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"Walk a Mile in My Shoes: Los Angeles Celebrates Anniversaries of the Civil Rights Movement,"

by Robert Garcia July/August 2014 issue of Poverty & Race

“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.

Communities in Los Angeles are celebrating the civil rights revolution with public art and green space: A new parks project, called “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” commemorates the movement by honoring local and national heroes. The civil rights park transforms two traffic islands one mile apart from each other. The space 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 in the Baldwin Hills in African-American Los Angeles on Rodeo Drive and Martin Luther King Boulevard focuses on national heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, while the island a mile away on Rodeo and Jefferson Boulevard focuses on local heroes. The “Walk a Mile” project is inspired in part by the National Park Service’s International Civil Rights Walk of Fame. Los Angeles celebrated the ribbon-cutting for the project—the only monument in the city dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement—on June 26, 2014.

More than symbolic, 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 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.

The project is the result of an epic 40-year community struggle to fix the sewer system citywide, and eliminate noxious odors that plagued African-American and Latino communities for decades. The odors smell like rotten eggs and are caused by hydrogen sulfide escaping from the sewers. Community leaders working with civil rights lawyers and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reached a $2 billion court-ordered consent decree and agreement with the City of Los Angeles to settle a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act. Civil rights attorneys intervened in the action to fully represent the interests of the affected community. This was the first time the Clean Water Act was used to address sewage odors, separate from overflows. 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 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 settlement agreement calls for multi-benefit city green and blue park and water projects to improve the sewer system citywide, clean up sewer odors, and create park, creek and wetland projects to improve water quality and quality of life. These supplemental environmental projects are part of the settlement agreement. The SEP projects include the South Central L.A. Wetlands Park, which transformed a bus parking lot into green space; the North Atwater Creek Park, which has helped kick off the revitalization of the L.A. River; and the Garvanza Park Stormwater project in Highland Park, which captures and cleans one million gallons of rain and runoff with cisterns under the park that filter and replenish groundwater, irrigate the park, and keep polluted runoff out of the L.A. River and the ocean. 

These 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 art project by artist Kim Abeles enhances those communities and the city as a whole.

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. More broadly, 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 Baldwin Hills Park, the largest urban park designed in the U.S. in a century. They have stopped a power plant in the park, stopped a garbage dump there, and saved the Baldwin Hills Conservancy. They have fought in and out of court to regulate the adjoining Baldwin Hills oil fields to better protect human health and the environment, in an action separate from the Clean Water Justice case. According to the County of Los Angeles, as a result of that settlement agreement, the Baldwin Hills is the most heavily regulated oil field in the nation.

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, the members of the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Homeowners’ Coalition, and The City Project have agreed to continue working together voluntarily to keep the community clean and green. The City and the people have learned to trust each other, to listen to each other, and to work together. That is a testament to the transformative power of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Revolution

The year 2014 marks major milestones in the Civil Rights Movement: It is both the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice and health. Of more recent vintage, the Affordable Care Act’s Section 1557 reflects a renewed commitment to combat health discrimination by any health program or activity that receives federal funding, or is administered by a federal executive agency. Section 1557 references Title VI of the 1964 Act, and also protects against discrimination based on gender, disability and age. The Act also includes over 60 provisions that address social determinants of health through wellness and prevention. Social determinants of health include where people live, learn, work, play, pray and age.

The civil rights park and the work leading to it in and out of court present the opportunity to reflect on the myriad strategies of the Civil Rights Movement that have led to real change in people’s lives. Historically and today, the Movement has included attorneys taking cases to court, ground-breaking judicial decisions, grassroots 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 civil rights park, the Clean Water Justice agreement, and the Baldwin Hills Park are parts of the Green Justice Movement in Southern California and beyond. As with the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, Green Justice relies on multiple strategies, and—as discussed below—it has yielded successes and “best practices” that can contribute to a promising future for civil rights advocacy, particular around Title VI.

