When you think of the founders of the environmental movement as we know it, it’s likely you’re missing quite a few key players. You might think of John Muir (racist eugenicist), or even Greta Thunberg (no shade to Greta, obviously). But the truth is that the environmental movement, environmental justice in particular, has been whitewashed since before the term was even coined. February is Black History Month in the US, and it’s high time we honor the Black activists throughout history that made the environmental justice movement what it is today. 

The Movement

For many, the term “environmental justice” evokes images of protecting the natural world from oil spills, carbon emissions heating the atmosphere, and plastic straws killing sea turtles. In reality, the environmental justice movement can be largely credited to Black Americans demanding protections against hazardous working conditions. The situation was ultimately damaging to both humans and the environment. 

While it has no clear inception, the Memphis Sanitation Strike led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is thought of by many as the beginning of the environmental justice movement. In February of 1968, Black sanitation workers in Memphis galvanized to demand fair wages and safer working conditions. The strike was sparked by two sanitation workers who were crushed to death while working. In fact, Dr. King was in Memphis for the strike when he was assassinated a mere two months later. Eventually, even after Dr. King’s assassination, the strike continued and the city of Memphis finally agreed to increase wages and recognize the sanitation workers’ union. 

Another major catalyst in the environmental justice movement took place in 1982 in Warren County, a predominantly Black community in North Carolina, which was the proposed site for a highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill. More than 500 protesters and activists were arrested and sadly the landfill was still constructed. However, the sit-in inspired many studies on the disproportionate environmental impacts on communities of color, a problem that remains pervasive to this day. 

Environmental Racism 

Environmental racism is well documented and backed by decades of research and firsthand accounts. Asthma is nearly twice as prevalent in Black children than white. More highly segregated areas show elevated rates of long term exposure to pollutants, and hydraulic fracturing oil wells are more likely to be placed in communities of color. Some reports have even shown that 71% of Black Americans are living in counties that don’t even meet the EPA’s air pollution standards. 

Toxic facilities, like coal-fired power plants and incinerators, emit mercury, arsenic, lead, and other contaminants into the water, food, and lungs of communities. Many of the same facilities also emit carbon dioxide and methane — the No. 1 and No. 2 drivers of climate change. But not all people are equally impacted. Race — even more than class — is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country hit by climate change.


Moving Forward

Unsurprisingly, environmental racism is a global issue. Despite so much evidence indicating a clear problem, in some ways it’s harder to pinpoint because so many of these injustices are a bit nebulous. As stated by the David Suzuki Foundation, “Unlike police brutality, when a Black person is killed by air pollution, it makes no noise and cannot be spontaneously captured on film.” But all this may be changing. The death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in London in 2013 brought increased attention to the issue. She was the first in the UK to have air pollution documented as her cause of death. As a result, Ella’s parents have been instrumental in demanding policy change regarding pollution limits. 

Given that climate injustice so disproportionately impacts people of color, it’s even more concerning that the communities fighting for their own rights aren’t getting credit in the broader environmental movement. The environmental justice movement is complex, far-reaching, and impossible to sum up entirely on one page. But recognizing the leaders and people of color who have sacrificed and fought for their communities is a step toward climate justice for all. 

Be curious!

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