September 23, 2020

Sierra Club Says It Must Confront the Racism of John Muir

For decades, the Sierra Club has lauded John Muir, a founder of the environmental organization, as a towering figure in American conservationism and a man whose writings and advocacy helped to preserve Yosemite as a national park.

But on Wednesday, the organization’s president, Michael Brune, said it was time for some “truth telling” about Muir’s racist views and the white supremacist beliefs of its original members.

Muir “made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life,” Mr. Brune wrote in a post on the club’s website. “As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club.”

The Sierra Club, founded in 1892, is but the latest institution to reassess its history, part of a national movement to examine past and present racism the United States touched off by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The changes have included the toppling of statues depicting Confederate leaders, as well as the renaming of brands, university buildings and sports teams.

In Muir’s case, Mr. Brune said, conversations around his legacy often overlook the ways in which his brand of environmentalism excluded people of color and the Indigenous peoples whose ancestral land he used for recreation.

“In these early years, the Sierra Club was basically a mountaineering club for middle- and upper-class white people who worked to preserve the wilderness they hiked through — wilderness that had begun to need protection only a few decades earlier, when white settlers violently displaced the Indigenous peoples who had lived on and taken care of the land for thousands of years,” Mr. Brune wrote.

Other members of the club’s early history also peddled white supremacist ideas, Mr. Brune wrote, such as David Starr Jordan, who advocated for forced sterilization laws and who co-founded the Human Betterment Foundation, a eugenics organization.

The Sierra Club is a now powerful environmental organization with 3.8 million members that organizes outdoor recreational activities, but also focuses heavily on lobbying politicians to promote things like renewable energy and clean drinking water and to oppose the use of coal.

Affected by the nationwide focus on racist historical figures and their influence today, Mr. Brune said the Sierra Club would work to become an “anti-racist” organization by redesigning its leadership structure to have a non-white majority.

He said the organization had also long overlooked that “only people insulated from systemic racism and brutality can afford to focus solely on preserving wilderness.”

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