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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at EPA's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

To say that Dr. King’s work and inspiration have had an impact on my life would not do justice to what his legacy has meant – to me and so many other Americans. I started elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana just a couple of years after segregation ended. I came of age in the Deep South in the late 60s and 70s – in the direct wake of the Civil Rights movement. Today the incredible honor I have of being the first African American Administrator of the EPA, serving under the first African American President of the United States, is a direct result of the movement that Dr. King led.

There are lessons the environmental movement can learn from Dr. King and the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights struggle began fighting against obvious injustice – “Whites Only” signs…terrible racial violence. Today, the struggle continues in the fight against things that are harder to see – disparities in economic opportunity, achievement gaps in our schools, deeply ingrained institutional prejudices.

The environmental movement began to take shape in much the same way as the Civil Rights movement – with people organizing because of obvious issues, like rivers so polluted they were literally catching on fire. After years of progress, we continue to fight against challenges that are harder to see – the long-term threats that climate change poses to our children and grandchildren, invisible toxins in our water and air, or disparities between rich and poor on the burden of environmental degradation.

And we take direct inspiration from Dr. King in our work for environmental justice. Earlier this week, I named environmental justice as one of our seven key priorities for this EPA. In the work ahead, environmental justice is a principle that will inform all of our actions. That’s because environmental challenges have the power to deny equality of opportunity and hold back the progress of communities. Because every community has a right to equal protection from their government. These are the very same battles that Dr. King fought, and the ones he would still be fighting if he were with us today.

Last year I attended a White House event on green jobs in the inner city. One of the participants was Doctor Dorothy Height, who stood with Dr. King on the stage at the March on Washington. After decades of work for justice, she has taken up the issue of environmentalism as the next step in the great march forward. Even after all these years, she is still working to ensure equality and opportunity for everyone. If Dr. King was here, I believe he would be doing the same work, possibly even standing with us on the White House lawn. But he’s not here. He is not here to do that work. Which means that it is up to us to do it for him.

In the spirit of Dr. King, this coming Monday will be “A Day On, not a Day Off.” I encourage you to take part. But if we hope to continue Dr. King’s legacy – then one day is not enough. Our challenges will still be there on Tuesday. And on Wednesday, our communities will still need our service. The same on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Dr. King didn’t fight to get his name on the calendar. He didn’t fight to change America for one day out of every year. He fought for something much larger than that. To honor his work – and the work of the marchers and sitters who faced dogs and brutality – we should serve every day. And just like them, our success won’t be measured by plaques on the wall or awards and recognition. It will be measured by the lives we change, and the service we provide to others.

That is the true legacy of Dr. King. It is an inspiration to us – but it is also a responsibility. We can spend a day honoring the man and his achievements. To honor what he fought for, and what he and others gave their lives for, we have to work every day. I hope you will join in that work and service. Thank you very much.