ENVIRONMENT

Sierra Club Reckons With Racist History

The environmental group pledged to examine its “substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy” and to remove or rename monuments of founder John Muir.

Amid a national uprising for racial justice and equality, the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s oldest environmental groups, is confronting its own racist history. 

The 128-year-old conservation organization, in a Wednesday post on its website titled “Pulling Down Our Own Monuments,” acknowledged that some of its history has “caused significant and immeasurable harm” and distanced itself from its own founder, the renown naturalist John Muir. 

“As defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country, we must also take this moment to reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy,” Michael Brune, the group’s executive director, wrote. 

Muir, who founded Sierra Club in 1892, was a champion of wilderness preservation and is revered as the “father of the national parks.” But he also made racist comments about both Black and Indigenous Americans, including calling African Americans “Sambos” and describing Native Americans as “lazy” and “dirty.”

“As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight,” Brune wrote. “They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club.”

A carved, wooden statue of John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club, at Muir Woods National Monument, Mill Valley, California.
A carved, wooden statue of John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club, at Muir Woods National Monument, Mill Valley, California. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

In addition to apologizing for the harm to Black and Indigenous people, Sierra Club committed to restructuring so that people of color make up the majority of its leadership team, as well as to renaming or removing monuments of Muir and other prominent members who were “vocal advocates for white supremacy and its pseudo-scientific arm, eugenics.” It also pledged to shift $5 million from its budget over the next year “to make long-overdue investments in our staff of color and our environmental and racial justice work.” 

“The whiteness and privilege of our early membership fed into a very dangerous idea ― one that’s still circulating today,” Brune wrote. “It’s the idea that exploring, enjoying, and protecting the outdoors can be separated from human affairs.”

He added: “Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color continue to endure the traumatic burden of fighting for their right to a healthy environment while simultaneously fighting for freedom from discrimination and police violence.”