VOICES: Ben Chavis on the environmental justice movement's past and future

Nonviolent protests against toxic waste dumping in Warren County, North Carolina, in 1982 gave birth to the environmental justice movement. (Photo by Jenny Labalme.)

On Sept. 15, Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. delivered the Robert R. Wilson Distinguished Lecture at Duke University Chapel in Durham, North Carolina, part of a series endowed by a gift made to Duke to showcase important topics in public law. Chavis's talk commemorated the 40th anniversary of nonviolent protests over dumping of soil contaminated with cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Warren County, North Carolina, a predominantly Black and rural community along the Virginia border.

Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. delivered the Robert R. Wilson Distinguished Lecture at Duke University on Sept. 15. (Image is a still from this video.)

Born in 1948 in nearby Oxford, Chavis worked as a youth coordinator with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and served as an assistant to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At the age of 23, Chavis gained international attention as the leader of North Carolina's Wilmington 10 — a group of civil rights activists who were wrongly convicted of arson during protests over the slow pace of school integration. At the time, Chavis was serving as a field officer for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (UCC-CRJ), which had dispatched him to Wilmington. As the oldest of the protesters, most of whom were local students, Chavis got the longest sentence: 34 years in state prison. But the activists appealed, and in 1980 the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals freed them, citing prosecutorial misconduct. Authorities did not pursue a new trial, and in 2012 Gov. Beverly Perdue issued pardons of innocence to all 10.

At the time of his wrongful imprisonment, Chavis — who already held a chemistry degree from UNC-Charlotte — had been pursuing a master's of divinity from Howard University, a historically Black school in Washington, D.C. He arranged a transfer to Duke and convinced the state to move him to a prison in nearby Hillsborough so he could continue his studies. In a recent talk to the Duke Divinity School, Chavis described being bused to campus each day for his two years of classwork. He graduated in 1980, the same year he was freed from prison, and was ordained by the UCC.

Two years later, the UCC sent Chavis to Warren County, where residents were roiled by North Carolina's plans to dump some 60 tons of PCB-contaminated soil in their midst. The waste had been scraped up from roadsides across 14 counties in the state after a business associate of a Raleigh electrical transformer company disposed of 31,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil by pouring it along more than 200 miles of highways; state officials then decided to dump the waste in the rural community of Afton. The outraged residents laid down in front of dump trucks in an effort to halt the scheme. Chavis, who was among the more than 500 people arrested for taking part in the nonviolent protests, has said it was in the Warren County jail that he coined the term "environmental racism." The protesters ultimately lost their fight against the dumping. But after years of controversies and lawsuits, the state detoxified the contaminated soil at the site in 2003.

Chavis went on to serve as executive director and CEO of the UCC-CRJ, and it was under his leadership that organization issued its landmark 1987 report, "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States." He also served as vice president of the National Council of Churches, executive director and CEO of the NAACP, and national director of the Million Man March organizing committee. Chavis wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column from 1985 to 1993 and today serves as president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents outlets that serve Black communities. Chavis was recently honored with the President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award for Community Service and Civil Rights in a ceremony at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

After delivering his lecture at Duke, Chavis was joined in the chapel by Catherine Coleman Flowers, an Alabama environmental activist and recent MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" award winner, for a conversation about environmental justice. You can watch Rev. Chavis's lecture and the talk that followed here; the transcript that follows is of the speech as delivered. Nine days after the lecture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan — another Black environmental advocate from Eastern North Carolina — stood in front of the Warren County Courthouse and recalled the 1982 protests as he unveiled his agency's new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, which he said is "embedding environmental justice and civil rights into the DNA of EPA." — Sue SturgisB


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Thank you all very much. First and foremost, I want to thank God for the opportunity to be back at my alma mater, Duke University. I want to thank God for today's recognition of the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the environmental justice movement, which really started in terms of national exposure 40 years ago on this day in Warren County, North Carolina. I want to thank the dean for her kind words of introduction. I want to thank all of the various departments that sponsored this lecture. I want to thank the dean of the chapel for allowing us to be in this great cathedral.

Almost 50 years ago, I was here as a student, as a member of the Wilmington 10. I'm not going to talk about the Wilmington 10 case tonight; I really want to focus my time a lot on what led to the Warren County situation, what led to the birthing of the environmental justice movement, and where are we today, 40 years later in 2022, when it comes to environmental justice, when it comes to climate justice. And then I'll end my remarks about what I see for the future, in terms of shaping the future for all of God's people. I'm very pleased that after my remarks I'll be joined in a discussion with Catherine Flowers, someone who has made an indelible imprint also and not only the scholarship but the importance of grassroots communities having to help determine how to improve the quality of life for the communities in which we live.

Forty-two years ago, North Carolina discovered that a company in the Northeast had dumped tons of polychlorinated biphenyls — PCBs, very cancer-causing carcinogenic substance — along the highways of North Carolina. So the state obviously removed the toxins from the highways. But then it became a question of what to do with 60 tons or more of these toxins.

