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Catherine Flowers and her fight for environmental justice in Alabama

In parts of the American south, many homes don’t have access to working waste treatment – something activist Catherine Flowers is fighting to change

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The environmental activist Catherine Flowers grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama. It’s an area that was once home to plantations, and today is still known for its rich soil. But that soil also poses a challenge for waste management: 90% of households in Lowndes County have failing or inadequate water systems.

This means they have no way to manage the raw sewage from their homes. It’s a problem that exists across the state, but one that disproportionately affects the African-American population.

The lack of public sanitation in Lowndes County can be explained by government neglect, Flowers tells Rachel Humphreys. And because the cost of installing private septic tanks is more than many residents can afford, they have been punished with threats of prosecution for failure to install sanitation systems.

Catherine Flowers
 Photograph: AP

The Stench of American Neglect

by Caroline Fraser for The New York Review

In her new book, the activist Catherine Coleman Flowers chronicles her efforts to expose criminally deficient sanitation in her home county of Lowndes, Alabama and around the US.

February 25, 2021 issue

In 1941 Walker Evans, a photographer, and James Agee, a journalist for Time and Fortune magazines, published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, their idiosyncratic Depression-era volume of photographs and reporting about a 1936 trip to Alabama’s so-called Black Belt, a region that was, as Booker T. Washington had pronounced, “distinguished by the colour of the soil.” The book would eventually become one of the most famous nonfiction accounts of poverty in American history, comparable in influence to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. In it, Agee yearned to forswear words entirely in favor of the essential stuff of life:

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth…phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement…. A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.

The book was devoted almost entirely to the lives of white sharecropping families. Evans’s unsparing images closely scrutinized every hollow stubbled cheek and watering eye, lingering on the slack, filthy folds of feed-sack dresses, half-naked children, and a woman’s bare bandaged foot. Agee, too, left nothing out, noticing a woman’s “manure-stained feet and legs,” saying the odors were “hard to get used to…hard to bear.” He rifled a family’s bureau drawers when they weren’t home, and his traumatized prose probed the calamitous housing, room by room: the broken windows stuffed with rags, the verminous bedding, the “privies” outfitted with “farmer’s toilet paper”—newspaper, pages from catalogs, or “corncobs, twigs, or leaves.”

Yet for all that scrutiny, a whole part of the region’s population went unobserved in Famous Men. Then as now, those rural counties of Alabama were also inhabited by Black farmers or sharecroppers who made up more than half of the people who lived there. Of dozens of photos in Famous Men, only a single one shows them: four Black men sitting in front of a barbershop. One Sunday morning, Agee, accompanied by a white landowner, was driven out to see the man’s Black foreman and tenants. Agee, who was from Tennessee, was anguished about the encounter, admitting that the landlord’s tenants “were negroes and no use to me”: Fortune magazine, which had originally assigned Evans and Agee to the story (and never published it), had requested that the article cover whites, not Blacks, whose “plight,” according to a later account, the magazine did not consider “newsworthy.”

Agee nonetheless recorded a menacing scene of the white landlord crudely commanding a group of Black men, dressed in Sunday clothes, to approach and sing for them, “to show us what nigger music is like.” Chagrined, Agee was “sick in the knowledge that they felt they were here at our demand.” Later, he approached a young Black couple on the road to ask about photographing a nearby church. Petrified by his intentions, the woman clenched her body like “a suddenly terrified wild animal.” Seeing her fearing for her life, he “wished to God I was dead.”

Fifty years later, Dale Maharidge, a journalist with The Sacramento Bee, returned to Agee’s families. Some of their descendants had prospered, yet many were still afflicted by poverty and illness, living in mobile homes. His 1989 volume, And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”: James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South, accompanied by a new series of photos by Michael Williamson, won a Pulitzer Prize, sticking fairly close to the three white families Agee had written about. Among the grimmest living conditions Maharidge found were those of the widow of a man who had been one of the naked boys in Evans’s photographs. Her home was a shack she rented for $10 a month, with no running water or electricity. He commented:

In thousands of miles of travel across the rural South, blacks were often found occupying such dwellings; it’s rare to find whites in such “little country homes,” the preferred euphemism when whites occupy them.

