A Picturesque Tour of Toxic Waste Sites in Georgia and Alabama

Including examination of the racism that helped create them, conversations with residents and activists, and brief observations about the history, politics, music, art, architecture, and scenery of the region, illustrated with historic artworks and original photographs by the author.

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Walt Kelly, We Have Met the Enemy, 1970.

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Ad for Earth Day, The New York Times, Jan. 18, 1970.

April 22 (Earth Day): Jekyll Island and Brunswick, Georgia

As we headed north on Highway 41 from Micanopy, Florida, I thought about the first Earth Day. I was a freshman at Forest Hills High School in Queens, and the world seemed, at last, to be calming down. Though assassination, riot and war still darkened my dreams, there appeared to be, as the Vietnam War planners liked to say, “light at the end of the tunnel.” On April 20, 1970, Nixon announced the withdrawal of an additional 150,000 U.S. troops, accelerating “Vietnamization” — the handoff of fighting from American to South Vietnamese troops — and hastening the end of the war.

Along with hundreds of thousands of others, I marched, two days later, from 14th Street to 59th Street in Manhattan. I wore my gold-colored Nehru shirt and sandals and acted the hippie, though I was just a recent Bar Mitzvah boy. We demanded an ecological republic and naively believed it might soon be achieved. Back home after the rally, and in the months that followed, I read books by the popular science authors I admired: Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, George Gamow, and Isaac Asimov. Commoner’s book Science and Survival (1966) made a particular impression. He described in plain language the impacts of water and air pollution, nuclear fallout, and CO2. The burning of fossil fuels, he said, would cause a greenhouse effect, raising global temperatures, melting ice caps, and increasing world-wide flooding. It seemed like science fiction, but even if it wasn’t, I was sure we had the technology and the will to fix it.

Earth Day proved to be a false dawn. Just a week later, Nixon sent new troops and bombers into Cambodia, and the war dragged on for three more years. And 1973 saw the opening salvoes of a new war – a still ongoing attack on American workers. Aggrieved by rising wages and benefits and a diminishing share of national wealth, U.S. corporations – aided by compliant politicians of both parties and a global oil crisis – pursued a policy of “neoliberalism.” Among other things, this aggression nipped in the bud the environmental movement that Earth Day inaugurated. Market forces and privatization cannot halt the poisoning of the air, rivers and oceans, the extinction of species, or global warming.

Driving toward Georgia, these thoughts and memories took the form of images rather than ideas: city streets with joyous marchers, a TV screen with scrolling names of war dead, Nixon’s face, and the worn covers of paperback books. Though they cast me back more than 50 years, they occupied only a few, disconnected minutes as my wife Harriet and I passed through Gainesville, Starke, Baldwin, and Jacksonville, before crossing the meandering St. Mary’s River into Georgia. Our first stop was Jekyll Island, one of the Georgia Sea Islands.

We wanted to visit the place where U.S. senators and leading financiers secretly met in 1910 to establish the Federal Reserve System, an unelected body that is today as omnipotent in its domain as the Supreme Court. We also wanted to see where northern robber barons, including the Vanderbilts, Pulitzers and Rockefellers, went for winter holidays. Decades later, in 1950, the island’s accessibility was broadened. That’s when the arch segregationist, Governor Herman Talmadge (later Senator Talmadge), created the Jekyll Island Authority to develop the island’s infrastructure to accommodate more tourists. The Authority did so in large part by deploying the unpaid labor of Black convicts from a prison camp located nearby. These men – modern day slaves — built the causeway and many of the roads, planted trees and lawns and even laid the foundations for some of the privately owned motels and hotels. They also helped build St. Andrews Beach, the first public beach in Georgia accessible to Blacks. It arose in response to a petition from Black residents of nearby Brunswick, Georgia, our next stop.

Brunswick is where Ahmaud Arbury was pursued and killed — lynched is the correct word — on February 23, 2020. The men who did it are behind bars, and the local D.A. who obstructed the initial investigation into the murder, was indicted for misconduct and will soon be standing trial. But we were headed there for a different purpose. We wanted to offer support to Rachael Thompson who leads an environmental justice organization called the Glynn Environmental Coalition (GEC).

