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


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).

Time period

15 September, 1982 to 12 October, 1982


United States

Location City/State/Province

Warren County, North Carolina
Jump to case narrative

Additional methods (Timing Unknown)

Segment Length

1 week


Ken Ferruccio


Civil Rights activists, Reverend Brown, Reverend White, Dr. Chavis, Dr. Lowery, and Dr. Fauntroy.

External allies

Not known

Involvement of social elites

Not known


Governor James B. Hunt, Jr.

Nonviolent responses of opponent

Not known

Campaigner violence

None known

Repressive Violence

None known


Human Rights



Group characterization

African American and white students and young adults
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activists
Warren county citizens
other Civil Rights Activists

Groups in 1st Segment

Civil Rights activists
Reverend Brown
Reverend White
Dr. Chavis
Dr. Lowery
Dr. Fauntroy.

Segment Length

1 week

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

2 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


2 out of 3 points

Total points

5 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

Although Governor James B. Hunt refused to yield on his decision to go through with the landfill, the campaign, due to the heavy media attention, increased national awareness of the interwoven character of civil rights and environmentalism, thus playing an important part in instigating the environmental justice movement.

Database Narrative

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.


“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