I've come tonight to say that that pain and that suffering is not a permanent circumstance. We can make a difference. Because of the sacrifice that those brothers and sisters made in Warren County 40 years ago, we now have a vibrant movement all over the world. 

Forty years ago, of the 100 counties in North Carolina, Warren County was the most predominantly Black. Warren County was a rural, agricultural county. Those of you who are natives of North Carolina know that Warren County was also the place where Floyd McKissick wanted to establish Soul City. I was so inspired by Floyd McKissick building Soul City I started a restaurant in a disco in Oxford called The Soul Kitchen, and out of that business I was able to finance the whole Eastern North Carolina civil rights movement, in addition to being able to take care of my family. I see some of my classmates out in the audience. I see some of my professors.

The truth of the matter is, I'm certain that the state officials including the governor knew that it wasn't appropriate to put tons of toxins in a poor, rural, predominantly African American 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, but that's what happened. And they announced it, and they started to bring these trucks in September of 1982.

And while I'm given a lot of credit for what happened, I must give the credit first to the women, to the children, one of whom was only 4 years old. A child got arrested by the state of North Carolina for laying down in the road to block the trucks from dumping PCBs in Warren County.

I spent most of the 1970s unjustly incarcerated, so by 1982 the last thing I wanted to do is get arrested again in North Carolina. But my church dispatched me — the United Church of Christ, Commission for Racial Justice, wanted me to go to Warren County to help lead the protests. My local home church is also in Warren County, Oak Level United Church of Christ, so I was ready to go. And I was honored to join the protests. And of course I've been arrested for many things in terms of civil rights, but it was the first time — I'm probably the only person in America that's been put in jail for driving too slow. The State Patrol said that I was driving too slow around the road leading to the protests.

But that night in the Warren County jail, I thought to myself not only that this is wrong, but out of my civil rights background I said this is an environmental wrong — that it's tantamount to environmental racism. And I began to define the term as racial discrimination in public policy making, as the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste and hazardous waste facilities, as the exclusion of people of color from public policy making. Back in those days, there were no, very few Black people or Latino people or Native Americans or Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders in the Audubon Society or the Sierra Club or the National Wildlife Federation. Even Greenpeace didn't have many people of color.

But also it was deliberate targeting of these communities. Warren County was deliberately targeted. And what we found out because over 500 people were arrested 40 years ago in one county — it brought national attention. And because it brought national media attention we discovered that what was going on in Warren County was not isolated. The same thing was happening in Louisiana, same thing was happening in Mississippi, same thing was happening in Arizona or New Mexico, same thing was happening in other parts of our nation. So I was very grateful that the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice put up some money so that we could do a study. Because Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, but the EPA under Ronald Reagan was in total denial of the existence of environmental racism. So we not only had to allege racial discrimination, we had to prove it statistically. So we ordered the first study — every ZIP code in America. And in 1987 we published the report "Toxic Waste and Race in the United States," which was a landmark study that is still referenced today by the EPA. And then we had the first People of Color Summit in 1991 in Washington, D.C.

I give you all these highlight points to say this: When you think about how the environmental justice movement grew, it was first through the courage, through the persistence, and to some sense through the sacrifice of so many people in Warren County. And then other communities joined together to build a movement.

C. T. Vivian out of the civil rights movement defined movement as people moving. And we would encourage people in local communities that were disproportionately exposed to these hazards to organize, to mobilize, to move, to raise their voices, and to stand up, to speak out, to say no to injustice. Theologically — and some of you have heard me say this before — I always quote that verse from the Psalms: "The Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof." The Earth does not belong to polluters. The Earth does not belong to people who create these toxins. The Earth belongs to the Lord. And if the Earth belongs to the Lord, that means we as human beings, also created by God, we're supposed to be protecting the Earth, protecting the water, protecting the land, protecting food, protecting the ground, protecting the Earth.

And so I'm pleased to report to you that in 40 years we now not only have a movement in North Carolina — we have a movement all over the world. The environmental justice movement is a global movement. And now with the call for climate justice, I see a convergence between environmental justice and climate justice. But just let me say parenthetically, the people who would deny environmental justice are the same people who would deny people the right to vote, are the same people who deny women their reproductive rights, the same people who would deny that racism exists. And when I think of Gov. "Satanic Sis" in Florida [laughter], these governors who deny reality and put public policy in place that divides people, that denies reality — they need to be challenged. But they have to be challenged by brothers and sisters across these states, across America, not only to vote the right people in office but to hold them accountable.

And that's why I'm pleased with this forum. I've been here for the last several days here at Duke, and I'm looking forward to our discussion. But I want to move now to what I believe is a possible future.

Thank God for the progress that we've made in movement building around environmental justice over the last 40 years. And as a result, we now have people here at Duke and at other academic institutions studying, getting undergraduate and graduate and postgraduate degrees in environmental justice, in environmental engineering, in environmental law, etc., etc. That's why I thank the Sanford School for Public Policy — I would encourage all of the schools here at Duke, including my Divinity School, to focus on this issue of climate justice, environmental justice, and helping to shape a better future for all of God's people.

