“We have to build resilience in these rural communities, because we can’t just keep rebuilding every time something happens.”
—Catherine Coleman Flowers
In 2017, the Kairos Center conducted a series of interviews with key grassroots and community leaders for the Souls of Poor Folk Moral Audit that was later released by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. One of the focuses of the audit was environmental violence in rural communities and Catherine Coleman Flowers from Lowndes County, Alabama, was one of the community leaders who were interviewed.
Catherine is a long-time leader around the issues of water, sanitation, and health in the South. She has struggled against the criminalization of the poor her entire career, earning prominence in the fight against mandatory installation of septic systems in Lowndes County, Alabama, where the median household income is less than the cost of such a system and those who did not comply would face legal action.
In 2017, Poor People’s Campaign visited Lowndes County and met one of the community leaders Catherine had been working with for years. Pamela Sue Rush lived in a mobile home with no access to sanitation, over one hundred thousand dollars in debt due to predatory lending, and two children with health complications due to their living environment. She was a strong voice in the battle for environmental justice for the poor living in rural communities and testified on Capitol Hill to Congressional lawmakers on the injustices she and her family were facing. Pamela died this spring from COVID-19. She was the victim of the very environment that she, Catherine and many others have been fighting against for years.
Catherine is the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ), a member of the Board of Directors for the Climate Reality Project, the Rural Development Manager for the Equal Justice Initiative and serves as a Senior Fellow for the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. She is also a 2020 recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant and has served alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Donald McEachin, Varshini Prakash, and Gina McCarthy as a member on the climate task force convened by Vice President Joseph Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Her new book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret goes to print this fall.
In the abridged interview below, Catherine sheds light on the injustices faced by Pamela and others in Lowndes County, Flint, and elsewhere across the country. These insights have continued to shape and inform the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign and the Poor People’s Jubilee Platform.
Shailly Gupta Barnes, Kairos Center: What is the history of Lowndes County?
Catherine Flowers: Well, Lowndes County was originally settled by people from South Carolina. One of the things they learned in South Carolina was that cotton wears out the soil, so people started coming to other areas and settled the state of Alabama. It was settled primarily with slaves who were part of the Montgomery slave trade.
Prior to that time of slavery, a lot of Native Americans lived in the area and had the Creek Wars. One of the battles of the Creek Wars was fought in a place called Holy Ground. It was a settlement of Creeks and African Americans who lived together in the villages and they fought the government. Andrew Jackson rounded up a lot of the Natives in Lowndes County and those who weren’t rounded up were put on plantations — I mean put on reservations, but they were kind of the same thing.
This shared history between Native and black communities is not really well known. Black people were on the Trail of Tears. Some of my ancestors were on the Trail of Tears and settled in places like Oklahoma, even though they originally came from places like Lowndes County.
SGB: I know in more recent history, you’ve focused on the issues of sanitation and the right to water and the importance of understanding the rural paradigm to address what people are facing in Lowndes County. Can you tell us more about that?
CF: In the United States, while most people live in urban areas, most of the land area is rural. So, the laws and policies have been written to deal with municipal areas as opposed to dealing with rural communities. When I grew up in Lowndes County, we didn’t have paved roads, a lot of people still didn’t have their own houses, or indoor plumbing, or even phone service. And this was in the 1970s.
Oftentimes, when I work with young people and they come to Lowndes County, I have to explain these things to them and how rural communities are different. For example, I have to explain that you cannot put an address in a GPS tracking system and expect it to take you there because first of all, you may not get a GPS signal and second, the GPS could be wrong.
Recently, I had visitors who came and they said that their GPS kept telling them that they were going into uncharted territory. When you look at addresses, I always use the Selma to Montgomery March Interpretive Center that’s in Lowndes County. The listed address is in Hayneville, Alabama. The building is not in Hayneville, Alabama; it’s in White Hall, which is is Lowndes County. If you call to ask for information for Hayneville, Alabama you’re not going to get the phone number for the Lowndes County Interpretive Center, because the listing and its actual location are different.
With the post office, mail may be delivered somewhere other than where you live and people don’t understand that. We have a standard form where the homeowner has to list their name, their address, and they ask, “What do we do when we go to a place and there’s one address and there’s six or seven homes?”
That made us realize that maybe the statistical decline reported in rural populations is related to the fact that they’re not going from house to house anymore. They’re mailing out surveys to addresses where there should be just one home, but there’s actually several homes with even more people that are not being counted. That’s what I mean by the rural paradigm.
We aren’t counted and we aren’t represented.
SGB: And how does this impact the people who live in Lowndes County?
CF: We aren’t counted and we aren’t represented. This sets in place a whole other industry that preys on the poor, where you may not have banks to provide loans, but you have payday lending companies. Those are the kinds of things that are set up to prey on those kinds of folks because the rural paradigm isn’t something we pay attention to.
