5 black activists you should know

To mark Black History Month, we're celebrating 5 prominent activists from the past 50 years who've fought for a greener and fairer planet.
  Published:  05 Oct 2020    |      3 minute read

Environmental injustice is everywhere. Just ask communities in the Niger Delta who don’t have access to clean water because of rampant oil pollution, or those who see nothing but concrete from flat windows in central Birmingham.

Thankfully, the world is full of brave voices willing to speak out against injustice, to stand up for those whose voices aren’t heard, and to take steps to mend our broken environment.

According to sociologist Dr Robert Bullard, "environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations."

The environmental justice movement was born from Bullard's work in the 1970s highlighting over-pollution in minority ethnic communities.

This Black History Month, we celebrate the work of 5 amazing activists.

Margie Eugene-Richard

Margie Eugene-Richard grew up on a stretch of the Mississippi River nicknamed “cancer alley” by campaigners, due to the number of oil refineries and chemical factories in the area.

Shell's presence next to Richard's hometown of Norco, Louisiana, was felt by all the residents. Following two fatalities and residents' reports of ill health, she formed the grassroots group "Concerned Citizens of Norco". 

The group's 13-year campaign against Shell gained international attention when Richard visited The Hague in 1999 to publicly question Shell's negligence in Norco. The company gave in to pressure, and offered the citizens of Norco a ground-breaking relocation package. 

Margie Eugene-Richard continues to campaign for communities bordered by polluting industries. In 2004 she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work. 

John Francis

There are many ways to take climate action, and Dr John Francis’ approach was certainly unusual. After watching with dismay as an oil spill engulfed San Francisco Bay in 1971, he took a stand.

Well, he took a walk. For the next 22 years, he refused to take motorised transport in protest, took a 17-year vow of silence (apart from one phone call to his Mum) so that he could really listen to people, and walked across the width of 48 American states and beyond to raise people’s awareness of environmental issues.

The man who became known as Planet Walker also completed three college degrees and a Ph.D. in Land Management during his quiet time, and later became a United Nations Environmental Program Goodwill ambassador.

In his TedTalk, he said: "We are the environment and how we treat each other is really how we treat the environment."

Ken Saro-Wiwa

The environmental activist and writer led protests in the 1990s against decades’ worth of petroleum waste dumping in the Ogoniland region of Nigeria, especially by Royal Dutch Shell. 

As president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Saro-Wiwa criticised the Nigerian government for its reluctance to enforce environmental regulations. In January 1993, he led peaceful protest marches of 300,000 Ogoni people, drawing international attention to the cause. 

Black and white picture of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, a leading voice against oil pollution in the Niger Delta.
The execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a leading voice against oil pollution, sparked a global outcry.

Saro-Wiwa’s life was cut tragically short in November 1995 when he and eight other MOSOP leaders were hanged by the military dictatorship for allegedly inciting the murder of four Ogoni chiefs. At least two witnesses to the supposed crime have since admitted to giving false testimony after receiving bribes. 

Ken Saro-Wiwa paid for his courage with his life, but his selflessness continues to inspire. He said: "The inconveniences which I and the Ogoni suffer, the harassment, arrests, detention, even death itself are a proper price to pay for ending the nightmare of millions of people."

Wangari Maathai

Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai was a professor, politician, and prominent pro-democracy campaigner.

Initially Maathai campaigned for women's rights, before widening her campaigning to include environmental degradation and deforestation. In the 1970s she founded the Green Belt Movement, an organisation focused on poverty reduction and community-led conservation through tree planting.

She was beaten and arrested numerous times for protesting against the imprisonment of political activists and for her efforts to stop illegal landgrabs by the Kenyan government.

In 2004 she became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai died of cancer in 2011, aged 71.

Robert Bullard

Robert Bullard is an author, activist and academic known as the father of environmental justice. Since the 1970s, he has highlighted how black and minority ethnic communities suffer most from environmental pollution, and campaigned against the dumping of harmful waste in black neighbourhoods across the American South.

"America is segregated and so is pollution," he said. "Race and class still matter and map closely with pollution, unequal protection, and vulnerability.

"Too many people and communities have the wrong complexion for protection. Reducing environmental, health, economic, and racial disparities is a major priority of the Environmental Justice Movement."

His work led to the signing of the Environmental Justice Executive Order by then-President Bill Clinton.