LAKE PLACID — Environmental and civil rights activist Aaron Mair was honored Saturday as part of John Brown Day activities at the John Brown State Historic Site.
Mair received a Spirit of John Brown Freedom Award from John Brown Lives!, a freedom and human rights organization. Several other organizations also received awards.
"It is a deeply spiritual experience," said Mair, an environmental and civil rights activist for the past 30 years who is now national president of the Sierra Club.
"John Brown fought and died for me to be considered a full human being," said Mair, who is black. "His spirit and legacy live on."
Mair became environmentally active more than 30 years ago in the fight against a trash incinerator in Albany's Arbor Hill neighborhood. Later, while living in Rotterdam, he fought against construction of the Rotterdam Square Mall on top of the Great Flats Aquifer. He helped organize citizen activism around PCB pollution in the Hudson River and this year has been a leader in fighting for the environment and historic preservation in the face of actions proposed by President Donald Trump.
He said it is a great honor to be recognized for fighting for justice in the 21st century as Brown did in the 19th century, though by lawful means, in Mair's case.
Brown is the pre-Civil War abolitionist remembered today for leading an unsuccessful 1859 raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, in an effort he and supporters hoped would lead to a slave rebellion. But he farmed and harbored runaway slaves just outside Lake Placid in the northern Adirondacks and is buried there along with several family members and followers.
"Each of our recipients is intimately familiar with the power we can all wield to make a difference," said Martha Swan, executive director of John Brown Lives! "The spirit of John Brown -- to make the spirit of activism -- of not just demanding change but doing everything possible to achieve it -- is more alive than ever."
The Sierra Club, founded in 1892 by John Muir, is the nation's largest grassroots environmental organization, having spurred creation of environmental legislation and helped establish national parks and monuments.
Mair said activism remains important in the face of the Trump administration's efforts to reverse President Barack Obama's protections of land under the Antiquities Act, and to open more federal lands to oil, gas and mineral extraction. He was among leaders of last month's Climate March in Washington, D.C.
"Am I disappointed? America should be disappointed," Mair said. "It is the generations after you and I that will really suffer -- not having that legacy available to them."
The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Adirondack Diversity Initiative, Adirondack Council and Champlain National Bank co-sponsored the recognition event, timed to mark Brown's May 9, 1800, birthday.