Connecting the ’60s Civil Rights Movement to Environmental Issues

In 2011, the Rev. Gerald L. Durley was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame to commemorate his contributions to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He still takes part in civil rights activism today, but also rallies behind a new cause: environmentalism.

At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Durley will give a lecture titled “Protecting and Saving the Planet Matters,” in which he will address issues of climate change and environmental destruction and argue that they are contemporary civil rights issues.

“This is something that really matters, something that’s meaningful, something significant,” Durley said. “Right now I am committed and will remain committed, not to save the next generation, but the generation right now.”

Durley said he was raised a “PK,” or “Preacher’s Kid,” in a conservative Christian denomination in California. But something troubled him about his religion: Durley did not see how Christianity was doing anything positive for black people during a time of intense segregation.

Durley became more involved in the civil rights movement, working closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Young. During this time he initially became less connected to his religion.

But Durley found his way back to faith while in his late 30s, and spirituality is now an important driving force behind all his activism. Durley said after studying different religions he realized “faith was at the foundation of anyone who’d made a change anywhere throughout history.”

“You begin to mature and you begin to understand larger, systemic challenges and what created those conditions, and you begin to march and you begin to speak out against them,” Durley said.

“There is a force down inside that you need, and that’s when I came back closer to my faith: to understand that there’s a God that’s too wise to ever make a mistake.”

But later in life, Durley became passionate about a new cause: environmentalism. Just seven years ago, environmental activist Laura Seydel took Durley to see the 2006 film “The Great Warming.” Afterward he began to educate himself on the importance of environmental preservation.

“I began to make the connection between moral and civil rights and environmental rights,” Durley said. “I began to understand that we were in fact destroying the planet that’s been given to us … [and that] it’s not only a moral and civic [concern], but a spiritual concern.”

As someone who is involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, Durley said environmental issues are particularly important to him because they greatly affect marginalized and minority groups.

“Climate change, environmental injustice issues and global warming negatively, disproportionately impact the minority communities all over the world, whether through tsunamis or whatever it might be,” Durley said. “But particularly in America, because many of [those communities] are locked into urban areas and cannot afford the high cost of the warming and/or air conditioning in the summer or winter.”

Durley added that environmentally correlated health conditions such as asthma, thyroid conditions and contaminated drinking water also greatly affect minority communities living in urban areas. He said his current mission is to challenge legislative policies that negatively impact the environment, as well as raise awareness of environmental problems.

In his lecture today, Durley plans to explain these negative impacts of climate change and environmental destruction in more detail, and show how humans have a responsibility from a faith perspective to take action. He believes an awareness of environmental issues is important, and works today to educate people in religious communities, as well as in politics and business, of their importance.

“I believe in the goodness of humanity, and even with all of the negative and nasty things that I’ve seen and heard over the years, I believe that there are some good people and that they want to create a world that is livable for all people … As long as we keep working toward that noble goal, it can be achieved,” Durley said. “I want to be an agent that will bring that pattern of communication into reality.”

Madison Rossi

The author Madison Rossi

Hailing from Chicago, Madison Rossi is the 2016 Interfaith Lecture preview reporter. She is a class of 2018 journalism major at Northwestern University with minors in marketing and religious studies.