Rachael was standing outside her modest, suburban home when we drove up. She’s a young, handsome, and ingenuous white woman with a deep understanding of the environmental challenges facing her city. These include flooding from sea-level rise, foul smelling air, four superfund sites and 13 hazardous waste facilities. Notwithstanding the fact that a major hurricane would flood and poison nearly everybody in Brunswick, it’s the poor, Black people – 56.2% of the population is Black — who are most at risk. They live closest to the toxic sites in so-called fence-line communities and in the areas of lowest elevation. One of the worst environmental culprits is the former LCP Chemical Corp., which manufactured, among other things, Chlor-alkali – which is just as deadly as it sounds. It’s used in the making of hydrochloric and chlorosulphuric acid. The old factory is a no-man’s land zone occupying hundreds of acres in the heart of the community.

We’d see this pattern again and again in our travels, from Brunswick to Reidsville, Georgia to Birmingham, Alabama and back down to Adel, Georgia: Towns or neighborhoods divided into white and Black or rich and poor, with the first occupying higher ground distant from toxic industry, and the second low-lying land proximate to pollution. To be clear: Black people didn’t choose to move into neighborhoods with heavy industry or toxic dumps. Polluting industries were encouraged – by changes to zoning laws, tax abatements, and sheer corruption — to move into Black neighborhoods. In some cases, segregation, redlining, or high housing costs made it impossible for low-income Blacks to move anywhere else. New voting restrictions and gerrymandering in Georgia, Florida and elsewhere in the South are perpetuating the crisis.

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Georgia Pacific, fluffer wood-pulp plant, Brunswick, 2022, Georgia. Photo: The author.

And then there are the failures of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: They have been directing cleanup at the LCP site for almost 30 years. The affected area is off-limits, though residential neighborhoods, schools and parks border the sites. As far as the EPA is concerned, partial clean-up combined with “Keep Off” signs are effective abatement measures: “Institutional controls play an important role in site remedies,” says the EPA helpfully, “because they reduce exposure to contamination by limiting land or resource use. They also guide human behavior.” EPA further cautions: “The State of Georgia has imposed seafood consumption advisories for the Brunswick-St. Simons estuary due to mercury and PCB concentrations.”

Beyond the superfund and hazardous waste sites, there is the Georgia-Pacific “fluff” pulp and paper factory owned by Koch Industries. It emits multiple pollutants into the air including Sulphur dioxide, the probable source of the putrid smell frequently reported by residents downwind. The plant also uses about 30 million gallons of groundwater a day, allowing saltwater seepage into the aquifer. Pretty soon, the choice for many will be between Charmin toilet paper and safe drinking water.

April 23-24: Statesboro and Reidsville: Blind Willie McTell and Jackie Jones

Everywhere you go in the South, you find the geography of music – especially Black music: Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters from Clarksdale, Mississippi; Big Bill Broonzy from Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Slim Harpo from Lobdell, Louisiana; Howlin’ Wolf from White Station Mississippi; Big Mama Thornton from Ariton, Alabama; Bessie Smith from Chattanooga, Tennessee. All those names and one more flashed into my mind when I saw the highway sign for Statesboro, Georgia.

“Statesboro Blues” was written and recorded by Blind Willie McTell in 1928, but it’s best known from the rendition by the Allman Brothers Band in 1971. That performance featured Duane Allman’s squealing slide guitar and brother Greg’s confident, Black-inflected intonation. It’s a great arrangement inspired by Taj Mahal’s version of 1969, but not very bluesy. “My mama died and left me; my papa died and left me” Greg sings matter-of-factly; he’s more interested in the suggestion that follows: “I’m goin’ to the country, baby do you want to go?” McTell’s original version, on the other hand, is plaintive rather than propositional; the meter is irregular, and the beat is syncopated, like in ragtime. His 12-string guitar, complex finger picking, and chromaticism make it sound like an orchestra is playing, not one man. It’s a powerful, modern composition while also being pure blues.

