EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of reflections on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. ahead of the dedication of a new memorial to the civil-rights leader on the National Mall. Lisa Jackson is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency--the first African-American to hold that position. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.
Where were you and what were you doing on August 28, 1963?
I was a year and a half old when Dr. King gave his speech. But I just spoke to my mom, who remembers "that hot summer" like it was yesterday. She remembers the whole neighborhood watching it over and over at each others' homes. But what I remember is my mom making my older brother and me watch that speech on TV every year on August 28. It was a ritual I grew up with.
What memories do you have of King’s assassination?
I was 6 years old. All I remember was my mom and dad's shock.
In my memory, I had never seen them so shocked, though I know they were equally shocked when President Kennedy (and later Bobby Kennedy) were assassinated.
We all remember the first time we see our parents truly shaken, and this was the first time for me. After Dr. King's assassination, the school PTA selected me to recite the "I Have a Dream Speech" in his memory. I didn't tell my mom. Imagine her surprise and pride when I got up and gave that speech. I was too young to understand the import and impact of that moment.
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Has King—the man or the message—informed decisions in your career or personal life?
To say that Dr. King’s work and inspiration have had an impact on my life would not do justice to what his legacy has meant--to me and so many other Americans.
I started elementary school in New Orleans just a couple of years after segregation ended. My brother and I were among the first to attend integrated St. Gabriel the Archangel Elementary School!
I came of age in the Deep South in the late '60s and '70s--in the direct wake of the civil-rights movement. Today, the incredible honor I have of being the first African-American administrator of the EPA, serving under the first African-American president of the United States, is a direct result of the movement that Dr. King led.
Is there a song that for you evokes King’s legacy, or the civil-rights movement?
From the time I was a little girl, I have loved the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." When I was little, I believed that song was written about Dr. King. The words seemed tailor-made for all I knew him to be. And we sang the song at masses in church choir fairly often to commemorate the day.
Is King’s message relevant to any contemporary civil-rights or equality issues?
Environmentalism goes hand in hand with traditional civil-rights and social-justice issues in our community. Dr. Dorothy Height, who marched with Congressman John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King, said to me before she passed that if Dr. King were alive today, she believed he would be marching for clean air, clean water, and clean communities for every person. Environmental challenges have the power to deny equality of opportunity and hold back progress. Healthy air and clean water and a clean, safe place to live are civil rights.
Interview conducted by Christopher Snow Hopkins