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BHM - Environmental Heroes

BHM - Environmental Heroes - Mason & Greens


This Month We Are Bringing Back Our Series On African Americans Who Have Changed The Narrative On Environmentalism And Social Justice.

Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr. 

The year was 1982, 6000 truckloads of soil contaminated with PCBs (chlorine compounds so toxic and persistent they were banned in 1979), head towards the small, predominantly black, community of Afton, North Carolina.  The State government dismissed all concerns by residents who knew with these trucks came death. 
Benjamin Chavis led marches and protests, to block the trucks from destroying lives.  For six weeks peaceful protests continued, heralding the beginning of the environmental justice movement. 
Chavis dedicated efforts to prove that race is the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were established.  One of the most influential reports for the environmental justice movement, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, was published by Reverend Chavis and the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice in 1987.  This report shaped court cases and legislation and is regarded as one of the most important studies of environmental racism. 
Did you know, at 13, Chavis became active in civil rights by trying to help African Americans check out books from the library in his home town?

Hazel M. Johnson

The year was 1945, a development in the South Side of Chicago was built to house Black veterans and their families.  This development, Altgeld Gardens, was surrounded by landfills, underground chemical storage tanks and other environmental hazards. 
In 1969, Hazel Johnson, a recent widow, mother of 7, and resident of Altgeld, was alarmed by the extremely high cancer rate and number of children suffering from respiratory illnesses in the area.  She discovered that the air, land and water were toxic. 
With no choice but to take action, Johnson founded the People for Community Recovery, the first environmental justice organization in the United States.  She raised awareness about South Side's abnormally high rates of respiratory, pulmonary and skin related diseases, and how they were tied to the environment. 
Her organization fought the City of Chicago, and everyone else who contributed to the problem.  Hazel Johnson's efforts led to EO 12898, "Federal Action to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations," but most importantly elevated the fight for environmental justice to the national and international stage.
  Did you know, in the early 80's a young community organizer and recent graduate of Columbia University joined Johnson's fight, his name was Barack Obama.

Margie Richard

“If we don’t put a face to it, we can’t make change. Truth and justice for the betterment of life, the environment and government is the stairway to upward mobility.”


In 1916 an oil refinery was built on a former plantation just outside of New Orleans.  This refinery pushed out black sharecroppers, who had been farming the land, into an area called Diamond.  Shortly thereafter, another refinery opened nearby, creating the beginnings of what is now known as "Cancer Alley." 


In 1973 and 1988 explosions at the refineries killed residents in the Old Diamond.  Margie Richard, a middle school teacher, founded the Concerned Citizens of Norco, an organization focused on environmental justice for the Old Diamond in 1989.  The threat of getting blown up while sleeping, seeing children and adults suffer from respiratory issues, nausea and headaches, motivated Richard to fight for her community. 


Through her remarkable efforts, Richard was able to secure community development funds, finance fair and just relocation of people from the Old Diamond, and broker an agreement by the owner of the refineries to reduce toxic emissions by 30%. 


Margie Richards now fights for communities all over the world that suffer environmental injustice, and is a true inspiration to all who fight for the cause.

More environmental heroes to come.


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