Maharidge did locate the Black community of Parson’s Cove, “at a point on the map that seems as far from anywhere as any visitor to Alabama should be,” and spent time with Frank Gaines and his family. They were “landlocked by white landowners on all sides” who were still refusing to sell land to Blacks. Maharidge, who is white, alluded in broad strokes to the Gaineses’ housing—a few hot rooms illuminated by bare bulbs, walls insulated “with cardboard and newspaper.” Water was piped from a spring; nothing was said about sanitation. The writer admitted that he found it hard to penetrate the deep mistrust, or even to start conversations in Parson’s Cove, “one of the blackest places in Alabama.”

Now, decades after Agee and Maharidge, a Black writer is telling the story of the Black Belt. Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up there, and her new book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, contains no photographs, but it doesn’t need any. It deals directly in images as redolent as Agee’s clods of earth and phials of odors. The “dirty secret” Flowers urges readers to confront is the racial and economic injustice of rural American subsistence, including but not limited to the South, and the degradation it entails. She chronicles the lives of friends and neighbors coping with criminally deficient housing and a lack of sanitation so horrific that raw sewage bubbles up in sinks and toilets, floods the floors of run-down and collapsing trailers, and lies reeking in backyards and lagoons. She widens her gaze to take in similar crises from California to Florida and beyond, but she begins in her own backyard.

Read on…

Bridging the rural divide

OPINION | ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT – THE HILL

Catherine Coleman Flowers

 

The deep divide between rural and urban communities is a polarization that has been exemplified by coronavirus, climate change and economic despair.

It is estimated that approximately 60 million people live in rural America. Most of the landmass of the United States is in rural counties, covering 90 percent of the nation. Many rural areas are far from urban centers, while some are just outside of our cities. In my experience living and working in rural communities over the years, policy proposals introduced by lawmakers often exclude rural communities either intentionally or through the language. To bridge the divide, we need to develop a political lexicon that is inclusive of rural Americans.

A contingent of rural voices – beginning with residents – should be consulted whenever policy is made in order to avoid unintentional exclusion. A rural roundtable composed of plain folks – and not just politicians – should be assembled to give a voice to how to prevent the death of rural communities. Many elected officials represent rural communities but live in urban areas

Federal infrastructure investment should also include rural communities. Not only are roads and bridges in need of repair or replacement, but the lack of funding is also startling. There is no broadband in many areas and children are unable to attend virtual school because of the lack of internet services.

Cell phone service is often unreliable in places like Lowndes County, Ala., which borders the state’s capital, Montgomery. Despite the likely perspective among those who live in urban areas that rural communities are remote, some are not. Rural populations have been neglected because they do not fit into a certain formula that is skewed toward cities.

A glaring example of the rural divide is the wastewater treatment deficit throughout rural America. This should be a key component of the infrastructure investment as we build back better. More than 20 percent of the nation use onsite wastewater technologies, reaching 40 percent or more in areas with large rural populations. Up to half of the septic systems in the United States do not work properly or fail at some point and, by some estimates, 65 percent of lands across the nation cannot support septic systems.

It is astounding that no accurate figure exists that provides the true picture of this issue. Yet there are states that mandate residents buy failing onsite wastewater systems that leave families in public health crises when the sewage comes back into their homes or is on the ground. Now that COVID-19 is known to exist in wastewater, finding solutions is more imperative.

Rural communities should no longer be left behind. Congress must begin addressing this problem now while also looking at technological solutions for a new future reclaiming and reusing household wastewater. As we seek to reduce greenhouse gases emissions (GHG), green infrastructure should be deployed, the pandemic should be addressed. Access to clean water and working wastewater infrastructure should also be a top priority of the Biden administration. It is where climate change and environmental justice intersect.

One recent example of the way lawmakers can leave rural citizens behind: census data in 2020 was collected online, by mail or by phone. In rural households with no internet access, unreliable or no phone service and often several families sometimes in different houses at one address, this is not an efficient way to account for everyone.

