Wednesday, Planned Parenthood of New York decided it was finally time to admit that their founder was a racist and a eugenicist. Today, the Sierra Club is taking a similar approach and denouncing founder John Muir for similar reasons:
The executive director of the Sierra Club apologized Wednesday for its “substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy,” and said John Muir, the club’s founder and an icon of the environmentalist movement, was a racist.
In a post on the organization’s website, Michael Brune said that just as Black Lives Matter activists are pulling down monuments to Confederate leaders, the club must re-examine its past and “take down some of our own monuments.”
That includes Muir, who Brune admitted was beloved by many of the club’s members and whose writings “taught generations of people to see the sacredness of nature.”
But Muir also was close friends with paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn and others connected to the eugenics movement, which advocated sterilizing those whom white supporters pegged as “deficient”: the poor, physically and mentally disabled people, and those of “unfit” races, including Black and Latino people, as well as Jews.
You can read the full letter here. John Muir isn’t the only leader of the group being denounced:
Other early Sierra Club members and leaders — like Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan — were vocal advocates for white supremacy and its pseudo-scientific arm, eugenics. Jordan, for example, served on the board of directors during Muir’s presidency. A “kingpin” of the eugenics movement, he pushed for forced-sterilization laws and programs that deprived tens of thousands of women of their right to bear children — mostly Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poor women, and those living with disabilities and mental illness. He cofounded the Human Betterment Foundation, whose research and model laws were used to create Nazi Germany’s eugenics legislation.
David Starr Jordan was the first president of Stanford University.
The Sierra Club also promises it won’t overlook the intersectional nature of the struggle in the future. It promises to have more to say about the group’s evolving stance on racism, immigration and population as opposed to limiting itself to comments about the environment:
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. It allows them to overlook, too, the fact that only people insulated from systemic racism and brutality can afford to focus solely on preserving wilderness.
It’ll be interesting to see how this impacts the group’s membership. On the one hand, many of the people who are members are probably BLM supporters as well. On the other hand, some of the people who signed up to fight the use of fossil fuels may find it odd when the group starts issuing messages about police shootings or whatever else.