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Sierra Club examines racist past, painful legacy of John Muir

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Sierra Club on Wednesday said it would examine its “substantial role” in perpetuating white supremacy and denounced the racist actions of environmentalist icon John Muir, a prominent figure in the preservation of America’s wilderness.

FILE PHOTO: A rainbow is seen across the Yosemite Valley in front of El Capitan granite rock formation in Yosemite National Park, California, U.S., March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

Michael Brune, the executive director of the 128-year-old Sierra Club, said it was committed to becoming an actively anti-racist organization and laid out some changes that would be made as the group works to counter racism and exclusion.

Brune also criticized Muir, the group’s founder in the late 1800s, for maintaining friendships with advocates of white supremacy and eugenics and for having made derogatory comments about Black and indigenous people that drew on racist stereotypes.

The Sierra Club’s announcement comes as millions have demonstrated against police brutality and racial inequality since the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

In addition to pushing for police reforms in some cities, some protesters have removed Confederate statues and other symbols of America’s legacy of slavery.

“It’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history,” Brune wrote on the group’s website.

“As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club,” he said.

Muir, a Scottish immigrant, is best known for his activism to preserve what is today Yosemite National Park in the California Sierras, including by personally lobbying President Theodore Roosevelt.

In an effort to counter racism, the group that bills itself as the largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States said it will increase the number of Black, indigenous and other people of color in its leadership, amplify voices of color and decide which of its monuments need to be renamed or pulled down.

Brune recognized that the Sierra Club in its early years was in effect a mountaineering club for white middle- and upper-class people, who sometimes screened out people of color from joining.

The members of the club sought to protect the wilderness where they hiked, the same wilderness Brune said had needed protection decades earlier when white settlers violently displaced Native Americans.

“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,” Brune said.

Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Mary Milliken and Tom Brown