If the country wants to account for all Americans, we must begin by discarding traditional formulas to count rural residents, which excludes family homes or compounds in sparsely populated areas that have one mailbox and more than one household on the property. Hiring census workers that live in the community who can go from house to house would provide a more realistic count of rural residents, which would then lead to a more equitable distribution of federal dollars. Unincorporated areas should not be punished and left out of funding equations.

Here’s what can be done to include rural populations:

New ways to get money to the residents should be implemented, especially if the states are not cooperating;

An alternative mechanism to get aid to citizens should be offered where the political structures fail to do so;

A study should be commissioned to seek input from impacted persons on reviving rural towns and communities;

Ill-advised policy of closing rural hospitals should be reversed;

Support for the role of rural communities in fighting climate change should be granted;

Financial support to revive family farms should be provided;

Enable marginalized communities throughout America – including territories like Puerto Rico – to have access to the clean energy economy that prioritizes communities for retraining, investment, housing and infrastructure that support industries other than landfills, prisons and dirty industry.

Moreover, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) should identify the states that have sent money back instead of spending it in communities where it is needed for housing, family farms or resilient and sustainable infrastructure. All Americans should have access to climate-friendly housing and wastewater treatment whether in rural or urban communities. The USDA should work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) engaging environmental justice principles to provide clean water and sanitation across the United States. Throughout the federal government, environmental justice should inform all policies and provide a healthy and safe environment for all Americans to live and thrive.

This is a new day and the time is here to disrupt inadequate paradigms that do not promote the common good, exclude the poor and exploit crises to support the few when many are suffering. The relocation of many city dwellers to rural areas during this pandemic is indicative of the future as we confront the challenges of climate change.

Rural America is a part of our present and our future as we build back better or build in places long neglected. This is an opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration to unite us all and bridge the divide with inclusive policies that do not pit rural against urban areas.

Catherine Coleman Flowers is an internationally recognized environmental activist, MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, and author of the recent book “WASTE: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret.” She has spent her career advocating for equal access to water and sanitation for all communities – particularly those who are marginalized. 

‘Big Tent’ Environmental Justice Plan Looks Past Racial Divides

Environment and Energy Report, Feb. 5, 2021, Bloomberg Law reporting by Dean Scott and Stephen Lee in Washington, Editor: Rebecca Baker

 

Environmental justice advocates are looking to link communities of color with experience fighting industrial polluters and landfills with polluted communities in Appalachia—a “big tent,” strength-in-numbers approach they say is ripe for results.

President Joe Biden, who has made environmental justice a priority for his administration, has taken action to encourage the approach. An executive order vowed to “deliver environmental justice in communities all across America” by resurrecting and elevating environmental justice advisory groups, including an interagency council directed to reach out to tribal officials, environmental justice organizations, community groups, and unions.

Advocacy groups in Black and Hispanic communities see advantages in joining forces with largely white and low-income communities in the Appalachian region, which includes West Virginia and about a dozen other states stretching from New York’s southern tier to Alabama.

Read the complete article on news.BloombergLaw.com including comments by Catherine Coleman Flowers.

Catherine Flowers among “Women who are changing Alabama for the better”

Thursday, February 4th, 2021, www.ThisisAlabama.org

By Amber Sutton

For the past six years, Women Who Shape the State has honored women from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, including politics, enterprise, social work and more, with one thing in common — a positive impact on Alabama.

Whether it’s by advocating for equality, leading the charge in advancing technology, ensuring care for communities that are often overlooked or working to improve the lives of those around them, honorees are women who are fighting to push Alabama forward.

With the recent announcement of the Class of 2020, we took a look back at some notable past honorees whose work continues to change the state for the better.

 

Catherine Coleman Flowers is a McArthur Foundation “genius grant” fellow for the class of 2020. (Cary Norton)

Catherine Coleman Flowers

Catherine Coleman Flowers is an environmental advocate and founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, which works to eliminate environmental disparities that limit access to clean water, air and sanitation in rural and marginalized communities.

