A History of White People in the Conservation Movement

A lot of people think that the environmental movement is mostly white. This is because whenever they go to a meeting, or a protest, or a conference, the only people of color they see have speaker’s badges. Sometimes they are flown in from great distances. You can usually tell that these people are not white, and there usually aren’t very many of them. I have wondered about this for some time, and decided to look into it. Other more qualified people than I have done this before, and many books have been written about this subject by some of our greatest minds. I decided to take a different approach. What I discovered is that people who say the environmental movement in the USA is mostly white are right. I wanted to know why.

Before we get started, let me say that I was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1954, the year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Louisville would later have a lot of what we called race riots. I was from the West End, in the old Louisville neighborhood of Germantown. There things were different. We were integrated before the riots. This had nothing to do with race, but another ugly word. Rent. It wasn’t like we didn’t fight or hang out in gangs. We were just 8th graders. Of course my buddies and I fought and hung out in gangs. We just weren’t dangerous to anyone, or each other. We usually hung out at the Cabbage Patch on Sixth and Magnolia Street. If we fought anywhere near there, we couldn’t use the gym or pool tables.

But, my black friends and I couldn’t use the pool table at the same time, because back then, even the Cabbage Patch was segregated. Like it was when my mother hung out there. And like it was when her father hung out there. Still the Cabbage Patch was, and continues to be, one of the most progressive institutions in Louisville.

The outdoor program didn’t allow blacks in. The only integrated program the Cabbage Patch had was basketball. The Cabbage Patch is where I learned both that I loved the out doors, thanks to Mr. Chin, and that I was bad at basketball, thanks to Mr. Cooksie. I was allowed to play on the team only if I stood under the net with my six-foot, two-inch frame and got rebounds. The name of our team was the Enchanters. Much has been written about how well African Americans do at Basketball. I can tell you that this is true. If I got a rebound I was not allowed to do anything, mind you, except to hand it to one of our guys. We usually had the same colored jerseys, so I was pretty good at getting the ball to my teammates almost half the time. My street name was the Goofy Guard. This is how my teammates encouraged me to be better. They also talked a lot about my Mama. Most of it wasn’t true, but that didn’t seem to matter to them. Right after that we moved to California in that great hillbilly migration of 1966. We were also in the great hillbilly migration back to the South in 1968. A year-and-a-half later we were in the great hillbilly migration back to Los Angeles. As I remember, there weren’t many hillbilly migrations in and out of Kentucky that we were not part of. This is because of another ugly word. Jobs.

During the great Hillbilly Migration of 1970 we moved to Shively, Kentucky, where both Hunter S. Thompson and NRBQ first lost their minds. The Adams brothers went to Butler High School. On my first day of school at Butler High there was a walkout by the students and faculty to protest the new policy of bussing in blacks. These were people who had moved to Butler County after school segregation was dismantled in Louisville. You could not buy a house there if you were not white.

I had just moved to Shiveley from La Puente, California. They arrested me during lunch at Bassett High School in La Puente, and said I couldn’t come back. This helped fuel the Great Hillbilly Migration of 1970. Another factor behind the migration was that the same thing happened to my brother. There were no two people from the country in La Puente, California back them. If there were, they were usually living in the same house.

Butler County was Klan Country, as the large billboard with the hooded men on it at the Jefferson County Line informed. We’re talking White People. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. But, I was not going to walk out of school with the brand of rednecks they had in Butler to protest blacks being bussed in, even if the rednecks were serving free beer and pizza.

Three other kids stayed inside this hastily constructed “white flight” concrete high school designed for two thousand students. The black students wisely decided this was a good day to stay home. The year before there was a riot and one of the mighty Butler Bears was photographed punching a young girl. I don’t think any of these students were scared, because you don’t try to segregate Butler High School if you’re a wuss. Being one day late was actually a good idea. This gave me a great opportunity to meet two white people who were not from Shively. One of the guys was Brian. He was Mr. Chin’s nephew’s cousin. You remember Mr. Chin, he ran the outdoor program at the Cabbage Patch and was a member of a well established Louisville Chinese-American family. They let Chinese guys into the outdoor program.

