President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on July 2, 1964.
“If you can’t fly then run,
if you can’t run then walk,
if you can’t walk then crawl,
but whatever you do,
you have to keep moving forward.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We the people are celebrating the Civil Rights Revolution with a new public art park that is the result of the struggle for equal justice in Los Angeles. “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” commemorates the Civil Rights Movement by honoring local and national heroes. Public art and green space transform two traffic islands one mile apart from each other. The distance evokes the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and the March on Selma that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The traffic island on Rodeo Drive and Martin Luther King Boulevard focuses on national heroes, while the island on Rodeo and Jefferson Boulevard focuses on local heroes. The park is inspired in part by the National Park Service’s International Civil Rights Walk of Fame. Los Angeles celebrated the ribbon cutting for the public art park — the only monument in Los Angeles dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement — on June 26, 2014.
The Civil Rights park is itself the result of the successful civil rights and environmental justice struggle for clean water justice and green access in African American and Latino Los Angeles. The park is the result of the epic 40 year struggle to fix the sewer system city wide, and eliminate noxious odors and spills that plagued African American and Latino communities for decades. Community leaders working with Civil Rights lawyers, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and others reached a $2 billion consent decree with the City of Los Angeles to settle a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act. The Los Angeles sewer system is one of the largest in the U.S., making this work significant to the nation well beyond Southern California. This was the first time the Clean Water Act was used to address sewage odors, apart from overflows. This is one of the largest sewage cases in U.S. history, according to EPA. Experts from around the world visit Los Angeles to learn how the city has fixed up the sewer system, spills, and odors.
The court-ordered settlement agreement calls for park and water projects city to improve the sewer system citywide, clean up sewer odors and spills, and create park, creek, and wetland projects to improve water quality and quality of life. Multi-benefit projects, or supplemental environmental projects (“SEPs”), are part of the settlement agreement. An SEP is part of a settlement or order that is provided instead of cash damages or penalties to make up for the impacts a community has suffered. The SEPs include the following park and water projects:
- South Central L.A. Wetlands Park transformed a paved bus lot into green space
- North Atwater Creek Park has helped kick off the revitalization of the L.A. River
- The Garvanza Park Stormwater BMP Project in Highland Park captures and cleans one million gallons of rain and runoff with underground cisterns that filter and replenish groundwater, irrigate the park, and keep polluted runoff out of the River and ocean.
The green and blue projects directly benefit the community along the River and in Baldwin Hills, South Central Los Angeles, Northeast L.A., and beyond. The Civil Rights park by artist Kim Abeles, which draws inspiration from the National Park Service’s International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, benefits everyone.
The year 2014 marks major milestones in the Civil Rights Movement. These milestones include the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court cases in Brown v. Board of Education and Hernandez v Texas in 1954, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice and health in 1994. Brown held that separate schools are inherently unequal. Hernandez held that the Equal Protection Clause guards against discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, and descent. The Civil Rights park and the work leading up to it in and out of court reflects the myriad strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Revolution includes attorneys taking cases to court, ground breaking judicial decisions, grass roots organizing, legislation by Congress, action by the President, implementation by administrative agencies, and people providing a mandate to support civil rights through the right to vote.
The City Project’s Dayana Molina and Michelle Kao at the pedestal with board member Tom Hayden’s shoes
The Baldwin Hills and South Central Los Angeles are the historic heart of African American Los Angeles. These communities have long strived for equal access to public resources including parks, recreation, and public art. These communities have struggled to be free of environmental degradation, including sewage odors and overflows, and the risks of urban oil fields. Although Baldwin Hills may be comparatively well-off financially, it is plagued by the inequality and environmental injustice common to South Central and other communities that are of color or low-income. “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” reflects the community struggle for both: freedom to enjoy the benefits of green space, and freedom from the risks of sewer odors, spills, and oil fields.
Thus diverse allies helped fix the sewer system citywide to eliminate noxious odors and create park and clean water projects through the Clean Water Justice agreement. Allies include Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Homeowners’ Coalition, Baldwin Hills Estate Homeowners Association (HOA), Baldwin Hills Village Gardens Homes HOA, Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, Crenshaw Neighborhoods HOA, Expo Neighbors Block Club, United HOA, Village Green Homes HOA, and Civil Rights Attorneys at The City Project and English, Munger, and Rice.
Community allies have also worked to make the dream come true for the Baldwin Hills Park, the largest urban park designed in the U.S. in over a century. Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, represented by The City Project, and diverse allies have fought for over a decade to protect the community and the park. They have stopped a power plant in the park, stopped a garbage dump there, and saved the Baldwin Hills Conservancy. They have fought to regulate the adjoining Baldwin Hills oil fields to better protect human health and the environment. This work has defined the standard for protecting human health and the environment in urban oil fields, including those in communities of color and low-income.
The Civil Rights Park and Baldwin Hills Park are part of the Green Justice Movement that includes Los Angeles State Historic Park, Rio de Los Angeles State Park, the one billion dollar plan to revitalize the Los Angeles River, and the proposed national recreation area in the San Gabriels.
Ribbon Cutting June 26, 2014, City of L.A. Engineer Gary Lee, Community Leader Opal Young, The City Project’s Robert García, City Council President Herb Wesson, and Korean Immigrant Activist Susan Ann Cuddy
With the ribbon cutting for “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” the Clean Water Justice consent decree is coming to an end after ten years. The City’s Bureau of Sanitation, members of the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Homeowners’ Coalition, and The City Project have agreed to continue working together voluntarily to ensure continued progress to keep the community clean and green. The City and the people have learned to trust and listen to each other and to work together. That is a testament to the transformative power of the Civil Rights Movement to continue to make real change in people’s lives.
Before and after: the Air Treatment Facility at Rodeo and Jefferson in 2010, where the Civil Rights project is now.
Click on the last image to see the Civil Rights park on flickr.
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A new wave of studies on the Civil Rights Movement is emerging during the 60th anniversary of Brown and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. See, for example, Gavin Wright, Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South (2013); Bruce Ackerman, The Civil Rights Revolution (2014); Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (2012); Clay Risen, The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act (2014); Todd S. Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (2014). Leading earlier works include, for example, Jack Greenberg, Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution (1994); Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality (1975 and 2004); Taylor Branch, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (2013). On health justice and the Civil Rights Movement, see D. B. Smith, Health Care Divided: Race and Healing a Nation (1999); J. Dittmer, The Good Doctors: The Medical Committee for Human Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice in Health Care (2009).
On the Green Justice movement in Southern California, see Robert García, The George Butler Lecture: Social Justice and Leisure, 45(1) Journal of Leisure Research 7-22 (Winter 2013); The City Project et. al, Public Comments on Health and Environmental Justice along the Los Angeles River (Nov. 18, 2013); Robert García and Seth Strongin, Healthy Parks, Schools and Communities: Green Access and Equity for Southern California (The City Project Policy Report 2011), www.mapjustice.org.