Robert Bullard receives the John Muir award from the Sierra Club for his contributions to the field of environmentalism. He is the first African American to get this prize since the Sierra Club started handing it out in 1961. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

One freezing February day in 1994, environmental scholar and activist Robert Bullard was summoned to the White House. He had no idea why. When he was ushered into the Oval Office, he discovered that President Bill Clinton had invited him to witness the signing of an executive order that would require the federal government to consider the environmental consequences to low-income communities before implementing policies.

It was a high point for the burgeoning “environmental justice” movement, which had taken its struggle to stop the concentration of pollution in poor and predominantly non-white communities all the way to the White House.

Now, Bullard and the environmental justice movement that he helped found are celebrating another high point. On Saturday, Bullard joined a group that includes former vice president Al Gore, Jacques Cousteau and Wallace Stegner when he was awarded the Sierra Club’s John Muir award. The prize, named for the founder of the longest operating environmental protection organizations, is the group’s highest honor and is granted for “a distinguished record of achievement in national or international conservation causes.” Bullard, who has dedicated his career to protecting low-income and minority communities from becoming the waste dumps of the nation, is the first African American to win the award since the group started handing it out in 1961.

That it took so long for this major environmental group to honor an African American environmentalist stems, in part, from the complex and fractured racial history of mainstream environmental groups. That it’s happening now signals some of the optimism and focus on Bullard’s cause in the larger environmental movement.

Last week, Gina McCarthy, chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said at a forum hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus that environmental justice is the agency’s “core issue” and reminded the audience that “minorities are more likely to live near hazardous waste sites,” in the United States, a statement grounded in the work of Bullard and his peers.

‘Our own brand of environmentalism’

Bullard calls his cause “our own brand of environmentalism.”

By that he means: an environmental movement driven by, and focused on, the needs of low-income and minority communities. It was necessary, he says, because the burgeoning green campaigns of the early 1970s were “not addressing our issues.”

Those were issues of civil rights for African Americans that Bullard was deeply familiar with growing up in the small town of Elba in Alabama. At his high school, he remembers, teachers went off the standard curriculum to tell students about the intensifying civil rights battles throughout the south. And he received more education at home from his parents, who were both active in the civil rights movement.

In 1968, Bullard earned a degree in government from Alabama A&M, a historically black university in the northern part of the state, and then served in the Marine Corps for two years before heading to Atlanta University for a master’s degree in sociology. There, he took a class about pollution and pesticides, which is where environmentalism first registered for him.

Bullard stumbled into his environmental career by “accident,” he said. In his first job after graduate school he researched why waste disposal facilities were so often located in predominantly black neighborhoods in Houston.

“I began to see that where you lived and what race you were could really determine your health and well-being, and there were no other studies looking at that,” said Bullard.

That research was assigned to him by his then-wife Linda McKeever Bullard, an attorney who was suing the city of Houston for planning a waste landfill near a predominantly black community. Bullard discovered that 82 percent of the city’s landfills were located near black neighborhoods.

He expanded his studies and found that this was also the pattern in many major cities throughout the South. That data became the basis for his 1990 book “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality,” widely considered a key text of the environmental justice canon.

“As a sociologist, it was important for me to study this pattern, but at the same time I didn’t understand why there wasn’t a whole lot of information on this topic,” Bullard said.

‘We’re gonna kick those polluters right out of town’

In 1991, Bullard, along with hundreds of activists and scholars, converged in Washington for what they called the First National People of Color Environmental Summit. After meetings to discuss principles and mission statements, they took their cause to the steps of the Capitol — about a thousand people strong, according to Bullard — and demanded that the government protect impoverished communities from waste-dumping and in their back yards.

“We’re gonna kick those polluters right out of town, because we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” went one of their chants that day.

The federal government did appear to take note of the group’s work. Bullard was appointed to Bill Clinton’s transition team in 1992. Two years later, he was able to witness the signing of the environmental justice executive order. That year, 1994, is also when his former graduate school in Atlanta, now called Clark Atlanta University, invited him back to teach sociology and head his very own research program, the Environmental Justice Resource Center.

While continuing to publish more than a dozen influential books and articles, including two published by the Sierra Club, Bullard ran the resource center for 17 years before getting called back to Texas Southern University as dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs.

‘The environmental movement is evolving’

Still, the green movement is often seen as resoundingly white.

“We still have a national environmental movement that is still not reflective of our society in terms of diversity,” said Bullard.

Bullard points to the Sierra Club as one exception of a traditional environmental group that has, in recent decades, opened its doors and funding to black and Latino green groups. The Sierra Club has an environmental justice program, led by Bullard’s colleague Leslie Fields, a former civil rights attorney for the NAACP.

Fields said in an interview that she is aware of the fraught racial history of the mainstream environmental movement, including within her own organization.

“The reason I think it’s taken so long with environmentalists is because racial reconciliation here is voluntary, whereas in the rest of society it came through litigation and agitation,” she said.“Society didn’t change because of the goodness in their hearts, it was because they got sued. But the environmental movement is evolving.”

Bullard sees the evolution, too, and hopes that being offered and accepting the award “would be seen as a bridging of a racial divide that still exists today, in many institutions in society, not just environmental groups.”

Lisa Jackson, the former EPA chief, noted in an interview that the timing of the award to Bullard is particularly fitting as the country marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. “Dr. Bullard’s fearless and tireless struggle against companies that purposely site toxic facilities in neighborhoods of color is an extension of the justice that so many marched for,” she said.

Bruce Hamilton, the Sierra Club’s deputy executive director, nominated Bullard for the Muir award. He sees Bullard’s work as central to the Sierra Club’s work today. “The fight for environmental justice should be at the heart of the environmental movement,” Hamilton said.

Bullard would no doubt agree. Though he sees environmental justice — the cause he has fought for throughout his career — at the heart of everything.

“The right to vote is a basic right,” said Bullard, “but if you can’t breathe and your health is impaired and you can’t get to the polls, then what does it matter?”

Brentin Mock is a freelance writer based in Washington.