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Photographer unknown, Blind Willie McTell, c. 1925.

But it’s another song by McTell, “Death Cell Blues,” that speaks most profoundly to the segregation and racism that afflicted Black Georgians in the heyday of the Klan, and still does in places like Brunswick, Statesboro, and Reidsville where we were headed next. “Death Cell” doesn’t just tell a story, it offers testimony:

Ahh, ahh, chained down in a cell all by myself
Ooh, ooh, chained down in a cell all by myself
And my gal, she gets it, guess she got somebody else
“They got me killed for murder and I haven’t even harmed a Man
They got me killed for murder but I haven’t even harmed a Man
They got me charged with burglin’ and I haven’t even raised my hand
The judge won’t give me no fine
The judge won’t give me no fine
Ain’t but one thing could release me and that’s old Father Time
I’ll have to give you my number, 5994
I’ll have to give you my number, 5994
Because I’ll be there forever, I have no other place to go.
They got me killed for forgin’ and I can’t even write my name
Well, they got me killed for forgin’ and I can’t even write my name
And my eyes still don’t miss, my baby left my poor heart in pain
My baby left my heart in pain”

In its use of irony and antithesis, the song recalls Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) and anticipates Abel Meeropol’s poem “Strange Fruit” made famous by Billie Holiday in 1939. The first poem tells the story of the legal execution by hanging of a man who had “killed the thing he loved”, and the second of a lynching: “Pastoral scene of the gallant south/The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.” The protagonist in “Death Cell Blues” is not one but several men, each accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit. He is implicitly Black, poor, and uneducated — “I can’t even write my name.”

Born in Thomson, Georgia in either 1898 or 1903, McTell’s family moved to Statesboro in 1907 during a period of heightened racist violence. Three years before, two black men in Statesboro, Paul Reed and Will Cato were accused of murdering a white family and burning down their house. After their arrest and conviction, they were taken from jail by a large mob, chained to a tree and burned alive. Other Black residents of Statesboro were also killed, beaten, or terrorized in the days and weeks that followed. So many, in fact, that white farmers feared the resulting exodus of Black families might hinder the cotton harvest; tree plantation owners feared depletion of the legion of turpentine workers. But Black residents had few other options in Bulloch or adjacent counties. Though they comprised 43% of the population of Bulloch, they possessed only 3% of the wealth and 3% of the land. Blind Willie’s restlessness in later years, may have been a result of this early experience of economic oppression and racial violence.

McTell had a difficult life and career. He played for pennies on street corners, for nickels in honkey-tonks and carnivals, and for dollars in recording studios, but he never recorded a hit or had a stable income. Despite his blindness, he read music (using Braille), travelled across the South and more rarely, ventured north to New York City and Chicago. In an interview with John Lomax in 1940, he revealed himself to be a musicologist and historian of the Blues, describing its evolution and regional variations. McTell died in 1959, too soon to be re-discovered by folk revivalists or ‘60s rockers. But in 1983, Bob Dylan offered an homage. His song

Blind Willie McTell” (1983) describes violence (“Seen them big plantations burning/Hear the cracking of the whips”) and incarceration (“there’s a chain gang on the highway”). Its melody is based on “St. James Infirmary” and its meter is only a beat faster than a dirge.

From Statesboro we travelled west to Reidsville. Though the Tattnall County seat, its population is just 2,658, well dispersed across seven square miles. Residents are mostly poor, with a median household income of $29,000 and property value of $85,500. If you have skills, education, or opportunities, you’ll probably move from here. The area’s biggest employer, the Georgia State Prison, closed last year, and occasional flooding doesn’t help matters. Our contact in town is Jackie Jones, a tall thin, Black woman of quiet dignity and fragile health. As we drive up to her red-brick ranch house, she walked in short steps to greet us. She gave Harriet a long, tight hug, token of a friendship born of Zoom meetings, emails, and sympathy.

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Jacqueline Jones, Reidsville, Georgia, April 24, 2022. Photo: The Author.