Every living President — with the exception of the current President — has been through Lowndes County at one point or the other and these problems have not been lifted up. We have Black elected officials in these counties who are so embarrassed about this poverty and isolation they won’t even talk about it. These places have had Black representation for 40–50 years and some of them have national prominence, but this is not an issue they want to deal with.
SGB: How has Lowndes County changed from 1968 to 2017?
CF: One of the changes is that Lowndes County now has more elected officials who are Black. Back in 1968, we were just starting to elect Black people into office. Now, most of the elected offices on the local level are people of color, but our problems are still not being addressed. We now have a situation where GE has a new plant here, but the pollution that it has caused and is causing in the county is not being addressed. These companies were lured in with multi-year tax breaks. They came in tax-free and instead of being able to attract industries in the county that would benefit people and be friendly to the environment, they are always bringing in the dirty industries into our poor communities. And they can’t go to more affluent communities, because those communities won’t allow them to come. One politician told me, “Well, if they have a leak at the GE plant, everybody in west Montgomery could be dead. Not to mention the people in Lowndes County.”
And then there is this issue of sanitation where people are living with human sewage in their yards. Kids are playing near open waste and it’s causing serious illnesses. Instead of helping the people get access to proper sewage containment or treatment systems, government officials are punishing people for not being able to afford these septic tanks. It’s one of the most literal examples of criminalizing the poor.
Basav Sen, Institute for Policy Studies: You’ve brought so much attention to the lack of sanitation systems in Lowndes County and how people have been forced to address this on their own, without any government support. Has there ever been a publicly related demand that the state of Alabama actually fund municipal sewage treatment systems for rural communities?
CF: One of the problems is that we don’t have public funds that are allocated to unincorporated areas. The last bill that I read said the area has to have 10,000 or more people, so that leaves out a lot of people and communities. If you have 9,000 people then you don’t get it. That doesn’t make sense to me. Part of the changes in policy need to address the reality of what America looks like and America doesn’t look one way. There are thousands, maybe millions of people, whose needs aren’t being met because they don’t fit the more common paradigm.
There are thousands, maybe millions of people, whose needs aren’t being met because they don’t fit in the more common paradigm.
BS: Could you elaborate on how you see climate change further impacting the problems of not having adequate sanitation?
CF: I think we are going to see more diseases that normally are not found in this area. We’ve found hookworm — a parasitic disease that was eradicated but is now coming back in Lowndes County and other poor communities — to be more virulent in the hottest months, as the temperature rises, and this is going to happen for longer periods of time as our seasons change.
When I was a kid we had four seasons; now, we basically have two. We no longer have sustained temperatures below freezing, especially in the daytime. So, even when it snows here, it doesn’t stay on the ground that long because it doesn’t freeze and this means we have more days of hot weather.
SGB: How does the struggle around water and sanitation in Lowndes County connect the people living here to other parts of the country?
CF: There are multiple levels of connection. One level is where more affluent people, like with the Dakota Access Pipeline, fought the pipeline going through their area, so it ended up in an area where people were less affluent and were thought to have less power. We’ve definitely seen that here. We’ve seen that in Flint, too. In Flint, they were trying to have a cost cutting measure and they switched their water source to the Flint River without looking at the human consequences they were causing. Flint has lost so many jobs over the past decades and the people are really struggling, and now they’re facing this water poisoning, because they weren’t accounted for. So that’s one level of the connection.
Another level is around this poisoning of our water systems: in California, their water is being poisoned with pesticides because they are using lots of them with industrialized farming. In Arizona, their water has been poisoned with uranium, because they had uranium mines there and they just left those mines when the extraction industry was no longer profitable, leaving the people there with poisoned water. They are suffering from cancer and other health related issues as a result. We have that here with the hookworm and other diseases because we don’t have clean water.
I tell people: this water crisis is going to come to your door one day, whether you know it or not.
I tell people: this water crisis is going to come to your door one day, whether you know it or not. These corporations are in control of our water, no one is going to have access to it and if they do, it’s going to be toxic. They’ve been trying all this out in poor communities first, because they feel there is going to be less resistance and they don’t have as much of a voice. But, ultimately, what these people are ready to do is sinister and it’s going to impact everybody. And so, we have to build resilience in these rural communities, because we can’t just keep rebuilding every time something happens.
How can we move forward while remembering Pamela Sue Rush and learning from Catherine Coleman Flowers? We must demand environmental justice for people in all parts of this nation. We must fight for moral policy, like that outlined in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival’s Jubilee Platform, which addresses the interlocking injustices that allow poor and rural Americans to be left in unclean, unhealthy, and uninhabitable environments.