The History of Environmental Justice in the United States

Activists demonstrating against global warming
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A web search of Robert Bullard brings up photos of a perpetually smiling man. His appearance is avuncular or perhaps that of a distant relative that you can picture handing out sweets when the parents aren’t looking. However, behind his jovial smile is the author of 18 books and over 13 dozen articles. All of the published works cover a topic for which he has received multiple awards and is considered "the father" of—that is, environmental justice.

Justice itself is the standard of being fair, impartial, and objectively morally good. In an environmental context, this is the belief that every human being should have impartial protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws, policies, and regulations. Environmental justice is the movement that hopes to secure these rights for communities around the world.

Environmental Justice Timeline in U.S. History

The environmental justice movement was the answer to the injustices associated with environmental racism. Though people of color have been fighting against these injustices for centuries, the well-defined beginning took place alongside the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. From then on, the movement was defined by actionable goals to help communities that were disproportionately affected by pollution.

1960s

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike to be the first nationally mobilized protest of environmental justice. This protest was about economic justice and safe working conditions, but beyond that, it advocated for the rights and recognition of sanitation workers, who were the backbone of cleaner communities and disease prevention. The unionized workers fought hard for recognition from the City Council and even attempted a strike in 1966 without success.

In 1968, the injustices were brought to the attention of Martin Luther King, Jr, who hoped to incorporate this movement into the Poor People's Campaign and bring national attention to the struggles faced by the Memphis sanitation workers. From Feb. 11 when the workers unanimously voted to strike until a deal was reached on April 16, the workers intertwined with community and religious leaders conducted daily marches and demonstrations. During this time over 100 demonstrators would be jailed, many more beaten, and at least two dead—a 16-year-old boy and Martin Luther King, Jr. By the end, over 42,000 people had joined the marches, an incredible showing of support for the 1,300 workers on strike. And even then, it was not the first time workers of color had protested.

In the early 1960s, Latino farm workers also fought for workplace rights. Led by Cesar Chavez, they sought protection from the pesticides often used in California's San Joaquin valley. Cesar Chavez declared that the issues of pesticides was even more important than wages. The workers would go on to join forces with environmental organizations to restrict and eventually ban the use of the pesticide DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) in 1972.

Late 1970s

If Robert Bullard is the father of environmental justice, then Linda McKeever Bullard is the movement's mother. In 1979, she was the Chief Council for what is considered to be the first environmental justice legal case. Residents of Houston neighborhood Northwood Manor objected to the placing of a landfill in their community. When suing the City of Houston and Browning Ferris Industries, they argued they were being discriminated against and their civil rights were violated; Northwood Manor was a predominantly African American neighborhood. It was this case that began the work of Robert Bullard and his studies of the racial and socioeconomic disparities when it came to where garbage dumps were placed within the United States. While this case was not won, it would be used as the framework for later judicial cases within the environmental justice movement.

1980s

In the 1980s, the environmental justice movement really came into its own. The catalyst is said to be a demonstration in Warren County, North Carolina. In September of 1982, over 500 people were arrested while protesting a landfill. Residents were concerned about the leaching of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) into water supplies. This kicked off 6 weeks of protests and sparked a movement. During the 80s, multiple studies were completed and papers published that exposed the disparities between race and socioeconomic status when it came to environmental concerns.

1990s

In 1990s, the movement would gain some big wins starting with the publishing of Dumping on Dixie. After decades of research, Robert Bullard published this book, the first on environmental justice. His relationship with Al Gore would also make way for more federal involvement in what had become known as a national crisis.

In 1992, Bullard and Gore would craft the Environmental Justice Bill, which ultimately did not pass. However, Bill Clinton won the 1992 Presidential Election with Al Gore as the Vice Presidential candidate. Gore's environmentalist mindset would become influential in the White House, leading to then President Clinton signing an executive order addressing environmental concerns in minority communities in 1994. In particular, it allowed for the expansion of Title VI, directing federal agencies to incorporate environmental justice into their missions.

The 1990s were also a time of community organizing. Multiple organizations began to form specifically as part of the movement to ensure environmental justice for people of color. Included in this were groups such as the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ). 1991 would also mark the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, held in Washington, D.C. At this meeting, hundreds of Native American, African American, Latino, and Asian Pacific attendees from around the world developed a list of 17 principles that served as the foundation for community organizers nationally and internationally.

2000s

While grass-root movements were happening as early as 1992, the international environmental justice movement didn't begin to take hold until the early 2000s. Bullard recalls attending an Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where the 17 principles drafted at the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit had been translated into Portuguese and passed around; however, human health in terms of the environment wasn't discussed much. It was the United Nation's Millennium Summit in 2000 that first recognized environmental injustices on an international scale.

As the movement became globally recognized, more issue-specific organizations began to form. The Brazilian Network on Environmental Justice began to coordinate efforts of community-based organizations working to improve conditions affecting vulnerable populations in their country. Via Campesina organized farm workers in Indonesia. The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) focused their efforts on representing disadvantaged communities and reducing waste and stopping incineration. This increased and centralized organization created an incredible flow of information. The knowledge of common struggles allowed for greater visibility and increased pressure on corporate offenders.

2010s

This was the season for increased efforts by the United States government through the EPA. Symposiums and forums would be held. Rules and regulations would be defined. During this time California would also pass it's fourth assembly bill requiring the EPA to "identify disadvantaged communities for investment opportunities, as specified". This bill would be the first of it's kind.

Environmental Justice Today

Throughout history, the environmental justice movement has sat at the intersection of other movements, such as the environmental movement, anti-toxins movement, and the movement for social justice. Today, other schools of thought have emerged like the Sunrise Movement and Intersectional Environmentalism, hoping to continue the fight and draw more attention to the ways these movements are inextricably linked.

Recent demonstrations for environmental concerns surrounding the Flint Water Crisis, Dakota Access, and the Keystone Pipeline have shown the work is far from over. Community organizers are still fighting for policy change. One of the most prominent and comprehensive resolutions being the Green New Deal proposed by the Sunrise Movement seeks change on a federal level.

In 2020, the EPA outlined a five-year plan to intensify their work surrounding environmental justice and reduce impact on overburdened communities as well as seeking to play a role on in the global fight. Because, though this movement began in the United States, it is clear the principles of environmental justice can and have been be applied throughout the world. As the differences between developed and developing nations become more apparent, the environmental justice movement continues to grow as a global and ongoing cause.

View Article Sources
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  2. Honey, Michael K. "Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign." 2007.

  3. "Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike." Stanford, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

  4. Gordon, Robert. “Poisons in the Fields: The United Farm Workers, Pesticides, and Environmental Politics.” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 68, no. 1, 1999, pp. 51–77, doi:10.2307/3641869

  5. "DDT- a Brief History and Status." Environmental Protection Agency.

  6. Cole, Luke. "Environmental Justice Litigation: Another Stone in David’s Sling." Fordham Urban Law Journal, vol. 21, no. 3, 1994, pp. 523.

  7. Bullard, Linda McKeever, and Cole, Luke. “A Pioneer in Environmental Justice Lawyering: A Conversation with Linda McKeever Bullard.” Race, Poverty & the Environment, vol. 5, no. 2-3, 1994, pp. 17–20.

  8. "Environmental Justice History." U.S. Department of Energy Office of Lagacy Management.

  9. Claudio, Luz. "Standing on Principle: the Global Push for Environmental Justice." Environmental Health Perspectives. vol. 115, no. 10, 2007, pp. A500-A503. doi:10.1289/ehp.115-a500