The others students I met that day at Butler were from Ohio and Florida. No one had bothered to tell us this was the day to pick sides. I won’t tell you how they usually phrase this, but its ends in “lover” and was not the kind of love we were used to. Brian dealt with this in the normal way. He had a Black Belt in Karate and was six-feet tall. He knew about this boycott, but since this was our first meeting, he never told us. Still, we were not intimidated and did what any kids in our situation would do. We started a Rock n Roll band and hung out with the black students. And because of our bravery Butler High would be peacefully integrated the next day. That is, our bravery and a few dozen busloads of cops. Because of our unplanned participation in such an important civil rights campaign, we would continue to be unpopular until I quit high school, almost forever, a few months later in the great Hillbilly Migration to Texas. The coach of the mighty redneck Butler Bears tried to recruit me for tryouts because of my height, but I told him to go fuck himself. That’s how I landed in Special Ed, and part of the reason for the Great Hillbilly Migration to Texas.

In Houston we had no race problems. I went Abraham Lincoln High School in the Westhiemer District. My father never told me this, but you didn’t have to go to Abraham Lincoln if you had a note from your parents saying you didn’t like black people. Because of this, we actually had an acute shortage of white guys. And there was only one white girl. For the African-American students white people were not much of a problem. The entire faculty was black, except the Basketball coach. This may seem strange to you. It certainly was to me. Anyway, I knew it was useless to try out for the team. Even if I got on, people would think it was because I was white, and they would be right. They would just have to talk to any member of the Enchanters to verify this.

But back to my question: How did there get to be so many white people in the environmental movement? Where did they come from, who are they, and what do they really want? Why can’t they dance?

This is, of course, a stupid question. A bunch of white people in America advanced the concept of public land conservation and worked with others around the world to make shit happen. John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson and Marty Murie may be just a bunch of white folks to you, but, to me, they are heroes. White people invented conservation, just as we did rock-and-roll. Everyone knows this. However, like a lot of facts, this is wrong. As Adam Hothschild makes clear in his excellent history of the colonization of the Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost, many of the early anti-slavery campaigners were black Christian Missionaries, and cared more about Africa and its people then anyone has proven to so far. I suspect there are many more stories out there about black conservationists, but I’m not talking about black people I’m talking about white people

I always thought if those outdoor programs at the Cabbage Patch hadn’t had been illegally unavailable to my teammates of the Mighty Enchanters, and other children of my generation who were African American, and they had gotten as much time outdoors with Mr. Chin as they did in the Gym with Mr. Cooksie, I might be working with some of my former teammates today on important conservation issues. I’m pretty sure they are done playing basketball with me, as this was the last thing we talked about before I moved to La Puente. After hearing the same remarks from African Americans and Mexican Americans and even a Samoan in La Puente, I pretty much gave up Basketball altogether. Today outdoor programs are available to everyone but the poor. Unless you live near Sixth and Magnolia and go talk to Mr. Chin. He’s still there, and the outdoor program is integrated.

The real reason that there are not more African Americans in our movement, I’m afraid to say, is because we are boring. As a bona fide White Trash American, I can say that I am bored by most of this progressive environmental stuff. First it was no Chicken. Then it was no Beer. Than it’s the bad Hippie Music. You know what I’m talking about. I know the movement is trying hip-hop nowadays, but trust me, hip-hop is a fad and has been for the last twenty years. All I’m saying is, if a Hillbilly (and we’re easily amused) can’t any have fun in the environmental movement, what chance does an African American have?

Last week, Floyd and I were the only white people at Joe’s in Northeast Portland. Nobody told us how to act. They were not serving tofu or spinach artichoke dip. They served chitlins. Chitlins to me are like Basketball. I don’t do it any more. But imagine serving chitlins at ELAW. People would riot.

We need to meet anyone who we wish to work with half way. If conservationists would ease up on this pagan, vegan, eco-politically correct definition of fun, we might get some of these people with speaker’s badges to come back and brings their friends, instead of scaring them off with Bad Hippie Music. Don’t think that black people don’t go back home and tell all their friends that we are nice people, but act a little silly. I’m not saying we have to serve free beer and chicken to work together. Even if we did, we would screw up the chicken somehow.

Aside from building a diverse movement, we definitely could see some better basketball at ELAW, and that is what is really important. Even if nobody will let me play. I was kicked off the Enchanters before they were good. However, like many facts, this is wrong.

MIKE ROSELLE writes from the road for Lowbagger.org. He can be reached a t: roselle@lowbagger.org.




MIKE ROSELLE is Campaign Director of Climate Ground Zero and author of Tree Spiker!. He can be reached at: mikeroselle@hotmail.com