The 2017 Women Who Shape the State honoree has also served as the rural development manager at the Race and Poverty Initiative of the Equal Justice Initiative since 2008.

Flowers is a McArthur Foundation “genius grant” fellow for the class of 2020 and her first book, “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” was published in November.

Please read more about incredible ‘Women Who Shape the State’ including the Class of 2020 which includes Stephanie A. Bryan,Tribal Chair & CEO, Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

How to Fix the Climate

Catherine Coleman Flowers offers a response to the Boston Review Forum on ‘How to Fix the Climate’.

“The people least responsible for climate change are the most impacted. We must prioritize exposed, fence-line, frontline, and vulnerable communities.”


Living in Alabama, a state bordered by the Gulf Coast, it is hard not to reflect on climate change and the environmental justice calamities that have been at the forefront of 2020. The pandemic has brought death to every corner of the world—and, as anticipated, vulnerable and marginalized communities have faced the highest death and infection rates. Next came the wildfires. So much of the world and the United States have been burning that adequate description conjures apocalyptic visions. Now we are in the midst of a historic hurricane season, battering the Gulf Coast over and again. There have been so many named storms this year that the twenty-five alphabetical names have been used up and we’re now on to using Greek letters to designate them. As I write, we anxiously await the arrival of Zeta.

“Communities of color, low-income families, and indigenous communities have long suffered disproportionate and cumulative harm from air pollution, water pollution, and toxic sites.”

This year Mother Nature has previewed the destruction that is to come if climate change worsens and we continue to act as if humans are not its cause. Denial of climate change is not dissimilar to the denialism that causes so many to refuse to wear a mask and social distance to contain the spread of COVID-19. Denial doesn’t prevent bad things from happening, and ignoring reality has caused traumatic consequences around the world. Lack of action will cause all of us to have the blood of future generations on our hands. And people are suffering now.

People living in communities plagued by environmental and climate injustice are already experiencing the effects of climate change—on the heels, for many, of having been traumatized by industrial pollution that has sickened them with cancers and other illnesses. Many in these communities are already doing what Charles Sabel and David G. Victor advise and are pursuing local climate activism and action. At the same time, many are also running up against the limits of what it is possible to achieve locally when global actions by states and moneyed corporations are stacked against them.

In Lowndes County, Alabama, climate change and a lack of adequate sanitation have intersected catastrophically.  Read on…

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This forum response is featured in Boston Review’s new book, Climate Action. ORDER A COPY TODAY

Faith and Climate Crisis in the Biden Administration

In a Video Recorded for FÉ NO CLIMA, Center for Earth Ethics director Karenna Gore comments on the approximation between Faith and the Climate Crisis in the Biden Administration.

The founder and director of the Center for Earth Ethics at the Union’s Theological Seminary in New York, Karenna Gore, believes that the rapprochement between “religion” and “climate crisis” will be an important aspect of Joe Biden’s policies, president elected from the USA. The inauguration of Biden and deputy Kamala Harris on Wednesday, January 20, is considered a historic day for the climate agenda.

In a statement recorded especially for the IV Fé no Clima Meeting, at the end of last year, she affirms that, during the elections, Biden “made it clear that the climate is a priority” and stressed the importance of the appointment of the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, for the role of Special Representative on Climate Change for the new government. The message to the event’s participants is now available on Fé no Clima’s YouTube channel .

“President Joe Biden will trust God and will also rely on science to guide our work on Earth to protect God’s creation,” said Kerry last November, at the event that announced part of the new presidential office.

In the opinion of Karenna Gore, the new climate representative’s speech “signals and implies that involving religion will be crucial to the approach that the Biden administration will take in climate action”.

According to her, the work at the center she runs is focused on seeking solutions to the ecological crisis of the faith and traditions of indigenous peoples. “We work through education, convening, public speaking and movement building,” he explained. Recently, Fé no Clima, an Iser project, started a dialogue to deepen relations with the Center for Earth Ethics.

