Environmental Justice: A Movement Led and Progressed by Black Trailblazers – Part 1

Feb 14, 2022

As an organization that builds political power for people and the planet, the work we do here at LCV is both deeply indebted to and entwined with the environmental justice movement. Environmental justice is an ideology and intersectional movement that promotes fair and equitable environmental conditions for marginalized communities, primarily those with large populations of people of color and low-income individuals.

This Black History Month, we are reflecting on how the environmental justice movement came to life, and recognizing some of the Black Americans who birthed this powerful movement and continue to lead its work today.

The 1960s and ’70s

Catastrophic incidents caused by pollution and environmental degradation have occurred sporadically throughout history. However, 1969 marks the first occurrence that caught national attention, the Cuyahoga River fire in Ohio. An oil slick caught fire on the river, and witnesses report that the blaze reached as high as five stories. This unfortunate event gained national attention and opened the eyes of the public to the danger of river pollution and its impacts.

The 1970s ushered in a new wave of environmental protection at the federal level with the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the passage of the Clean Air and Water Acts, and the first Earth Day.

While landmark laws were a huge bipartisan step forward, their universalist approach failed to take into account that low-wealth communities and communities of color experience and are unprotected from significantly higher pollution rates than white communities and suffer a disproportionate amount of health problems as a result.

Trailblazers of the Time

The Memphis Sanitation Strike in 1968 commenced when 1,300 Black sanitation workers stood against polluted and environmentally hazardous workplace conditions. This was the first time Black individuals across the nation mobilized in opposition to environmental injustice. The successful strike was led by Thomas Oliver (T.O.) Jones, who facilitated the meeting where the union decided to strike and gathered its demands for consideration by the city. Jones paved the way for national labor and civil rights leaders who took on leadership roles throughout the later months of the strike.

The 1980s

Events taking place in September 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina, are widely considered as the start of the environmental justice movement.

In an attempt to avoid a regulation set by the EPA a few years before, the Ward Transformer Company looked for ways to covertly discard transformer oil, filled with harmful chemicals–notably cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Eventually, the company was exposed, and those responsible were arrested in breach of the Toxic Substance Control Act. In the midst of this discovery, the state of North Carolina had to determine what to do with the contaminated soil. Officials decided to plague Warren County – which was home to a 65% Black population – by planning to dispose of the waste there.

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

Trailblazers of the Time

Dr. Benjamin Chavis was one of the leaders of the revolutionary events taking place in Warren County. Chavis is also credited for coining the term “environmental racism”, which he used to describe the aggressions taking place during the PCB landfill protests. Many years later, we have Chavis to thank for providing language that activists, scholars, and environmentalists use to describe neglectful or intentional actions that worsen environmental conditions in marginalized communities of color.

Vernice Miller-Travis, Peggy Shepard, and Chuck Sutton founded WE ACT – New York City’s first environmental justice organization – in 1988 after watching environmental racism run rampant in their Harlem neighborhood. WE ACT continues to be a driving force for change that’s helped pass numerous pieces of legislation to advocate for the safety of our communities and environment.

Stay tuned for next week’s post as we look at how the environmental justice movement transformed throughout the 1990s and into a new century.

Image Citations:

Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Photo by CPX Interactive, Cropped and edited to fit layout, Licensed under CC by 2.0

Peggy Shepard, Photo by Kevin Merrill, University of Michigan, Cropped and edited to fit layout, Licensed under CC by 2.0

Protestors at the National Capital Region Earth Day flag ceremony in Washington DC in 1970, Photo by Cecil W. Stoughton, U.S. National Park Service, Public Domain