It was exactly four decades ago this month that Rev. Ben Chavis, while sitting in a Warren County jail for driving too slow, came up with the term “environmental racism.”
Chavis ended up in the hoosegow for driving down a road to lead Warren County residents who were protesting the dumping of deadly toxins in their community.
“That night in the Warren County jail, I thought to myself, not only is this wrong … this is an environmental wrong, and it’s tantamount to environmental racism,” Chavis said on September 15 while speaking at Duke University’s Wilson Lecture to commemorate 40 years of work with the environmental justice movement.
More than 500 people were jailed beginning in September 1982 while protesting the state officials’ decision to dump in predominantly Black, rural, and impoverished Warren County more than 60 tons of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a highly carcinogenic substance.
The protesters’ crime?
The men, women, and children of Warren County lay down on the highway to block the toxin-carrying trucks from entering their community.
The Warren County residents’ brave protest augured by seven years the bold defiance of an unidentified man who stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, to protest the government’s violent crackdown on protesters.
When the residents of Warren County used their bodies to defy the trucks carrying the toxins that arrived in their home that fall, the environmental justice movement was born.
Chavis is the descendant of a long line of clergy members and educators. His great-great-grandfather John Chavis was the first African American to be ordained a Presbyterian minister in the United States. The cause of civil rights is in the junior Chavis’s DNA. At the age of 12, scholars say, his determination to obtain a library card at a whites-only library in his hometown of Oxford eventually led to its integration.
Chavis in 1967 was a college student at UNC Charlotte when he became a civil rights organizer with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Chavis was ordained by the United Church of Christ in 1980 after he earned a masters degree in divinity from Duke. He was also selected as executive director of the NAACP in 1993, and fired one year later after signing an out of court settlement with an employee without the full approval of the NAACP board. Between 1997 and 2000, he joined the Nation Of Islam, briefly adopted the surname Muhammad, and served as minister of the historic Mosque Number Seven in New York where Malcolm X also served a minister.
Today, Chavis is widely recognized as the godfather of the environmental justice movement, which was born in Warren County. While speaking at Duke this month, he gave credit “to the women, to the children, one of whom was only four years old, a child, arrested by the state of North Carolina for lying down in the road to block the trucks.”
Chavis said that about two years before the protests, a company in the Northeast dumped the toxins along North Carolina’s highways, and state officials, including former governor Jim Martin, decided to move the substance and “of the state’s 100 counties” chose the state’s “most predominantly Black” county for its relocation.
“I’m certain that state officials, including the governor, knew that it wasn’t appropriate to put tons of toxins in a poor rural community that got most of its water from wells. It’s the last place you want to dig a hole and dump tons of toxins,” Chavis said while speaking to a group of students, his former professors, supporters, and family members who had gathered at Duke Chapel.
“Warren County was deliberately targeted, and what we found out after more than 500 people were arrested 40 years ago [was] it brought national attention and the discovery that what was going on in Warren County was not isolated,” he said. He added that similar environmental challenges were taking place in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Moreover, Chavis noted, by 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Reagan administration was in denial about the existence of environmental racism.
There’s been a significant turnaround regarding the EPA’s stance on environmental justice since the Reagan administration, or even the Trump administration that was at odds with the World Health Organization on top of its withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
On Saturday, Michael Regan, the EPA’s top administrator and a Goldsboro native, stood on the steps of the Warren County courthouse and announced that the agency is launching a new Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights Office.
“We are finally ensuring that communities who have long borne the burden of pollution see, breathe, and feel the benefits of the federal government’s investments,” said Regan, whose remarks appeared in NC Health News. “It’s about changing how our government works, and who it works for, something that so many of you today have dedicated your life to realizing.”
Regan also touted President Joe Biden’s “commitment to elevate environmental justice and civil rights enforcement at the EPA and across the federal government and ensure the work to support our most vulnerable communities continues for years to come,” according to an EPA press release.
According to the release, the new office will oversee the implementation and delivery of a $3 billion climate and environmental justice block grant program, created by the Inflation Reduction Act, and the law’s “historic $60 billion investment in environmental justice.”
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The United Church of Christ responded to the Warren County protest by commissioning a landmark study, “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States of America,” that relied on statistics to give evidence about the role of race and the location of toxic waste in communities across the country.
“The environmental justice [movement] grew first through the courage, persistence, and sacrifice of Warren County and others who joined together to build a movement,” Chavis said.
Prior to arriving in Warren County 40 years ago, Chavis had risen to national and international prominence as the leader of the Wilmington 10.
Scholars and historians say Chavis was working with the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice in 1972 when he and 15 high school students were arrested for setting fire to a white-owned grocery store and shooting at firemen and policemen who answered the call.
Chavis, along with eight other Black men and a white woman, was convicted of arson and conspiracy to assault emergency personnel. They became known as the Wilmington 10; Chavis entered prison in 1975, after his appeals were exhausted.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International designated the group as political prisoners due to the weak evidence used to convict them. It was the first time Amnesty International used the designation for people behind bars in American prisons.
The Wilmington 10’s sentences were overturned in 1980 by the U.S. Fourth Circuit of Appeals, whose justices deemed their incarceration as a consequence of “prosecutorial misconduct.”
In 2012, Chavis and the surviving members of the Wilmington 10 were issued pardons of innocence by then North Carolina governor Beverly Perdue.
When the United Church of Christ dispatched Chavis to Warren County to lead the PCB protests just two years after he got out of prison, “the last thing I wanted to do was get arrested in North Carolina,” Chavis said this month.
He landed in a Warren County jail cell after a state trooper charged him with driving too slowly on the road leading to the protests.
Chavis said that while sitting in his jail cell he began to define the term “environmental racism” as “racial discrimination in public policy making,” with “the deliberate targeting” of communities populated by people of color “for toxic waste and hazardous waste facilities and excluding people of color from public policy making.”
Chavis pointed to the water crises in Jackson, Mississippi, and Flint, Michigan, but he could have also pointed to the town of Albemarle in Stanly County, where the poverty level is nearly 25 percent and officials with the long-closed Alcoa aluminum smelting plant wanted to “increase the amount of cyanide it discharges into Badin Lake, a popular fishing and swimming destination—and a drinking water supply”—for Albemarle residents, according to reporting from NC Policy Watch. (State officials blocked the move).
Chavis noted the progress the environmental justice movement has made over the past 40 years: it’s now global. But he also said there are still formidable challenges and noted the convergence of environmental justice deniers with the same elements across the national and international landscape who deny climate change.
Pointedly, Chavis said, those same forces want to deny people the right to vote, deny women’s reproductive rights, and deny that systemic racism exists.
He added that one of the lessons of the pandemic was the disproportionate impact it had on communities that were exposed to environmental hazards.
“The earth belongs to the Lord,” he said. “The earth doesn’t belong to polluters who create toxins.”
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