Victories in Southern California and Beyond

Martin Luther King highlighted urban planning, parks and recreation, schools and education, human health, meaningful work, and democratic decision-making as genuine civil rights issues. There has been progress in these areas in Los Angeles. Healthy green land use, equitable development, and planning by and for the community are helping to change L.A.

Civil rights advocates, including The City Project with diverse allies, have been applying the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement in Southern California and beyond for 20 years. The strategies include organizing, translating policy, law and social science into real changes in people’s lives, media, advocacy outside the courts, legislation, and access to justice through the courts. The discussion here will focus on equal access to public resources, and the intersection of civil rights, health and the environment.

Transportation Justice

In the historic environmental justice class action Labor Community Strategy Center v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the parties reached a settlement agreement and court-ordered consent decree in which MTA agreed to invest over $2 billion to improve the bus system countywide. The MTA case, filed 20 years ago in 1994 under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its regulations, set the stage for other public resource victories at the intersection of civil rights, health and the environment. MTA agreed to reduce overcrowding on buses, lower transit fares, and enhance countywide mobility. Plaintiffs and the class documented MTA’s pattern and history of inequitable, inefficient and environmentally destructive allocation of resources. The Bus Riders Union organized the movement in the streets and on the buses. The legal team led by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund documented the continuing history and pattern of transit disparities in a massive 211-page legal memo filed in court in 1996. Prof. Edward Soja’s book Seeking Spatial Justice (2010) described the case as a “remarkable moment in American urban history….[I]t is hard to imagine a stronger team of advocates for the lawsuit.”

Healthy Green Land Use

The site of the Los Angeles State Historic Park downtown was nearly filled with warehouses. Instead, largely thanks to Title VI, the land is a much-needed park. Andrew Cuomo, who was Secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) at the time in 2001, withheld any federal subsidies for the proposed warehouse project unless there was a full environmental study that considered the park alternative and the impact on people who were of color or low-income. Secretary Cuomo acted in response to an administrative complaint, citing Title VI and the President’s Order on Environmental Justice. As a result, the state bought the land for the park. The L.A. Times called the community victory a heroic monument and a symbol of hope. As reported in the Times, The City Project with diverse allies “organized a civil rights challenge that claimed the project was the result of discriminatory land-use policies that had long deprived minority neighborhoods of parks.” L.A. State Historic Park “is not here because of the vision of politicians, or some design or plan. This park is here because of the struggle and agitation by the community. Deservedly, their action is renowned as one of the most significant environmental justice victories in Los Angeles, and is the catalyst for the revitalization of the Los Angeles River,” according to State Senator Kevin de Léon.

HUD’s action was a seminal moment in the greening and history of Los Angeles for planning, parks and people. HUD’s decision represents a best practice that other federal agencies can continue by pursuing voluntary compliance with civil rights laws in the planning process. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, has come out in support of a billion dollar plan to revitalize the Los Angeles River. Its 2013 draft river study recognizes that there are unfair disparities in access to parks and recreation in the Los Angeles region; that these disparities contribute to human health disparities; and that public agencies need to address the disparities, citing the Environmental Justice Order. Similarly, the National Park Service, in its 2013 study recommending a new national recreation area in the San Gabriel Mountains on the east side of L.A. County, recognizes that there are unfair disparities in access to parks and recreation in the region; that these disparities contribute to human health disparities; and that public agencies need to address the disparities, citing the Environmental Justice Order. Congresswoman Judy Chu has introduced pending legislation to create the national recreation area, citing health and environmental justice as two of the main justifications.

HUD’s action inspired the green justice movement that is helping create or save great urban parks, including L.A. State Historic Park downtown, Rio de Los Angeles State Park along the L.A. River, Vista Hermosa Park in Pico Union (a best practice for the joint use of parks, schools and pools), the Native American sacred site of Panhe and San Onofre State Beach in San Diego, Kellogg Park in park-poor, income-poor Ventura, and the 140-acre Ascot Hills Park (before Ascot Hills, the largest green space in park-poor East L.A. was Evergreen Cemetery) .