Regarding the link between beliefs and discussions about the environment, the activist says that “religion can create a sense of belonging that goes beyond political or partisan alignment and guides us to be the best version of ourselves”.

And he highlighted the importance of religion in social transformations. “Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that the teaching of the scriptures had a role in ending apartheid in South Africa,” he said, also celebrating the influence of Martin Luther King Jr, pastor of the Baptist Church, in the fight for civil rights in his country.

US returns to Paris Agreement

“I am also very excited to be speaking to you at a time when my country, the United States, announced that we will again participate in the Paris Agreement, a very important 2015 treaty in which all countries in the world have come together to create a plan to really face this serious existential crisis and overcome it,” said the director.

Biden made a commitment to return to the Paris climate change agreement on the first day of governing. The measure is part of a package of actions that will revert, on the day of inauguration, several measures of the Trump administration for this and other topics.

Read the full speech

In the video recorded for the event participants, Karenna Gore also pays homage to the environmentalist Alfredo Sirkis, who died last year. In addition to being a friend of the Gore family, Sirkis was director of Centro Brasil no Clima, a Brazilian partner of the Climate Reality Project, an organization created by former US vice president, Al Gore.

Published on: 20/01/2021 – # Fé no Clima

Battling America’s ‘dirty secret’

Climate change raises the risk from failing sewage systems. So Catherine Coleman Flowers is working for a new way to deal with waste.

Originally published DECEMBER 17, 2020 by Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post – Climate Solutions.

LOWNDES COUNTY, Ala. — To Catherine Coleman Flowers, this is “holy ground”: the place where her ancestors were enslaved and her parents fought for civil rights and she came of age. Here, amid the rich, dark earth and emerald farm fields, she is home.

Yet this ground also harbors a threat, one made worse by climate change.

Untreated sewage is coursing through this rural community, a consequence of historic government disinvestment, basic geology and recent changes in the soil. On rainy days, foul effluent burbles up into bathtubs and sinks, and pools in yards. Some residents have hookworm, an illness rarely seen in developed nations.

It’s America’s “dirty secret,” Flowers said, a problem stretches beyond one county in central Alabama. Heavier rainfall caused by climate change is saturating soil and raising water tables – confounding septic systems. From the flooded coasts of Florida to thawing Alaska towns, an estimated half-million U.S. households lack adequate sanitation.

Now Flowers, a MacArthur Foundation “genius”, is partnering with environmental engineers at Columbia University on a solution. They are working on a new kind of toilet that will act as a mini sewage treatment facility. Instead of flushing waste, the system they’re working to build will filter, clean and recycle waste on site. Instead of sending raw sewage into the soil, it will turn it into water for use in washing machines, and into nutrients for fertilizer, and perhaps even energy for homes.

The new Wastewater Innovation and Environmental Justice Lab at Columbia will serve as a hub for research on sanitation policy, an incubator for rural activism, and — advocates hope — a birthplace for a better, greener way of managing waste.

What was once a problem can become a solution, Flowers said. And the change will start in Lowndes County, as it has before.

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Read on…

Faith groups have a key role to play in reducing climate-linked violence

Originally published December 18th by Brian Lowe for Earthbeat: a project of National Catholic Reporter at NCR Online.

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By now it’s well understood that climate change leads to rising seas and rising temperatures. It is also increasingly linked to rising conflicts.

In 2014, the Pentagon issued a major report that referred to climate change as both posing “immediate risks to U.S. national security” and being “a ‘threat multiplier’ because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today — from infectious disease to terrorism.”

Last year, Stanford University convened a group of top climate scientists, political scientists, economists and historians to examine the degree to which climate change has exacerbated conflicts in the past century. While it concluded that climate has had a limited effect on conflicts to date — less than factors like low socioeconomic development, weak governments and social inequalities — their study projected that warming of 2 degrees Celsius and beyond will substantially increase the risk of armed conflict.

“War is the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment,” Pope Francis tweeted on Nov. 6, the United Nations-designated International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. He added that true integral human development must work to avoid all wars.

