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Scrapbook: Environmental Justice Activist Rose Johnson Featured in Ms. Magazine

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March 02, 2012

Environmental Justice Activist Rose Johnson Featured in Ms. Magazine


Longtime Mississippi Sierra Club activist Rose Johnson was profiled by Ms. Magazine in February.

Born and raised in the historic African American settlement of North Gulfport on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, Johnson—who currently serves as vice chair of the Mississippi Chapter and sits on its executive committee—has for years been the de facto spokeswoman for North Gulfport, and is the founder of the North Gulfport Community Land Trust.

"When I first met Rose we were responding to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit application to fill in 500 acres of wetlands in the Turkey Creek area of North Gulfport," says fellow Sierra Club activist Becky Gillette. "We had less than a week before the comment period ended. Rose took to the streets, gathered petition signatures, and encouraged leaders in her community to write letters. It was an incredible response for such a short period of time."

The Corps later said it was the greatest number of comment letters they had ever received on a permit application in Mississippi. "It should be no surprise that Rose and her allies in North Gulfport prevailed in preventing this huge wetlands fill that could have dramatically increased flooding in their neighborhoods," Gillette says. "And this was despite three U.S. Senators putting pressure on the Corps to approve the permit!"

In addition to fighting for public health, one of Johnson's goals is to increase African Americans' access to home ownership. Below, Johnson with Sierra Club leaders including Mississippi Chapter Director Louie Miller at left and Sierra Club President Robin Mann at right, in front of the North Gulfport Community Land Trust offices.


Over the years, Johnson has become increasingly concerned with environmental issues in a widening arc around her home. From the fouling and proposed destruction of Turkey Creek—a 13-mile stream where she was baptized as a child—to attempts to build toxic-waste landfills and nuclear plants in neighboring towns, Johnson has been battling those who would assault her community. Below, Johnson with Robin Mann in North Gulfport.


When DuPont's nearby DeLisle plant, which makes titanium dioxide, filed for a permit to build a second disposal pit for its toxic wastes, Johnson and the Sierra Club went to bat for local residents and prevailed—the second toxic pit was not built.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which damaged but did not destroy her home, Johnson was on the frontlines, helping victims and evacuees on Mississippi's Gulf Coast cope with the aftermath of the storm. Below, Johnson and fellow Sierra Club volunteer Lark Mason take stock of the damage. Johnson housed 14 relatives in her tarp-covered home and spent weeks providing meals and other relief supplies to hurricane victims.


"When you have lost everything," Johnson says in the Ms. interview, "you know how truly home is where the heart is. Home is for spiritual things to happen, for storytelling about who did what back in the day, a place to be secure. After Katrina, people were not secure, people were lost in so many ways. I saw how important home is. You know, not just your four walls. This is a place for black people to protect themselves."

Recently, Johnson has been fighting Mississippi Power's proposed $2.4 billion Kemper County coal-burning power plant. Below, Louie Miller introduces Johnson at a rally and press conference last year opposing the plant's construction permit. Under Mississippi Power's plan, ratepayers would shoulder $2 billion of the cost of building the plant.


From the Ms. article:

"It was a neck injury that conspired with fate to enlist Ms. Rose, a former employee of the Mississippi Department of Highway Patrol and Safety, into her current role of community and environmental activist. Her physical therapy program required that she walk every day in order to heal, and as she walked Ms. Rose began to take in very deeply how her neighborhood was changing for the worse-children with no safe places to play, abandoned lots owned by speculative developers taken over by drug dealers. She noticed that a wooden pallet company had moved into town and had become an eyesore, so she decided to fight to have it removed. With the backing of her church, as well as many signatures, she won that fight.

"Her activism led Ms. Rose to the Sierra Club, or rather led the Sierra Club to her. They sent her to trainings where she learned how to frame development issues in the context of environmental justice. Already armed with a historical narrative unique to her voice and moral ethic, Ms. Rose was soon seamlessly connecting environmental justice, unsustainable development and gentrification, invoking history through her memories of North Gulfport."

Johnson is now fighting a connector road to a proposed inland port, which would entail construction of a trucking route, a storage facility, and a rail yard in North Gulfport. "The Mississippi Port Authority wants to run the Port Connector Road right through North Gulfport, which will directly affect several African American communities," she says. "They purchased some land at the edge of our community, and now they want to snake their road right through North Gulfport to connect the port with Interstate 10.

"We're concerned about the health of people in the community. The connector road would bringing diesel pollution, noise pollution, and traffic congestion—and hundreds of residents are already suffering from high rates of heart disease, cancer, asthma, and other respiratory diseases. If they run this through our community we will end up a sick community."

Johnson says environmental justice is one of the main tools African Americans have to protect their communities. "So often politicians and developers simply do not value African American communities or the health of residents. They need to know that just because they have big development plans, that doesn't give them the right to harm people. It's important for them to recognize that African Americans will fight to protect our children, our land, and our elders.

"Our ancestors paid the price for this land," she says. "They did the best that they could, but we can do better."


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