Ellen Griffith Spears

Ellen Griffith Spears

Professor, Emerita
Joint Appointment with New College


  • BA, College of William and Mary
  • MA, PhD, Emory University

Research Areas

  • Environmental History
  • U.S. South in a Global Context
  • Social Movements

Professor Spears’ most recent book, Rethinking the American Environmental Movement post-1945 (Routledge, 2019) explores the history of conservation and environmental activism in the U.S. as a “field of movements” rooted in broader social justice activism. The book reveals how new scientific developments, the nuclear threat, and pollution, as well as changes in urban living spurred activism among diverse populations.

Spears’ 2014 bookBaptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town (University of North Carolina Press),  chronicles the legal battle against the agrochemical company Monsanto over the dumping of PCBs in the city of Anniston, Alabama’s historically African American and white working class neighborhoods.

Spears is active in the Task Force on the History of Race, Slavery, and Civil Rights at UA.  She worked with other UA faculty and students on the successful campaign led by the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center that in 2013 resulted in the Alabama State Legislature exonerating the Scottsboro defendants. That work was recognized with the Realizing the Dream Call to Conscience Award from the University of Alabama Office of Community Affairs and the Lahoma Buford Adams Peace Award, given by the UA School of Social Work.

Professor Spears serves on the editorial boards of Environmental History, the journal of the American Society for Environmental History, and the interdisciplinary digital journal, Southern Spaces. Formerly associate director of the Southern Regional Council, the Atlanta-based civil rights research institute, Spears served as managing editor of the SRC’s quarterly journal, Southern Changes, for more than a decade.

Selected Publications


Rethinking the American Environmental Movement Post-1945American Social and Political Movements of the 20th Century Series. Series Editor, Heather Ann Thompson. Routledge Press, 2019.

Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town, University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Winner of the 2015 Francis B. Simkins Prize from the Southern Historical Association, the 2014 Arthur J. Viseltear Award for Outstanding Contribution to the History of Public Health from the Medical Care Section of the American Public Health Association, and the 2015 Reed Environmental Writing Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The Newtown Story: One Community’s Fight for Environmental Justice, photographs by Michael Schwarz, Atlanta: Center for Democratic Renewal, 1998, a collaborative documentary project.

Journal Articles and Book Chapters:

The ‘Tar Wars’ and Climate Justice Activism in North America: A Transboundary Movement Linking the U.S. and Canada.  In Routledge Handbook on Environmental Movements, edited by Mario Grasso and Marco Guigni. New York; Oxon, UK: Routledge Press, 2022.

Carlos Juan Finlay, William Gorgas, and Walter Reed and the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Controversy: Competing Historical Memories, co-authored with Rosa López-Oceguera, The Alabama Review, Winter 2021.

Engaging the Racial Landscape at the University of Alabama, co-author with James C. Hall. In Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies, edited by Leslie M. Harris, Albert Brophy, and James Campbell, 298-314. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019.

“(Re)Writing Histories of Environmentalism in Alabama.” The Alabama Review 70, no. 2, (April 2017): 171-188.

“Interpreting the Scottsboro Boys Trials Historic Route,” in collaboration with Shelia Washington. In Interpreting African American Culture and History at Museums and Historic Sites, edited by Max van Balgooy, Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

“Landscapes and Ecologies of the U.S. South: Essays in Eco-Cultural History.” Introduction to an edited series. Southern SpacesAn online peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journal about the regions, places, and cultures of the American South, February 2013, http://southernspaces.org/2013/landscapes-and-ecologies-us-south-essays-eco-cultural-history

“Memorializing the Freedom Riders,” Southern Spaces: an interdisciplinary online peer-reviewed journal, http://www.southernspaces.org/contents/2009/spears/1a.html, July 2009.

“Reducing Environmental Burdens: A Southern Agenda,” in American Crisis: Southern Solutions, ed., Anthony Dunbar, Montgomery: New South Press, 2008.

Contributing writer, “The Case for Extending and Amending the Voting Rights Act, Voting Rights Litigation 1982-2006,” Laughlin McDonald, Daniel Levitas, et al., prepared for the U.S. Congress, House Committee on the Judiciary. Atlanta: American Civil Liberties Union, 2006.

“Civil Rights, Immigration, and the Prospects for Social Justice Collaboration,” in The American South in a Global World, eds. James L. Peacock, Harry L. Watson, Carrie R. Matthews, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005, 235-243.

“Making Illnesses Visible: The Newtown Florist Club and the Quest for Environmental Justice in Gainesville, Georgia,” in Emerging Illnesses and Society: Negotiating the Public Health Agenda, eds. Randall M. Packard, Peter J. Brown, Ruth L. Berkelman,  Howard Frumkin, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, 171-190.

“Voting Disparities in Georgia Counties: A Report on Election 2000,” co-author, Southern Regional Council, February, 2001.

“South Africa vote mixes hope, tension,” The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, June 3, 1999.

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Using Oral History to Tell the Story of the Civil Rights Movement,” with Marcia Klenbort, Social Education: The Official Journal of the National Council for Social  Studies, Vol. 63, No. 4, May/June 1999.