Historical Hero of the Week: Hazel M. Johnson

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

Hazel Johnson was an environmental activist from Chicago’s South Side who is known as the mother of the environmental justice movement.

As Block Club Chicago wrote,

Becoming an environmental activist wasn’t something the New Orleans native had set out to do, but when her husband, John — a bricklayer — was felled by cancer in 1969, she knew she wanted to do something. Johnson was no stranger to the work; she spent years organizing youth programs and fighting for capital improvements for Altgeld Gardens, a housing project originally built for black World War II veterans.

When she learned that residents in South Side zip codes had higher incidents of cancer than those in other parts of the city, she wanted to know why.

Johnson discovered that there were 50 documented landfills near her neighborhood and began to draw attention to the staggering environmental inequality faced by Black and low-income communities throughout the Midwest. Her 2011 obituary in the Chicago Tribute stated that she also founded a group called People for Community Recovery and put pressure on the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from Altgeld Gardens. In the mid-1980s, Mrs. Johnson was introduced to a young organizer named Barack Obama, who also worked on the anti-asbestos effort and would become her mentee.

I definitely think I’ve been chosen by a higher power to do this work,” Mrs. Johnson told the Tribune in 1995.

“Every day, I complain, protest and object. But it takes such vigilance and activism to keep legislators on their toes and government accountable to the people on environmental issues. I’ve been thrown in jail twice for getting in the way of big business. But I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop as long as I’m breathing. … If we want a safe environment for our children and grandchildren, we must clean up our act, no matter how hard a task it might be.”

Hazel Johnson’s work focused on community education of urban environmental health hazards and to bring diverse and needed voices into environmental activism.

Johnson passed away in 2011, but her legacy lives on (as expressed by Congressman Bobby L. Rush). In 2019 a bill was introduced in Congress to place Johnson on a stamp to commemorate her work and in 2020 Rush introduced legislation to observe the month of April of each year as Hazel M. Johnson Environmental Justice Month.

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