John Lewis had died two days before former Vice President Al Gore and I sat down to speak, and Lewis’ legacy was weighing heavily on his mind. Speaking from his home in Nashville, where he has been isolating during the pandemic, Gore said that while many have referred to Lewis as “the conscience of Congress,” he would take that one step further. “For those who listened carefully to his words, I would call him the conscience of America. He had a conscience that was fine-tuned; you could tune your piano to it.”
We spoke about environmental justice and the late congressman and civil-rights icon’s history of activism in Tennessee, which Gore represented in the House and Senate for more than 15 years and where he still lives. Gore was eager to speak about Lewis the environmentalist. Both he and Lewis worked together on policy during the time they were on Capitol Hill together — both introducing the Environmental Justice Act of 1992, which was intended to “help those people who face the greatest risk of exposure to toxic substances and pollution.”
Though the bill died in committee, Gore noted that it was enacted three years later during Bill Clinton’s presidency — while Gore was vice president — as an executive order. “Trump must not have found it yet, because it’s still in force,” Gore said, nodding to the current president’s recent sweep of environmental deregulations. Though that action helped undergird the modern environmental-justice movement, Gore went on to cite the grassroots work of other leaders such as the Rev. William Barber II and (further back) Cesar Chavez, which has shown why the fights for racial justice and to protect the environment are often one and the same.
Gore has traveled with Barber to communities like Union Hill, Virginia, which recently won a major victory when the planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled — saving a historically black town whose residents feared the new construction would endanger their air quality and well water. Still, as Gore noted in our conversation, there remain areas such as Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” where industrial plants have been proven to cause adverse health outcomes in predominantly black municipalities.
A bit of disclosure here: Since 2016, I have volunteered my personal time for the Climate Reality Project, the international nongovernmental organization that Gore founded and currently chairs. I’ve been a host and speaker during his annual “24 Hours of Reality” broadcasts and organizer events. Most recently, he interviewed me last Thursday about my coverage of racism in America for Rolling Stone as part of the organization’s first-ever fully online global Leadership Corps Global Training this past weekend. We covered that, as well as Gore’s thoughts on how the coronavirus pandemic may affect climate policy, the next generation of activists, and the Trump administration’s environmental agenda (or lack thereof) in a wide-ranging conversation.
This is the latest installment of our RS Interview: Special Edition video series, which features in-depth conversations with notable figures in music, entertainment, and politics. Episodes premiere every Thursday afternoon on Rolling Stone’s YouTube channel.