Jackie’s home has flooded up to the windowsills, and she’s tired of being afraid every time it rains. Other homes in town and nearby Collins also flood. We talked about the help she’s now getting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (and other organizations) and about her newfound celebrity: she’s been quoted in The New York Times and The Guardian, and testified at a hearing organized by FEMA. Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, she was never informed before buying her house that it was liable to inundation. The lack of any state or federal disclosure mandates are the main culprits, along with the propensity of people to lie when they want to unload their damaged homes.

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Main Street, Collins, GA, April 24, 2022. Photo: The Author.

Leaving Reidsville, we stopped in nearby Collins to observe the ghostly stillness of Main Street. We took pictures and once again headed west.

April 25-27, Atlanta, Georgia

From Collins, we drove to Atlanta where we had separate meetings with two brilliant organizers, Dr. Jackie Echols of South River Watershed Alliance, and Na’Taki Osborne Jelks of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance. Both are combatting water pollution and discrimination; it turns out that the only stretches of local rivers not currently protected or slated for restoration happen to run through predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Jackie spoke with the confidence but not the arrogance of the university teacher she formerly was. She shared with us her legal strategies for forcing states and municipalities to undertake environmental remediation – these involved such arcana as the EPA “triannual review” and “antidegradation requirements.” We couldn’t take notes fast enough. If we still had a speed-dial, she’d be on it.

We met Na’Taki, and her capable associate Darryl Haddock in what looked like a National Park headquarters in Oakland City, a working class, mostly Black neighborhood on the west side of Atlanta. The building is adjacent to a 26-acre nature preserve that’s become a local haven. She spoke about her concern that the things they are fighting for — environmental enhancements such as woodlands, wetlands, bioswales and rain gardens — foster gentrification. Home prices were rising fast in the vicinity of the reserve. Did the very remedy for urban misery now have the potential to exacerbate it? We talked about solutions for the paradox including reduced taxes for low-income residents, the creation of land banks, and low-interest loans for home acquisition and improvement. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Both Jackie and Na’Taki spoke frequently, but with unease, about “environmental justice”: the provision of environmental protection to poor or racially marginalized communities as much as to wealthy and white ones. This is a big topic but worth a few paragraphs here.

The term first gained prominence in a 1987 report from the United Church of Christ, Racial Justice Commission, and then in Robert Bullard’s book, Dumping in Dixie (1990). Two years later, that noted environmentalist George H.W. Bush, established an Office of Environmental Justice at EPA. Soon after, environmental justice centers were set up at several universities, a sure sign the concept had lost its focus. Then came more books, advisory councils, grant programs, working groups, conferences, guidebooks, interagency task forces, risk assessments, toolkits, blogs, training courses, strategic plans, action plans, and foundation funding. Indeed, the entire bureaucracy of state-sponsored and tax-deductible environmentalism was marshalled for the cause. There are currently hundreds if not thousands of environmental justice non-profits in the United States, including our own, Anthropocene Alliance, established in 2017. On January 27, 2022, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden issued an executive order “laying the foundation for the most ambitious environmental justice agenda ever undertaken by an administration.” Every EJ non-profit – indeed, every environmental organization — is hoping to feed from that trough. But they are likely to leave hungry.

After meeting with our Atlanta friends, I couldn’t rid myself of the nagging sense that environmental justice as currently constituted, represents a second-class environmentalism and a waiting room for justice. It has become the place where liberal politicians go to assuage their consciences and foundations go to demonstrate their commitments to equity. I’m not saying their efforts are ill intentioned; I’m saying they are profoundly inadequate to the scale of the problem.

Faced with what every scientist on the planet describes as a global, climate emergency, and what every economist identifies as an oil shock resulting from the Russian war against Ukraine, Biden has failed to declare a national emergency, using the National Emergencies Act, the Defense Production Act and other measures as his legal vehicles. Doing so would enable him to take immediate action to fund renewable energy production while also investing in the clean-up of toxic waste that further infiltrates soils and aquifers after every heavy rainstorm. The U.S. Senate, careful not to displease its fossil fuel patrons, voted last week (49-47) to deny Biden this prerogative. The measure however is non-binding. Democrats Joe Manchin and Mark Kelley voted with the Republicans.

Joe Biden’s “Justice 40 Initiative” is the keystone of his environmental justice agenda. It aims to direct 40% of climate and clean energy investments to communities most impacted by climate change and pollution, but its rollout has been plagued by balky mapping tools and software crashes. (The low-tech option of simply asking communities what they need was not ventured.) In addition, congressional failure to advance Biden’s bill formerly-known-as-Build-Back-Better, means that actual funding for the initiative will be limited; and what money is available will be distributed in significant part by Republican governors and legislatures hostile both to the environment and justice.

And how did Biden’s team select its specific target number when it’s clear that far more than 40% of toxic industry, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions impacts low-income and non-White communities most? (Has anybody spotted a smokestack or seen a superfund site in Palm Beach, Georgetown, Winnetka, or Beverly Hills?) Plus, can there be a more politically incompetent way to tackle pollution and climate change in an age of Trumpism/fascism than by deploying a racial quota to determine investment levels and then proceed to both underfund the initiative, and assign its implementation to the very Republicans who hate you?

So, here’s my quick and dirty suggestions for advancing environmental justice now:

1) Don’t call it that.

2) Find the money. Pass a robust, Build Back Better plan by threatening Sen. Joe Manchin with a Declaration of Climate Emergency (it’s obviously on the senator’s mind) that includes a measure to ban the export of West Virginia coal.

3) After getting Manchin’s vote on BBB, declare a climate emergency anyway. That’ll teach him a lesson.

4) Direct BBB or Justice 40 resources to impacted municipalities or community-based organizations, bypassing Republican governors and legislatures.

5) Super-charge the EPA. Get them to clean up all superfund sites and identify new ones – then fix those too.

6) Scare the bejesus out of the American public with tales of present and future climate and environmental catastrophe. Fear sells.

April 28-29, Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama

Birmingham, Alabama was once called “The Magic City” because of its astonishingly rapid expansion following the Civil War. That’s when the fortuitous local discovery of iron ore, coal, and limestone – the three essential ingredients for steel – brought a major, local industry into existence. The presence of low-wage, Black labor, also helped. The city grew upward and outward and by the 1910, boasted several impressive skyscrapers, including the 132 foot tall, Chicago-style, Woodward Building – currently for sale. The Great Depression significantly slowed growth, however, and the post-war recession delivered another blow. By the mid 1950s, the state legislature in Montgomery was systematically defunding the city in response to its large and increasingly restive Black population. What the legislature started, white flight accelerated. Infrastructure deteriorated and the population nose-dived. From 1970 to 2010 the white share of the population declined from 57% to 21%, and the overall population went from 340,000 in 1960 to just over 200,000 today. Entering Birmingham in late April, we saw few cars downtown and fewer pedestrians, though there are pockets of revitalization.

The city has a decent art museum, anchored by a collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings. They were donated by Samuel H. Kress, founder of a nationwide chain of 5 and 10 cent stores. It should be noted that Kress’s gift of 51 artworks in 1961 was made just a few months before Black students from Miles College staged a lunch counter sit-in at the Birmingham Kress. That store, like others downtown, refused to hire Black clerks and maintained segregated dining rooms, rest rooms and water fountains. A year later, in 1963, the city erupted in protest and police riot.

The Kress collection in the Birmingham Art Museum includes an impressive depiction of St. Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera. He’s holding the skinning knife with which he was flayed and casts an accusatory stare at the viewer. It’s quite disturbing. But I came to the museum specifically to see a picture by the African American artist Robert S. Duncanson titled A Dream of Italy. It was painted in 1865 while the Cincinnati native was resident in Montreal. I want to say that the pastoral subject – peasants, shepherds, goats, and Mediterranean warmth — expresses the solace Duncanson felt in a land safely distant from the bitter hostilities to the south. But he may just as easily have been dreaming of warmer climes after experiencing a brutal, Canadian winter.