I already know that we have arranged the first question. I believe when we have the question and answer period it's going to come from Brazil. It's going to be in Portuguese, but I know a little Portuguese, I know what they're asking. The point is, the reason why I'm allowing them to ask the first question — and I know this is being live streamed all over the world — is because if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, not just in America but anything in the world, is that our destinies are all mutually related. We just can't have health care for ourselves in America and don't think about health care for the rest of the people of the world. One of the most terrible things that Donald Trump did when he was president was quit the World Health Organization, or cancel out the Paris Treaty on climate. Thank God those things have been re-engaged, but we lost four critical years.

COVID showed us about all these pre-existing conditions in our communities. And a lot of our communities were more devastatingly fatal because of COVID because of the pre-existing health conditions. Where did these pre-existing health conditions come from? Disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards. In Harlem today, in New York, 6% of all the children in Harlem have asthma. They're not born with asthma — they get asthma because of poor air quality. So we have work to do.

But I come today on this 40th anniversary as an optimist. I'm encouraged because I see young people — young white people, young Black people, young Latino people, young Pacific island and Asian people, young Native American people — I see young people demanding climate justice, not waiting for the politicians, and not even waiting for the public policy makers. I think that's healthy. It reminds me of when I was young joining the civil rights movement. And one of the things I learned from working with Dr. King, it's not just good enough to see an injustice, we've got to have the courage to challenge that Injustice, to change that injustice. And we have nothing but opportunity today. We should want clean air, clean water, good healthy food for all people.

Today while we assemble here, our brothers and sisters in Jackson, Mississippi, don't have clean water to drink. The governor of Mississippi has received millions of dollars in infrastructure funds but he won't give it to the city of Jackson to establish a new water system. So we've got challenges. I know a lot of the progress we've made in the last 40 years, but I also know that we have great challenges ahead of us. But I believe that we're going to make further progress. In fact, over the last few days I've been here at Duke I've seen some young scholars who are fired up and ready to go. And that gives me encouragement.

You know, I believe that our young people today need to be encouraged, not discouraged. And I'm not talking about young people just here at Duke. I'm talking about young people in the community, throughout this Triangle era, throughout North Carolina, and throughout our nation. We have to do a better job of not only encouraging them to excel in school, and excel in their community, but give them a helping hand.

I believe we should learn from the past. We should learn from our history, not necessarily repeat the past, or repeat the history.

On Nov. 8, democracy is on the ballot. On Nov. 8, environmental justice is on the ballot. On Nov. 8, climate justice is on the ballot. On Nov. 8, racial justice is on the ballot. On Nov. 8, the future of North Carolina is on the ballot. And then some of these other primary states are seen as low voter participation. And when you say, "Well, what does voter participation have to do with climate or have to do with environmental justice?" It has a lot to do with it, because some of the biggest deniers of climate justice, the deniers of environmental justice, are over there in the state legislature. We need to vote them out of office, and we need to vote new people in office. I'm going to say that again: We need to vote them out of office, and we need to vote new people into office. That's our charge. [Applause.]

And there are a lot of qualified people. But sometimes I think of another thing I learned out of the civil rights movement: Sometimes, my cousin Otis noticed, we wait for other people to do for us what God wants us to do for ourselves. We all have a calling. And that's why I believe that we have to strengthen our faith, strengthen our resolve, find ways to build not only the coalitions but find ways to work together.

The strongest movement for change is a movement that is diverse, that is inclusive, but is also respectful of our diversity. If you look at the audience here in this chapel tonight, we come from many different places, from around the world, and that's a good thing. The people who are watching by live stream, there's a lot of pain out there in our communities, there's a lot of suffering. But I've come tonight to say that that pain and that suffering is not a permanent circumstance. We can make a difference. Because of the sacrifice that those brothers and sisters made in Warren County 40 years ago, we now have a vibrant movement all over the world. And people see the connection between health and environment, the connection between health, environment, and public policy, and that's a good thing. So I'm optimistic.

I'm looking at my watch — I know I'm right on time. I'm going to end on this. If the Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof, which I believe it is, then that means we have to have a movement that's full of vitality, that's full of courageous brothers and sisters. That's full. And when I say that, I'm not asking anybody to go to jail like we went to jail. But sometimes you have to be willing to go to jail for the right cause.

My point is simply this: The future is what we shape the future to be. Future does not come by osmosis; it's how it's shaped. And there are some people probably not in this congregation who are shaping a future where they put profits over people. They're shaping a future that divides people, that engenders racial hatred. Jan. 6 at the Capitol — that's the tip of a very bad iceberg. That's a warning that there are tendencies out here that were allowed to take our nation backwards rather than take our nation forward.

And I believe, in closing, that there are more people of good will than people of ill will.  I want us to be in the ranks of the people of good will, who would do good work for the right cause. And for the right cause is that we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God — not just when it's popular, or not just when it's advantageous, but every day of our life.

Thank God for the environmental justice movement. Thank God for the Warren County struggle. Thank God for each one of you. We got work to do. God bless you.