by Celia Burke, Howard University, Washington, DC
Hazel M. Johnson was a remarkable woman, but the best thing about her story is that it’s so easy to relate to. Johnson’s story could be any of ours; it is many of ours. A woman, fed up with the toll that environmental degradation had taken on the ones she loved dedicated herself to doing something about it. Johnson’s efforts and victories are no less incredible than those of the most well-known fighters for social justice.
Hazel M. Johnson’s exposure to deadly toxins began at an early age. She was born in New Orleans, in an area notorious for being surrounded by factories, plants, landfills and incinerators, known as “Cancer Alley.” Out of four children, she was the only one who survived to adulthood. Each of her siblings died very young from illness easily attached to environmental factors including stillbirth, pneumonia, and meningitis. Johnson spent most of her life in the south side of Chicago, in a public housing development known as Altgeld Gardens. A place also well known for its high toxin levels, Altgeld Gardens remained Johnson’s home and the focus of her activism even after husband died of lung cancer. In fact, it was the untimely death of Johnson’s husband that spurred her to become a proponent of environmental justice.
From the 1970’s to the 1990’s, Hazel M. Johnson took time to observe and document illness within her community to build up a case against corporations that surrounded the neighborhood. Armed with her data, Johnson confronted city officials, demanding that they test the air and water in Altgeld Gardens. After tests had been done in 1984, results revealed that cyanide and other dangerous toxins were in the residents’ drinking water, and it could be easily concluded that these toxins were the cause of the frequent and unusual illnesses that Johnson had observed in her community. In 1989, five years after this disturbing discovery, Johnson worked closely with a young organizer on a campaign to eradicate asbestos in the housing development. The campaign was successful; the process of removing asbestos began a year later. The young man that assisted Johnson is currently the President of the United States.
Besides using science to bring justice to her community, Hazel Johnson created a group called the People for Community Recovery which not only unified the community against the environmental injustices in Altgeld Gardens, but also established programs to support and educate youth and provide job training programs for adults. People for Community Recovery continues to do this work today.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an Executive Order bringing environmental justice to the forefront of American policy for the first time ever. But the encouragement to sign such a document came from Johnson and other environmental activists around the country. To this day, this Executive Order serves as a guide to all government offices when they are creating individualized plans to address environmental justice.
Hazel M. Johnson died last year on January 12, 2011 at the age of 75. Her death was a great tragedy in the circle of environmental justice activists and civil rights leaders, but not many more. What’s even sadder is that President Obama, who worked with her in his early days as a community organizer, didn’t publicly acknowledge the death of Johnson or reflect on the influence she had on his career and in his life. As we reflect on the achievements of our more famous social justice leaders, let’s remember that Hazel M. Johnson also deserves to be considered one of the “great ones” and use her as inspiration to keep pushing in the cause for environmental justice.
*Note: There is a petition to have a street in Chicago named after Hazel Johnson. Please sign it and encourage others to do so! http://www.change.org/petitions/hazel-m-johnson-mother-of-environmental-justice-movement *