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Robert S. Duncanson, A Dream of Italy, 1865. Photo: Birmingham Museum of Art.

After a day of visits to civil rights sites, we met in a local café with Haley Colson and Mary Claire Kelly from GASP — the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution. Haley is an attorney, and as bright and cheerful as her cases are dark and dolorous. It’s not easy representing poor people fighting against rich, polluting corporations, but she’s had some recent successes that we were pleased to celebrate. We talked legal strategies over vegan lunches of beans, spinach and rice, cashew-milk mac and cheese, and lentil soup. Haley then drove us to Harriman Park to meet Charlie Powell, founder and head of PANIC — People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination. (Environmental non-profits love a good acronym. GASP cheated a bit by not including the B for Birmingham in theirs.)

Charlie is 69 years-old, barrel chested and voluble. He told us he was one of 16 children and the biggest trouble-maker. When he informed his mother, a few years before her passing, that he was on television, she said, “Oh Charlie, what have you done now?” She was pleasantly surprised that he was being honored for his local organizing and protesting. He pointed out to us a coal powered electric generation plant adjacent to some homes; its operation is now suspended in large part because of Charlie’s work. Then he took us to the gates of the Bluestone Coke Plant, also now out of commission, due to a lawsuit brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of GASP and PANIC . The old guy is a scourge, and nobody should underestimate him.

Fence line community near the shuttered Bluestone Coke plant, Birmingham, AL, 2022. Photo: The author.

On our way to Montgomery the next day, we detoured through some beautiful, rolling countryside to meet up with the team that comprises the Coosa Riverkeepers, led by Justinn Overton. The Coosa River runs from Tennessee to Alabama and on down to the Gulf, passing through a series of dams and impoundments. By slowing its flow, these have compromised the river’s health. In addition, stormwater runoff brings harmful fertilizers and petroleum into the water, and factories and powerplants discharge effluent. Justinn is young, energetic, and strongly built – you wouldn’t mess with her — and her team is a veritable Mod Squad. They took us on a fast boat ride up-river from the Lacoosa Marina to see the Gaston Steam Plant, where they tested water quality and took photos of some menacing coal ash piles.

From rural Alabama, we drove to Montgomery, the capital of the ‘60s civil rights movement. If you are white, visit the civil rights museums in Birmingham and Montgomery and don’t feel shame, you have ice in your veins. That’s why Alabama’s proposed “divisive concepts” bill (similar to the Florida law) is so ridiculous. It would prohibit public schools and universities from offering instruction that encourages “any individual…to accept, acknowledge, affirm, or assent to a sense of guilt, complicity, or a need to work harder solely on the basis of his or her race or sex.” The word “solely” provides some wiggle room, but how many 6th grade teachers will be brave enough to take their kids to the Montgomery Legacy Museum to learn about slave auctions, whippings, rapes, lynching, and mass incarceration? “They come home just distraught, that’s too far,” state Sen. Clyde Chambliss, told a reporter. “That is happening in our schools!”

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National Memorial for Peace and Justice (aka Lynching Memorial), Montgomery, Ala, 2022. Photo: The author.

April 30, Ray Charles and Adel, Georgia

The last stop on our tour of toxic and picturesque Georgia and Alabama was to meet up with Treva Gear, who leads Concerned Citizens of Cook County in Adel, Georgia. But before that, we took one more detour, this time to Albany, Georgia, to pay homage to Ray Charles, aka “The Genius,” who was born there in 1930. Albany is the largest city in Dougherty County, and lay in the heart of what W.E.B. DuBos, in The Souls of Black Folks (1903), called The Black Belt: “It’s where Black people congregated in great numbers for mutual defense in order to secure the peace and tranquility necessary to economic advancement.” More than a half century later, in 1961, the Albany Movement, comprised of leaders from SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and the NAACP, was formed to challenge the deeply entrenched policies of segregation and disenfranchisement that persisted in the region. It was largely unsuccessful, but its strategic failures proved instructive for the larger civil rights movement.