Quality Education

Physical Education. Physical education is a civil rights issue. California law requires physical education in public schools, yet half the districts audited did not enforce those physical education requirements. The Los Angeles Unified School District has adopted a physical education plan to provide physical education in compliance with the education code and civil rights laws. Ninety-two percent of the students in the district are of color, and 74% are low-income and qualify for free or reduced-price meals. This is a health and civil rights issue because districts that do not provide physical education disproportionately serve African-American and Latino students. Students in noncompliant school districts were less likely to meet or exceed fitness standards than those in policy-compliant districts, and were more likely to be black or Hispanic and eligible for free or reduced-price meals. If students of color don’t get physical education in school, they typically do not engage in physical activity. They live in neighborhoods without safe places to play in parks or schools, according to mapping, demographic analyses, and policy reports by The City Project. The school district voluntarily adopted the physical education plan in response to an administrative complaint under state and federal education and civil rights laws by The City Project, the teachers’ union, advocates for students and health advocates.

Dr. Robert Ross, President of The California Endowment, has called this work “a best practice example for districts across the state to provide a quality education for the children of California.” The City Project with diverse allies is implementing the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations to provide physical education minutes, monitor compliance, alleviate disparities, improve teacher education, make physical education a core subject, and improve physical activity in the whole school environment. The IOM recommendations appear in their 2013 report Educating the Student Body.

Schools as Centers of their Communities. The Los Angeles Unified School District has raised $27 billion for school construction and modernization through local ballot measures and matching federal and state funds. The district has built 130 new schools and modernized hundreds more, cleaned up polluted sites, and created meaningful work. Joint use of schools, pools and parks makes optimal use of scarce land and resources. Most importantly, the future has become brighter for generations of students.

Health Justice

Ethnic and racial health inequities remain persistent and pervasive. Civil rights laws are part of the solution to improve health outcomes. From a health perspective, civil rights laws offer important, underused tools to support health-based recommendations. From a civil rights perspective, the health lens offers a powerful way to improve compliance and protect people’s civil rights. The City Project is working with Charles Drew University and UCLA Medical School on health justice. The goal is to develop best practices for health professionals to work with civil rights attorneys to promote better understanding of the civil rights dimension of health inequities, and to improve health outcomes. Public health research too often stops at documenting health inequities, without addressing what to do about them. Healthy green land use and physical education are some examples of what can work.

Meaningful Work and Economic Vitality

Triple bottom-line infrastructure investments can promote equity, economics and the environment. The Los Angeles Unified School District has raised $27 billion for school construction and modernization, as discussed above. Each $50 million has created 935 annual jobs, $43 million in wages, and $130 million in local business revenue. Best practices create meaningful work through apprenticeships and contracts for small, women-, minority- and veteran-owned enterprises.

National Parks support more than $30 billion in spending and more than a quarter million private-sector jobs each year in rural and urban communities that are gateways to the parks. Each dollar invested in park operations generates about $10 for local communities, and every two National Parks Service jobs generate one job outside the park. According to a survey by Sacramento State University, visitors to California’s state parks spend an average of $4.32 billion per year in park-related expenditures. People of color and low-income communities must receive their fair share of public investments in infrastructure projects. Solutions to many social problems—unemployment, environmental degradation, no place to play, little hope for disadvantaged youth, obesity, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure for generations to come—must be tied to a vision for a new America that includes stimulus projects to improve the lives of all residents. As communities become greener and more desirable, it is necessary to guard against gentrification and displacement of low-income homes and businesses.


As the examples discussed above show, the Civil Rights Movement continues to offer hope for equal justice, democracy and livability for all.


A new wave of studies on the Civil Rights Movement is emerging during the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education and Hernandez v Texas, 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); and 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 & Seth Strongin, Healthy Parks, Schools and Communities: Green Access and Equity for Southern California (The City Project Policy Report 2011),

Robert Garcia is Founding Director and Counsel of The City Project, and serves on the Community Faculty at Charles Drew University. The City Project is a non-profit policy and legal advocacy team whose mission is equal justice, democracy, and livability for all. rgarcia@city

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