Residents of America's inner cities should take back their communities from polluters, says the Rev. Solomon J. Holley Jr., a North Carolina environmental activist and crusader for the urban environment.
Pollution in the cities is becoming "the next civil rights issue," said Mr. Holley, a speaker at what was billed as the country's first Urban Earth Day celebration at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore yesterday.
About 150 people attended the event, which sponsors had expected to attract 1,000. The program was sponsored by the Cleveland-based Minority Environmental Association, a group that tries to mobilize black and poor communities on environmental issues.
The turnout didn't bother Mr. Holley.
"No, I'm not disheartened at all," he said. "We're getting the message out. If you hadn't had this event on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, the environmental tragedies that are happening in cities still wouldn't be addressed."
The problem, he said, is that "African-Americans don't have access to the places where decisions are made about where factories and waste disposal sites are placed."
Twelve years ago, the federal Government Accounting Office issued a report that listed racism as the primary reason a disproportionate number of hazardous and toxic waste facilities, landfills and incinerators had been placed in black communities, he said.
"You remember when the church took the leading role in seeing that African-Americans obtained the right to vote, to open housing and tackled other issues? That's the same position the church is taking now," he said.
"It's always been said that the poor and communities of color are not interested in environmental issues because they're fighting for survival," said Deborah Alex-Saunders, executive director of the Minority Environmental Association. "That's just not true."
Her organization had promised a varied group of entertainers, politicians, academics and activities at yesterday's event. First-time event problems occurred, though. The keynote speaker, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Michael Espy, didn't show up.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke praised the program, however.
"It seems that the environmental movement and the urban activists have joined to confront a major urban issue," he said. "You can see we're making progress in Baltimore. . . . We've raised their environmental consciousness and people are getting involved."
Democratic Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County also spoke of the need to begin fighting for urban cleanup.
"Toxic wastes are being dumped with regularity in the urban inner-city communities," Mr. Wynn said. "There's no reason why the urban scene should just be concrete and brick."
Entertainment was provided by '60s folk artist Richie Havens, an environmental activist, who treated the crowd to an a cappella version of "America, the Beautiful" before joining a panel discussion.
Those who came to learn about Urban Earth Day praised the effort. "This is a great idea," said Renee Simpson, who works in the Baltimore Office of Clean Water Action, "but there's not enough people here."