Charles lived only a few months in Albany, but city officials apparently determined that was long enough to merit the creation of Ray Charles Plaza with a rotating, bronze sculpture and

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Roman Fountain, Ray Charles Fountain, Riverwalk, Albany Georgia. Photo: The Author.

fountain representing Ray at the piano. What partially redeems this ridiculous monument is the fact that it’s hooked up to speakers so you can stand and listen to song after song from the Ray Charles songbook: “Georgia on My Mind,” “What’d I Say?”, “I Got a Woman,” “Unchain My Heart, etc. To enjoy it best, I closed my eyes and imagined Ray was playing a gig at Niagra Falls.

Our final destination, Adel, Georgia, as Southerners like to say, “is no big place.” But it’s the county seat of Cook County, Georgia, has a couple of motels with swimming pools and a passable Mexican restaurant called Don Julio’s where we ate dinner soon after we arrived. Their huge, frozen Margarita’s are popular, but they agreed to make me the classic: Tequila, Triple Sec and fresh lime juice on the rocks, no salt. At the bar next to me was an independent, white truck driver named Billy – about my age — who was delivering used John Deeres from Wisconsin to central Florida. He told me with satisfaction that drivers were demanding and receiving more money for hauls these days, and what was even better, getting ripped off less. Apparently, the recipients of goods sometimes falsely claim they arrived damaged or late and refuse delivery unless a big discount is agreed. Now drivers just say “fuck off,” and the receivers take the stuff with no further debate. Billy was in Adel only for dinner and would soon be back on the road. He was surprised to learn we would spend the night there when it was only another two hours to Micanopy. But we had environmentalist business to do, we told him proudly. He looked puzzled.

Treva Gear of CCCC, is a former U.S. Army medic and high school coach and looks and acts it. She’s upright and well-muscled and speaks with a strength that could whip any private or high school student into shape. But she’s also a Ph.D in education, so is precise in her words and thoughts and completely without prejudice. She judges fellow Black leaders and white elected officials purely on what they say and do and leaves the slogans to others: Fact — Wood pellets are highly polluting in their manufacture and use, and a factory that makes them has no legitimate place in Adel. Fact — A business that refurbishes old propane tanks, releasing toxic ethyl mercaptan into the air (it smells like skunk but is truly dangerous) should not be in the middle of residential neighborhood. Fact — Bitcoin mining is energy intensive, extremely noisy, and good for absolutely nothing and should also not be in the town of Adel. We asked her how we could help. She thanked us warmly for the offer and gave us a list; we’ll try our best.

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Bitcoin mine, Adel, Georgia, 2022. Photo: The author.

May 1, homeward bound

The drive home on I75 was easy. Traffic was light and the weather was good. As usual during trips home from anywhere, a snippet of the Simon and Garfunkel song from 1966 (both musicians attended Forest Hills High School) wormed its way into my brain:

And each town looks the same to me
The movies and the factories
And every strangers face I see
Reminds me that I long to be
Homeward bound.

This time however, “my thoughts escapin’” were not to “where my love lies waitin” (she was in the seat next to me) but to that first Earth Day. As we approached Micanopy, an image nearly as well-known as Simon and Garfunkel’s lyric entered my head: Bill Anders color photograph Earthrise, taken in 1968 during an Apollo 8 orbit of the moon.

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Bill Anders, Earthrise, December 24, 1968. (Photo: NASA)

Some have argued that the Anders photograph, more than Earth Day two years later, was the true origin of the modern environmental movement. Seeing Earth from the moon – its living colors suspended over the bleak grey-brown of the lunar surface – reminded us that planetary life was a rare and precious thing, and that it must be protected and nurtured. Today, that lesson is being ignored by the global capitalist powers, as well as by American voters sufficiently gullible, venal or simply beaten-down, to elect politicians with a climate and environment destroying agenda. As we pulled into our driveway, I tried to image a new set of words and images that could, like in 1970, inspire us to action. But this time, when we find them, we’ll need to respond with much greater urgency and determination.

 

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and many other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe and now preparing for publication part two of their series for Rotland Press, American Fascism Now.