Black Leaders in the Fight for Environmental Justice

As we celebrate Black History Month, it's important to recognize the significant contributions of Black Americans in the fight for environmental justice. From advocating for clean air and water to pushing for more equitable access to green spaces, Black leaders have played a critical role in the environmental movement.

Environmental justice is an essential but often overlooked aspect of the environmental movement. While environmentalism often focuses on preserving natural spaces and wildlife, environmental justice ensures that all communities, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, have equal access to clean air, water, and land. And when it comes to fighting for environmental justice, Black leaders have been at the forefront of the movement.

From the Civil Rights era to today, Black communities have played a crucial role in raising awareness about the intersection of race, poverty, and environmental health. Leaders have organized protests and community meetings, led legal battles against corporate polluters, and worked tirelessly to ensure their voices are heard in policy decisions. 

This article will highlight some of the most inspiring Black leaders in the fight for environmental justice, striving to improve the health and well-being of their communities and advocating for change on a national level.

How Did the Environmental Justice Movement Start?

The environmental justice movement emerged in the 1980s as a response to the growing awareness of environmental racism and the disproportionate pollution burden on communities of color. At its core, environmental justice is the belief that everyone has the right to live, work, and play in a safe and healthy environment, regardless of race, income, or location.

One of the pivotal events that helped launch the movement was the toxic waste crisis in Warren County, North Carolina, in 1982. The state government had planned to place 6,000 truckloads of soil contaminated with Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in a landfill in a predominantly Black community. 

The potential dangers of a toxic waste spill, especially one containing PCBs, cannot be overstated. These chemicals can contaminate the soil, water, and air, leading to serious health problems for humans and wildlife. Additionally, PCBs are known to persist in the environment for many years, making them difficult to clean up. PCBs have been linked to

  • Skin conditions such as acne and rashes
  • Cancer
  • Liver damage
  • Reproductive and developmental issues
  • Neurological damage

In response to this environmental injustice, the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ and other community groups organized a series of nonviolent protests. Despite their efforts, the landfill was still placed in the community, but this event marked the beginning of the environmental justice movement. It brought to light the disparities related to the burden of environmental degradation facing minorities and the need for policies that address these injustices.

Since then, the movement has grown in strength and numbers, leading to many significant victories for environmental justice, including creating the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Justice and passing the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

The Roots of the Environmental Justice Movement

Black activists have a long and rich history in the environmental justice movement. From the earliest days of the Civil Rights era, Black communities have been at the forefront of environmental activism, fighting for equal access to clean air, water, and land.

Robert Bullard is considered the "father of environmental justice" for his pioneering work in documenting and addressing environmental racism. In the 1970s, Bullard began to notice a pattern of toxic waste facilities being located in or near Black neighborhoods. He was one of the first scholars to document this phenomenon, and his work helped to raise awareness of the disproportionate burden of pollution on communities of color.

Women in the Environmental Justice Movement

Other notable Black leaders in the environmental justice movement include Majora Carter, who founded the Sustainable South Bronx and has been a leading voice for green jobs and sustainable urban development. Dorceta Taylor is another important figure known for her research on the intersection of race, gender, and environmental justice. Vernice Miller-Travis has also made significant contributions to the movement, working to promote environmental justice in low-income and minority communities.

Mothers of East Los Angeles

Mothers of East Los Angeles is a group of Latina mothers who organized to stop the construction of a prison in their neighborhood. The prison would have worsened already high levels of pollution and created additional health hazards for their children. The Mothers successfully fought against the prison and went on to form the Mothers of East Los Angeles-Santa Isabel, a community-based organization that focuses on environmental justice and human rights.

The Women of Color Network

The Women of Color Network was formed in 1990 to address the specific needs and concerns of women of color who were impacted by environmental degradation and pollution. The group has been instrumental in raising awareness about the intersection of race, gender, and environmental justice and advocating for policies and practices that are inclusive and equitable.

Recent Developments in Environmental Justice

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the deep disparities in access to clean air, water, and land that exist in communities of color. Studies have shown that people living in polluted areas are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses. These communities are also often hit the hardest by the economic and social impacts of the pandemic. The pandemic has underscored the urgent need for environmental justice and has galvanized activists and advocates to push for systemic change.

The Black Lives Matter movement has also intersected with the environmental justice movement, highlighting the ways in which environmental racism is intertwined with systemic racism and police violence. Black people are more likely to live near toxic waste sites, landfills, and other sources of pollution and are more likely to suffer from the health impacts of environmental degradation. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought these issues to the forefront and has helped to mobilize communities of color to demand change.

Looking to the future, the environmental justice movement will continue to be a vital force for change. Black communities will continue to play an important role in shaping the movement's agenda and strategies, bringing perspectives and experiences to bear on the fight for a more just and sustainable world. As the impacts of climate change become increasingly severe, the need for environmental justice will only grow more urgent, and Black leadership will be critical to achieving meaningful and lasting progress.

JustAir’s Role in Environmental Justice

JustAir aims to be a generational community partner to help establish a world where no matter what neighborhood someone is born in, they have access to breathing clean air. Our organization focuses on air quality monitoring, community engagement, and advocacy to promote clean air and environmental justice in communities of color. JustAir works alongside Black leaders across the country including Kareem Scales, a Civil Rights activist, community advocate, and grassroots organizer. Kareem focuses on creating transformational change in BIPOC communities, centering residents in the urban core that have historically been disproportionately impacted by systemic and unjust practices.

Donele Wilkins' Green Door Initiative is also making an impact in the fight for environmental justice alongside JustAir communities. The organization promotes a sustainable life for everyone, irrespective of racial background, zip code, and income bracket. They work to educate and engage communities on issues such as climate change, renewable energy, and sustainable living, with a focus on equity and justice.

Through grassroots organizing, community activism, and legal advocacy, these Black leaders have fought to protect communities from the devastating effects of pollution, toxic waste, and other environmental hazards.  

From the struggle for clean water in Flint, Michigan, to the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Black environmental activists have made significant contributions to the ongoing struggle for environmental justice and will continue to be crucial to the movement’s success. JustAir strives to work with these leaders to ensure everyone has accessacces to clean and healthy air.

Darren Riley
February 28, 2023
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