Photo credit People For Community Recovery)

This issue of Making a Living on a Living Planet initiates the new series, “Champions”, featuring current and historic figures who can inspire the struggle for a worker – and climate – safe world.

Hazel Johnson was widely known as the “mother of the environmental justice movement.” Born in the “Cancer Alley” of south Louisiana in 1935, she moved to Altgeld Gardens public housing development in Chicago’s South Side. The project had been built on top of old sewage canals, toxic landfills and a nearby industrial incinerator. Seven years after they moved in, Johnson’s husband died of lung cancer. 

Johnson decided to investigate her neighbors’ health and discovered a very high cancer rate, linked to nearby industrial dumping sites, an incinerator, and sewage that ran directly through her neighborhood. In the early 1980s she formed People for Community Recovery. 

Johnson was instrumental in introducing federal legislation that recognized the disproportionate burden of pollution on communities of color, and established environmental justice as a new facet of the civil rights movement. After years of being put off by the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1994 environmental justice advocates won passage of the Environmental Justice Order, which established a working group between eleven federal agencies “to deliver environmental justice to all communities across America.”  

Johnson’s vision ranged from her neighborhood to the entire globe. In January 1995, not long after the public recognition of global warming, she told a journalist, “we have abused the planet mercilessly for years, and now we are paying the price.” 

For more on Hazel M. Johnson: