Mobilizing the Energy Crisis for Racial Justice

Vintage photograph of a march in 1973. A large crowd of people are sitting on benches and on the ground facing forward. Many are holding signs with slogans like "Push for Jobs and Economic Justice" and "Push for Lower Prices."

In 1973, oil prices skyrocketed in the United States as a result of Middle Eastern geopolitical struggles—the U.S. supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) decided to limit oil supplies in response. The energy crisis, also fueled by President Richard Nixon’s decisions to ration gasoline, lives on in collective memory with images of “Out of Gas” signs and lines of cars waiting to refuel. Historians and geographers suggest that the energy crisis represented a point of rupture in several ways: for the end of the “American way of life” fed by cheap resources and for the rise of neoliberal policies.[1] However, looking at Black discourses around the energy debates of the 1970s indicates a sense of continuity rather than change. Black activists pointed out that many people in the U.S. had never, in fact, had access to middle class lifestyles. They aligned the energy debates with questions that had long been a part of civil rights struggles: Who has access to jobs? Whose economic interests does the government protect? Who has the right to buy consumer goods? To warm homes?

Vintage photograph of a gas station, zooming in on a "regular" pump that has a handwritten sign taped to it saying "no gas." A road, cars, and houses are visible beyond the gas station.
Oregon gas stations posted “No Gas” signs during gas shortage. U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-5686. Photographer: David Falconer, DOCUMERIA.
[Image description: Vintage photograph of a gas station, zooming in on a “regular” pump that has a handwritten sign taped to it saying “no gas.” A road, cars, and houses are visible beyond the gas station.]

Black activists used the energy crisis to critique the racial economy of the United States. They understood the political debates over energy policy as part of a longer history of economic disenfranchisement in jobs and housing. For instance, in 1975 the NAACP took a stance on energy policy because it was the “black and poor people [who were] disproportionately affected by this crisis due to discrimination in housing, employment and economic opportunities.”[2] They called for policy actions in several areas: governmental job assurances, aid to families through credit access and energy assistance, Black political power, and the Federal support of oil shale development and alternative energy sources.
For Black activists discussing the political implications of limited energy production and use, the question wasn’t of the demise of a way of life based on cheap fossil fuels (for they had not had access to that life previously). Instead, as the NAACP statement suggests, they mobilized the energy crisis debates to continue their demands for racial justice in jobs and housing.

Employment and Economic Power

Energy shortages spurred discussion on several economic fronts, but had particular salience for activists focused on full employment.[3] Guarantees of jobs and full employment had been part of civil rights activism from the early 1960s. Black activists continued this work into the 1970s, and the impact of energy shortages on jobs provided a moment to rearticulate their demands. For instance, the National Committee for Full Employment/Full Employment Action Council (NCFE/FEAC), founded by Coretta Scott King, published an ad in the New York Times in which they argued, alongside demands for employment and welfare, that “we recognize that the energy problem is a fundamental cause of our current economic difficulties and directly contributes to unemployment.”[4] The NCFE/FEAC aimed not only to create full employment, but also guarantee jobs to those often left out of, or economically disadvantaged by, the paid labor force: women and minorities. Indeed, as Vernon Jordan, head of the Urban League, argued in a New York Times editorial, “the constriction in the marginal job markets [due to the energy crisis] that will shrink employment of women and teen-agers will have a major impact on black family income in an inflationary period.”[5]

The energy crisis, for these activists, lay not in the lack of oil but in the pre-existing economic and political conditions that made Black communities and impoverished individuals bear the brunt of the lack of resources. They advocated, accordingly, for full economic citizenship.


Alongside demands for economic stability, and the political power that came with it, Black activists delineated the connections between housing inequities and the energy crisis. For George L. Brown, Lieutenant Governor of Colorado, and others, fossil fuel-supported economic success lay not only in accessing jobs and fair employment, but also in the idealized, electrified home of the post-war era.[6] Home ownership, and the appliances that filled it, signified a specific form of American citizenship and political power—a power that Black Americans had been denied through discriminatory lending practices and that were only exacerbated by the debates over energy conservation in the 1970s.

Vintage photograph of a multiunit housing building. An empty lot is on the right.
Original caption: “Black Community Older Housing On Chicago’s West Side. This Area In 1973 Had Not Quite Recovered From The Riots And Fires During The Mid And Late 1960’s, 06/1973.” Photographer: John H. White, DOCUMERIA.
[Image description: Vintage photograph of a multiunit housing building. An empty lot is on the right.]

People critiquing energy policies argued that the burdens fell most on low-income households. Such households already used less energy (around four times less, according to a 1976 study), and didn’t have home technologies to help conserve energy, including storm windows, doors, or insulation. Not only that, they rarely had the electric conveniences the national government encouraged using less, like washing machines. In fact, there was no room for conservation in such energy-poor homes.[7] In cold houses, lacking money for basic needs, signs asking people to turn out the lights must have held cruel irony.

