “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” From there King led the hot crowd in a rapid climb out of the valley.
[W]hen we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children — black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics — will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
With the words “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last,” racial integration suddenly felt inevitable.
On this day 40 years ago, the day Dr. King was shot, I was finishing up my freshman year of college at the University of Richmond, Virginia, after spending most of my life as a foreigner in Japan, where I learned about segregation in the U.S. but did not experience it the way I did its legacy while working at my uncle’s filling station in Tidewater Virginia: old black men who still insisted on addressing a young white boy as ‘sir’, old black women who could not bring themselves to use the formerly “whites-only” restrooms, and movie-goers who still segregated themselves at the drive-in theater in Suffolk by entering through the formerly segregated entrances (whites to the left, blacks to the right) and parking on the white side or the black side of the lot.
On my first solo trip to an American drive-in theater in my uncle’s car, I unknowingly drove in through the black entrance. Despite the cold reception at the ticket booth, I didn’t discover I was on the black side of the theater until I went to the refreshment stand between features and discovered that I was the only white kid on my side and that there were no black folks on the other side.