Charity Rachelle for TIME

The fertile soil of Alabama’s Black Belt has witnessed decades of human suffering—slavery, sharecropping, segregation, and poverty have thrived on these lands. But the region also gave birth to some of the most determined activists the nation has known. Catherine Coleman Flowers is heir to this legacy. A child of “bloody” Lowndes County, between Selma and Montgomery, she is at the center of the quest for environmental justice in America. Catherine’s fight to expose the “dirty secret” of systemic neglect across the U.S. in places like Lowndes County, where more than 40% of the majority-Black residents lack access to clean sanitation, has persuaded environmentalists and policymakers to engage more directly with the poor and people of color. In August 2022, in part because of Catherine’s work, the Biden Administration chose Lowndes as the place to announce the EPA would devote $50 billion to wastewater issues with a focus on underserved communities. She has compelled leaders to address a crisis aggravated by bigotry and poverty, all while keeping her feet firmly planted in the soil of her homeland.

Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of Just Mercy

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