Not only did people suffer because they did not have the money to afford fuel, but landlords also used the crisis to reduce building maintenance. As Ernest Wilson III, a doctoral student at UC-Berkeley and coordinator of the California Black Energy Colloquium, reported in an article in Black Scholar, “According to one community worker in Boston’s Roxbury, ‘Landlords have taken the energy crisis as an excuse to reduce heat and to refuse to do maintenance. It’s even more difficult to maintain heat when your home is in need of repair.’”[8]

Vintage photograph of a young girl eating an ice cream cone in front of a store. A “Dairy Queen” logo is on a red sign above a white sign that says “Capitol. OUR LIGHTS ARE OFF TO SAVE ENERGY! WON’T YOU HELP TOO?’
Photographs for the EPA’s DOCUMERIA project captured images of the energy crisis, including how businesses, like this Oregon Dairy Queen, encouraged customers to do their part in conserving energy by turning lights off. U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-12938. Photographer: David Falconer, DOCUMERIA.
[Image description: Vintage photograph of a young girl eating an ice cream cone in front of a store. A “Dairy Queen” logo is on a red sign above a white sign that says “Capitol. OUR LIGHTS ARE OFF TO SAVE ENERGY! WON’T YOU HELP TOO?’]

Political Power

Whether responding to economic inequities or housing discrimination during the energy crisis—two long-standing struggles of the civil rights movement—Black activists demanded political and economic power. As Wilson III articulated, Black communities needed to ask: “(1) Who will make [energy] decisions? (2) On what basis or criteria will these decisions be made? and (3) What is the range of strategies available to black people which will maximize their influence on the decision-making process?” For Wilson III, “the shape of the future […] will be made on the basis of political and economic power, not on technology.”[9] Other civil rights leaders agreed with this sentiment: Vernon Jordan argued that “we see that the real energy crisis of our times has less to do with gasoline than with the moral energy needed to reshape our nation along more humane lines,” while Jesse Jackson suggested “that the greatest waste of energy is the waste of human lives, resulting from poor education, unemployment and the limiting of opportunity.”[10]

In the 1970s, political debates over energy ended up ushering in neoliberal financial policies based on support of a free market and individual responsibility for one’s own economic security and success. As historians and social researchers, including Josiah Rector, David Stein, and others have argued, people at the time worked to mobilize the discourses of crisis for alternative economic futures.[11] As the people most affected by financialization, housing discrimination, and toxins left by industrialization, Black activists articulated the energy crisis as a moment that highlighted continuing inequities, rather than a moment of ultimate change. Historians often categorize Black narratives as part of environmental justice genealogies or civil rights activism. While this framing highlights ongoing struggles for life under racial capitalism, it also marginalizes the broad critiques Black activists made of the economic system as a whole. Including their narratives of energy histories of the 1970s would emphasize the ways in which the politics of energy need to be seen as problems of equal distribution rather than scarcity. The question of who deserves to consume, and who has the economic ability to consume, lay at the heart of international political debates over resource use in the 1970s. These questions also animate political discussions over climate change today. Such political questions do not just reside in the international sphere; they also live on in disparities between people within nations, between people who have always had access to homes and jobs, and those who have been denied such access due to deliberate government policies. Black activists used the energy crisis to rearticulate ongoing economic disparities in housing and jobs, to strengthen their demands for a racially just economic system.

[1] Natasha Zaretsky, No Direction Home: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968-1980 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Matthew T. Huber, Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Caleb Wellum, “‘A Vibrant National Preoccupation’: Embracing an Energy Conservation Ethic in the 1970s,” Environmental History 25, no. 1 (January 2020).

[2] NAACP 65th Annual Convention Resolutions, The Crisis (April 1975), 127.

[3] Josiah Rector shows the centrality of full employment activism to the emergence of environmental justice, see Toxic Debt: An Environmental Justice History of Detroit (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2022).

[4] “An Emergency Program for Immediate Action!,” New York Times (January 12, 1975).

[5] V.E. Jordan Jr., “The Energy Crisis: For Blacks, a Disproportionate Burden,” New York Times (February 9, 1974).

[6] G.L. Brown, G.L. “Invisible Again: Blacks and the Energy Crisis,” Social Policy 7, no. 4 (1977).

[7] Ibid.

[8] E.J. Wilson III, “The Great Energy Gap, Circa 1970-1990,” The Black Scholar 5, no. 6 (1974).

[9] Ibid., 20.

[10] Jordan Jr. “The Energy Crisis”; J.L Jackson, “Confronting Monopoly and Keeping the Movement Moving,” Freedomways 14, no. 1 (1974): 14.

[11] Rector, Toxic Debt; David P. Stein, “‘This Nation Has Never Honestly Dealt with the Question of a Peacetime Economy’: Coretta Scott King and the Struggle for a Nonviolent Economy in the 1970s,” Souls 18, no. 1 (2016).

*Cover image: Groups including Operation PUSH, led by Jesse Jackson, organized for economic justice in the 1970s. In this 1973 march in Chicago, people advocated for jobs and lower prices. Photo from the EPA’s DOCUMERIA project. U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-13804; Photographer: John White, DOCUMERIA.

[*Cover image description: Vintage photograph of a march in 1973. A large crowd of people are sitting on benches and on the ground facing forward. Many are holding signs with slogans like “Push for Jobs and Economic Justice” and “Push for Lower Prices.”]

Edited by Anna Guasco, reviewed by Emily Webster.