Rev. Gerald Durley Argues Climate Change Is a Civil Rights Violation



Decades ago, the Rev. Gerald Durley stood at the front of a grade school classroom and stuttered. It wasn’t his class, yet. The teacher had pulled him from the school’s special education class, insisting that he could overcome his stutter.

“All of the children laughed at me,” Durley said. “But there was somebody that believed in me. Somebody said you can stop stuttering if you try.”

During the Interfaith Lecture Friday in the Hall of Philosophy, Durley did not stutter. He told his audience that he believes in them. He believes they can help save the world, fight climate change and overcome environmental challenges. They just need to really try like he did first in grade school and then again in the American civil rights movement.

Durley, a key veteran of the movement, has since turned his energy to issues of sustainability and environmentalism. In his lecture, he explained parallels between the two movements. Both deal with issues of human rights, and both demand widespread mindset changes.

“Yes, it’s tough,” he said. “This is something that’s so large that we don’t know if it can be done. But when I was walking in the civil rights movement, spending all that time in jail, I never imagined that we would have a black president one day.”

Durley’s lecture, titled “Protecting and Saving the Planet Matters,” kept returning to the same point throughout: It is our spiritual duty to save this planet.

“Think about what God gave us. Clear, clean lakes and streams. Beautiful, babbling brooks. Flowing rivers and powerful oceans. And he said, ‘Bring it all together and make it all work.’ ”

To Durley, humanity has a spiritual responsibility to look after the planet that is referenced in most of the world’s religions. He said when he first started learning about the threats of climate change, he started looking for guidance from holy texts. He found relevant passages on preserving and loving the Earth in Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Jainism, among others.

“If the climate is so putrid and so hot and so toxic that I die, then I can’t get the civil rights or the human rights,” Durley said. “This is an equal-opportunity destroyer. Whether you’re rich or poor or white or black or tall or short, male or female, when the climate [God gave us] begins to be destroyed, then I have an obligation, because it’s a civil right that everybody has clean water and clean air.”

The lecture took an intersectional approach to climate change. Durley spoke about how poor and black communities in America are affected worse by the mistreatment of the environment because of how cities and society are structured. The privileged are able to avoid the impacts of things such as the burning of fossil fuels or waste dumping.

But eventually, we’ll all be feeling the heat, he said. And it will take everyone to solve this problem.

Along with religion, Durley spoke about fracking, GMO dependence, water pollution and more. He referenced the various scientific journals that have published articles explaining that scientists have reached a virtual consensus: Climate change is happening and humans almost certainly caused it.

As his talk neared its end, Durley went back to his days stuttering in his grade school classroom.

“They will put you in those [special] classes, but you have to break out of that box,” he said. “I’ve been challenged by God to speak up for his planet. To speak up for his animals, and to speak up for his planet.”

And he challenged his audience to speak up for the planet, too.

“This is on all of our watch,” Durley said. “We all have the moral responsibility because this is the civil rights of our time.”

Tanner Cole

The author Tanner Cole