Forty years ago, United Church of Christ members led a historic protest against toxic racism in North Carolina. They fought the dumping of cancer-causing chemicals in a Black community. Some demonstrators put their bodies in front of trucks carrying the toxic waste.
This month, those leaders will help to mark the anniversary of the protests and the environmental justice movement they started.
UCC members Dollie Burwell and the Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr. will appear in person and online in several September events with the theme, “We Birthed the Movement: 40 Years of Environmental Justice.” An event schedule with registration links appears below.
Mother of the movement
Burwell and other Warren County residents rose up when the state chose a local landfill as the place to dump soil contaminated with polycholorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Their six-week protest — resulting in more than 500 arrests — made global news. Major U.S. television networks were among the outlets that covered it.
“My strongest memory from 1982 was the day my own daughter Kimberly, 10 years old, was arrested,” Burwell said. “I had prepared her for school when she informed me that she was going with me to protest the injustice. Dan Rather with CBS News observed that she was crying and assumed that she was afraid. She immediately told him that she was not afraid of being arrested but she was afraid of what the PCBs were going to do to her family and friends.”
Burwell’s leadership has earned her the title “Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement” in publicity materials for this month’s events. UCC Environmental Justice Minister Brooks Berndt made the case for that title in a 2017 commentary. He told of Burwell’s organizing role as far back as 1978. Already by then, she and her Warren County neighbors suspected their community might be targeted for dumping. He also noted that young Kimberly was among 94 juveniles arrested in the protests.
“As the history of the movement continues to be written, a strong argument can be made for the central significance of these children and Burwell herself in the launching of a movement whose impact continues to reverberate today,” Berndt wrote.
Faith and courage
“My faith played a great role in my decision to organize my community, protest, and engage in civil disobedience,” Burwell said. “Growing up, my parents often recited Micah 6:8.” In that biblical passage, the prophet says God wants people to “do justice,” “love kindness” and “walk humbly.”
“I believe that God had given me the tools I needed to organize my community,” she said. Part of that work was serving on the board of the Southern Leadership Conference and as a commissioner of the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice, a predecessor of today’s Justice and Local Church Ministries.
As a member of Oak Level UCC, she said, “I learned to speak and organize, as well as developed leadership skills. Prayer sustained me not only through the six weeks of protest but also to lead the Working Group through the detoxification of the landfill.”
‘Last thing I wanted’
Burwell and Oak Level’s pastor, the Rev. Leon White, a CRJ field director, were arrested at the very start of the protests. Soon the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, recently freed from years of unjust imprisonment as a member of the Wilmington 10, joined the actions.
He recalled those days in a sermon that opened the 2021 General Synod. “After spending all that time in prison in the 1970s, the last thing I wanted to happen was to go back and get arrested again in my home state of North Carolina,” he said.
Yet that’s what he did, along with hundreds of others. “But now look how God is good all of the time,” he said. “Out of that local protest, led by the United Church of Christ in Warren County, the environmental justice movement was born.”
Chavis played a lead role not only in those protests but in the broader movement that followed. He was executive director of CRJ when it released the landmark 1987 study “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” and convened the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991.
He said those early years of effort endure today as “an effective national and global movement for justice, for environmental justice. You see, the UCC’s demands for justice mattered.”
Chavis recalls the 1982 protests in this sermon excerpt from the UCC’s 2021 General Synod.
September events featuring Burwell and Chavis will include these (all times are EDT):
The observances will also include these events:
‘Reason to keep the faith’
Burwell named hope itself when she was asked what she hoped people will take away from this month’s events.
“The struggle continues,” she said. “But if poor Black people in Warren County could build a coalition with whites and Native Americans — as well as justice-loving people from across the nation — to birth an environmental justice movement that has expanded globally, then there is definitely a reason to keep the faith and keep hope alive that one day there will be true environmental justice.”
Originally posted on ucc.org