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Taking Down John Muir: Sierra Club Faces Founder’s ‘Racist’ History

John Muir
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The 128-year-old environmental advocacy organization acknowledged it had ’caused significant and immeasurable harm’ throughout its history.

Were there a Mount Rushmore commemorating the most influential figures in the outdoors, John Muir would almost certainly be on it. And, not unlike the actual Mount Rushmore, there would be some very hard truths to face about those icons.

In a stirring post today, the Sierra Club — one of the country’s most influential and recognizable environmental advocacy groups — acknowledged that Muir, one of its founders, “made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples” and maintained friendships with avowed white supremacists.

The group also stated that some of its early leaders — Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan — advocated both white supremacy and eugenics, and helped advance movements that were later adopted by Nazi Germany. This included ideas of forced-sterilization laws targeted primarily at Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poor women, and those living with disabilities and mental illness, the group said in its statement.

“For all the harms the Sierra Club has caused, and continues to cause, to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, I am deeply sorry,” Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, wrote.

“I know that apologies are empty unless accompanied by a commitment to change. I am making that commitment, publicly, right now. And I invite you to hold me and other Sierra Club leaders, staff, and volunteers accountable whenever we don’t live up to our commitment to becoming an actively anti-racist organization.”

Sierra Club Denounces Racist Past

Beyond the apology, Brune acknowledged how the Sierra Club will actionably enforce its commitment to racial equity. To begin, the organization said it will redesign its leadership structure to ensure Black, Indigenous, and other leaders of color constitute the majority of those making “top-level organizational decisions.”

Brune said the group will, pending board approval, direct $5 million over the next year (more in years to come) to invest in its staff of color and to advance its environmental and racial justice work. And it will focus more resources on HR and training programs to “ensure that staff, volunteers, and members are held accountable for any harm they inflict upon members of our Sierra Club community who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color.”

What’s more, the Sierra Club said it will closely review its history to determine which of its other monuments may need to be renamed or taken down entirely.

“The whiteness and privilege of our early membership fed into a very dangerous idea — one that’s still circulating today. It’s the idea that exploring, enjoying, and protecting the outdoors can be separated from human affairs. Such willful ignorance is what allows some people to shut their eyes to the reality that the wild places we love are also the ancestral homelands of Native peoples, forced off their lands in the decades or centuries before they became national parks,” Brune wrote.

You can read the Sierra Club’s full post here. In addition, the group said this post marks the beginning of a series in which it will update the community on further issues and actions on race, social justice, and the future of the organization.

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