North Carolina activists birth the eco-justice movement while fighting toxic waste, 1982

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Time Period:  
15 September
12 October
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Warren County, North Carolina
Initially, their goal was to prevent the construction of a new landfill. However, when new partnerships were formed there was an ideological shift towards bringing national attention to the "disproportionate pattern of siting toxic-waste landfills in low-income and minority communities throughout the country" (McGurty).

In 1978, Ward Transformer Company of Raleigh, North Carolina commissioned a few workers to dispose of 31,000 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), a known carcinogen. They deposited the waste on state land, giving the state responsibility to relocate the waste. Subsequently, the state bought private land in Warren County, a 90% impoverished and 66% African American community, to develop into a landfill for the PCB. Because this was a private transaction, Warren County residents did not realize the development until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had already approved the site.

In 1979, a group of residents called Warren County Citizens Concerned (WCCC) led by Ken Ferruccio began to organize social action against the landfill. However, after three years of unsuccessful legal battles the group decided that they needed to reassess their strategy. Because the WCCC had so little experience in nonviolent direct action, they enlisted in the help of Reverend Luther Brown of Coley Springs Baptist Church and Reverend Leon White of the North Carolina United Church of Christ from the local community. In addition, they garnered outside support from Dr. Benjamin Chavis of United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, Dr. Joseph Lowery of Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Walter Fauntroy, a congressional representative.

These new supporters were well versed in nonviolent direct action stemming from the civil rights era. Along with their methods and experience, these supporters also brought a shift in the ideology to the campaign. Initially, the goal of the campaign was to prevent the state from placing the landfill in Warren County and have it moved to another equally poor area with a similarly high African American population. However, with the addition of new civil rights groups, the campaign members developed a shared conception of justice at the crossroads of environmentalism and civil-rights. The WCCC’s initial goal transformed into a call not only to preserve the health of one community, but to instigate a movement towards health for all poor, minority communities and a national awareness that these types of environmental injustices were racially motivated. Thus, the activists framed the campaign as an environmental justice initiative, one of the first to be pursued in the Unites States.

Unified, the WCCC, students, and civil rights activists began a six-week period of protests from 15 September-12 October. During this time, the activists’ marches and rallies included singing, prayer, and civil rights chants. They also used their bodies to block trucks from entering the landfill site. On 16 September, 200 protesters positioned their bodies to block the trucks carrying the PCB while singing We Shall Overcome as police showed up with billy clubs.

Another notable action happened on 9 October. Between 50 and 100 activists organized a long distance march from the Franklin County line to Raleigh over a week’s time in order to rally at the capitol. By the end, 520 people had been arrested. The campaign garnered much media attention.

To the protestors’ dismay, Governor James B. Hunt refused to yield on his decision to go through with the landfill. However, due to the heavy media attention, the collaborative effort increased national awareness of the interwoven character of civil rights and environmentalism, thus playing a part in instigating the environmental justice movement.

Research Notes
“Congressman and 120 Arrested at PCB Protest.” New York Times. 28 Sept, 1982.

“Carolinians See Governor in PCB landfill dispute”, New York Times, 10 Oct, 1982. Web. 19 Nov, 2011.

“Fauntroy Arrested at Landfill Protest”, Spartanberg Herald-Journal, 28 Sept, 1982. Web. 19 Nov, 2011. 

McGurty, Eileen M. 1997. “From NIMBY to Civil Rights: The Origins of the Environmental Justice Movement.” Environmental Justice History 2, no. 3, pp. 301-23.

“Over a Hundred Arrested At Demonstration Over Toxic Dump”, The Palm Beach Post, 16 Sept, 1982. Web. 19 Nov, 2011.

“Protesters approach Raleigh”, Star News, 12 Oct, 1982. Web. 19 Nov, 2011.

Willie, Ridini, and David A. Willard. Grassroots Social Action: Lessons in People Power Movements. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2008. Print.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Hannah Lehmann, 19/11/2011