Tweet from Pope Francis, @Pontifex account, Nov. 20, 2020

Religious communities have a critical role to play in mitigating and resolving violent conflict stemming from rising global temperatures, says Karenna Gore, founder and director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, in New York City.

In October, Gore received the 2020 Faith-in-Action Award from the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD) for her work on how faith communities can both promote stewardship and preempt violent outbreaks.

EarthBeat recently spoke with Gore and James Patton, ICRD president and CEO, about the role of religion in mitigating and resolving violent conflicts fueled by climate change.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. (The full interview is available in the video at the top of the page or by clicking here.)

EarthBeat: The U.S. Pentagon calls climate change a “threat multiplier.” What does that mean with regard to violent conflicts?

Patton: It’s not really just about sea level rise and different temperatures in different places in the world. If the sea does rise a meter, it will put a billion people on the move, and those people go to places that are already economically stressed. And oftentimes, that causes clashes [over resources] between groups of migrants and the host communities that they land in.

Then you add to that changes in rainfall patterns, seasonal glacial melt and how that affects fresh water availability, crop viability, high heat, increased winds, drier conditions contributing to wildfires. All of these things have an incredible impact on water and food availability, on livelihoods, on infrastructure. And that pushes people — usually people who are already economically disadvantaged — to struggle with one another over scarce resources.

When they do that, it very easily manifests in the kind of identity conflict that ICRD works on. People start to scapegoat one another around things like their tribes, their ethnicity, their faith. You see this oftentimes with migrant groups, particularly if they’re moving across borders from the global south to the north, or underdeveloped to more developed countries that have better resources. … The host communities then react to these immigrant groups negatively. And we’ve seen spikes in xenophobia across the world, particularly in the west and in Europe, that are all connected to some of these issues.

The fighting in Syria is a great example of the impact of drought. Rainfall patterns changed, food availability was impacted, and then people started to contest the leadership, and that was not accepted of course by [Syrian President] Bashar Al Assad. And it led to rebellion that led to incredible violence that has led to death and displacement throughout the region that has had significant ancillary effects and impacts, all grounded in what might be one of the most important climate-driven conflicts of recent times.

Read on…

NY Times Book Review of ‘Waste’

Excerpt from The New York Times online. Originally published Nov 17, 2020. Read the complete review here.

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Flowers brings an invigorating sense of purpose to the page. “Waste” is written with warmth, grace and clarity. Its straightforward faith in the possibility of building a better world, from the ground up, is contagious.

As eye-opening as it is as a chronicle of the rural sanitation crisis, “Waste” is at least as much the autobiography of an environmental justice advocate. Flowers shares the extraordinary story of her own life, in all its detours, leaps of faith, luck, strange turns, hard work and her ever-rising social consciousness.

Flowers’s parents were activists, and her childhood home in Lowndes County was a haven for civil rights leaders. She eavesdropped on front-porch strategy sessions with the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Bob Mants of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “At the time, I did not realize I was not among common men,” she writes.

Her own organizing skills were first put to use when she campaigned against terrible educators at her high school, leading to the removal of her principal and superintendent. In college, she learned to mobilize large groups, especially in the fight to protect Alabama State University, a historically Black college, from a merger. She left school for the Air Force, and then returned to her studies as a newlywed at Fort Sill. On her first day of class, her husband of two months was injured in a freak accident during field training. His head injury resulted in amnesia, which pushed Flowers into her next great battle: agitating for health care and occupational rights on behalf of her husband, while simultaneously reintroducing herself to him. This proved taxing.

She finished her studies while advocating and caring for her husband in the hospital. “I had finished my degree program,” Flowers writes. “I also had learned an unforgettable lesson about the audacity needed to challenge structural racism no matter where it appears.” As she moves through Washington, D.C., Fayetteville, Detroit and finally returns to rural Alabama, Flowers has far more adventures than can be described here. But her growing vision for a more just future is always rooted in history, from her attunement to the ghosts in place names to the annual march from Selma to Montgomery that becomes a recurring site of connection and mobilization for her.

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Read the complete Book Review by Author, Anna Clarke, at The New York Times online…