Celebrating the Enduring Legacy of Black Activists Who Birthed the Environmental Justice Movement

Feb 24, 2023

This Black History Month, LCV celebrates the enduring legacy of generations of Black activists whose courageous actions gave rise to the environmental justice movement over four decades ago. Their struggle for a better future for their communities continues to inspire and shape the environmental movement today. 

We particularly honor the activists of Warren County, North Carolina, who in September 1982, organized a protest against an EPA decision establishing a landfill in their majority-Black community to hold toxic transformer oil that had been illegally produced and dumped on a roadside by the Ward Transformer Company. Notably, the oil contained cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB). The Warren County protests are widely credited as the beginning of the environmental justice movement that continues to this day. 

The citizens of Warren County, independent of race, united in the face of state power arrayed against them. On the first day that trucks arrived carrying the toxic soil, hundreds of protesters, including women and children, lay down on the highway to block their entrance. Peaceful protests lasted for weeks and led to the arrest of 500 people. While the protests did not prevent the disposal of harmful waste in Warren County, nonetheless, the movement was born.

One of the leaders of the Warren County protests, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, was the first to use the term “environmental racism” to characterize the forces that lead to unjust decisions by corporate and state power to burden predominantly Black communities with pollution and other environmental harms.  

Tragically, environmental racism continues to persist in our society, and predominantly Black communities still face disproportionate harm from toxic pollution, climate-induced disasters, and public health crises. These are the same communities that our country has systematically disenfranchised and excluded from the democratic process — which underscores the inexorable links between climate action, environmental justice, and voting rights. 

“…the people who would deny environmental justice are the same people who would deny people the right to vote…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.” – Dr. Benjamin Chavis

Today, LCV activists, volunteers, and supporters are proud to work in partnership with environmental justice groups and to advocate for justice for all communities impacted by environmental racism. We firmly believe that no matter what one’s zip code, all people have a right to clean air, safe drinking water, access to open spaces, and a healthy environment. 

Reflecting on the legacy of the Warren County protests forty years later, in 2022, Dr. Chavis said, “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.”

LCV is committed to advancing this legacy as we work to put environmental justice at the center of clean energy and climate solutions. Since 2018, we’ve worked with the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform and other partners to advance environmental justice in federal and state climate policies. We continue to advocate to ensure that the climate, jobs and justice investments in last year’s historic Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) flow to the most impacted Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities of color. We support actions by the Biden-Harris administration to realize its Justice40 commitment to deliver at least 40 percent of the benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities that disproportionately bear the burden of pollution and climate change. 

Thanks to the tireless advocacy of Black communities and environmental justice leaders, along with the support of the environmental movement, progress is being made to root out environmental racism. But we must do far more. That is why LCV will continue to advocate for environmental and climate justice so that every community across the nation has access to clean air, clean water and public spaces. 

We can’t have a healthy environment for all people without a healthy democracy.