It wasn’t lost on him the significance of the event when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan took the podium Friday during an observance in Raleigh for the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Regan said he wanted to take this moment in time to say the significance and the symbolism of this moment. “It is not lost on me. Here I humbly stand in the pulpit of a Southern Baptist Church with the privilege of honoring a young Baptist minister who would become one of the most gifted and influential leaders in human history,” Regan told the couple hundred seated in the First Baptist Church on Salisbury Street.
“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an acclaimed scholar, an exceptional orator, a prophetic visionary and a courageous leader. But fundamentally, fundamentally, he was the ultimate public servant,” Regan continued. “Dr. King spent his life fighting for racial and economic justice. And in doing so, he recognized that America in all of her wisdom, had yet to live up to her highest ideals.”
Regan was the guest speaker for the annual North Carolina state employees’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observance program and John R. Larkins Award Ceremony organized by The North Carolina Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission. The event was in-person and streamed on YouTube. The state employee’s choir performed throughout the event.
The theme for the 2023 event is a quote from Dr. King, “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”
During the ceremony, Felicia Culbreath- Setzer, regional operations director of the Department of Commerce, was presented the 2023 John R. Larkins Award, which is presented to a state employee who demonstrates extraordinary commitment to equality in the workplace and dedication to improving local communities through volunteerism and community service.
Additionally, Gov. Roy Cooper awarded Dr. Dumas Harshaw Jr., recently retired pastor of First Baptist Church on Wilmington Street, The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of the highest civilian honors in the state.
Regan, previous secretary for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said in King’s final act of resistance, traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support sanitation workers protesting unsafe working conditions and low wages. Although the environmental justice movement began nearly two decades after King’s death, the core values of the movement are undeniably aligned with Dr. King’s teachings and his actions.
Regan explained that environmental justice is the fair treatment and the meaningful involvement of all people regardless of their race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, the implementation, enforcement of our environmental laws, regulations and policies.
“It’s really twofold. And it’s very simple. All people deserve access to clean air and clean water. And all people deserve to have the right to be informed and make decisions about the policies and practices that directly impact their health, their safety and the wellbeing of their children,” he said.
As EPA Administrator, he’s met people across the country for whom the future has not always been certain. It still isn’t.
“In fact, approximately 2.1 million low-income households in America have children under the age of 6 living in homes with lead exposure. These inequities don’t just harm the communities who are experiencing them, they harm all of us. They hold our nation back from reaching her highest ideals. They hold back our economy. They hold back our children from becoming who they’re meant to be. And they hold back the potential for a healthier, safer and more just future for every one of us,” he said. “It’s never been more clear that the fight for civil rights is inseparable from the fight for environmental, economic, health and racial justice. We simply cannot be for one without the other.”
Regan said it takes more than funding to ensure communities that have borne the burden of pollution receive the benefits of the federal government’s investments.
“It’s about changing how our government works and who our government work for. It’s about making sure that everyone has a seat at the table, especially communities who has been open historically shut out of the conversation,” Regan said.
“Folks, we’re at a pivotal time in history. We have a once in a generation opportunity to fix many of the nation’s most persistent and pervasive environmental and public health concerns. But if we are to transform a system that has neglected so many people in so many needs for so long, we ought to rethink how that system is structured and who truly benefits from it,” Regan continued. “Clean air and clean water are fundamental human rights. This isn’t it shouldn’t be about politics. And we owe it to Dr. King, and leaders like Dr. King, to advance this work and never lose sight of our commitment to helping others and bettering our own communities.”
Cooper, during his remarks, told the state employees gathered at the church that they provide important services.
“You really do keep things running on all levels. You help ensure that people have clean air and water work to keep our community safe and healthy. You help you sick and support quality education for children and adults,” he said.
Cooper said the theme of the event, the quote from King, was profound. King told that to marchers in 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama.
“Nearly 60 years later, Dr. King’s words guide us as we work to continue toward that goal. A society that’s at peace with itself and can live with its conscience. We aren’t there yet,” Cooper said. “To reach that goal, I believe we must embrace our diversity where we strive to make sure that there is equal opportunity for everybody. When we embrace our diversity, the best of each of us shine through.”
He added that we need to work to dismantle systemic racism and replace long-term inequities with long-term opportunity.
“If we ensure that every single child in North Carolina has a sound basic education like our North Carolina we connect everybody to high-speed internet, we make sure that people have safe and clean water. If we learn to appreciate and respect each other more. We work on being more kind and caring to each other,” he said. “I think we’re making progress on all of this if we continue to work together. Together we can create a society itself that can live with its conscience.”
Monday is the federal holiday that honors King and is often a day of service. For volunteer opportunities in North Carolina, visit VolunteerNC for a special list of Martin Luther King, Jr. service activities, including virtual and at-home tasks to assist nonprofits.