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Decades after environmental justice was defined in Warren County, leaders revisit its birthplace

Protestors in the middle of the road back in the 1980s.
Jenny Labalme
In rural Warren County back in 1982, protestors demonstrated against the dumping of toxic waste in Black neighborhoods.

It has been 40 years since a majority Black community in North Carolina stood up against toxins being dumped in their backyards. This weekend, hundreds of people are expected to return to Warren County to commemorate the birthplace of the environmental justice movement.

The movement started out small in rural Warren County. But by September of 1982, media members, civil rights leaders, and ordinary citizens locked arms to take a stand.

Jim Hunt was the governor of North Carolina at the time. There was a large sign erected by protestors in Warren County that read, “Hunt’s Dump, an example of one man’s insensitivity to man, his God and his environment.”

The Hunt's Dump sign from 1982 reads:  An example of one man's insensitivity to man, his GOD and his environment.
Jenny Labalme
A sign outside Hunt's Dump in 1982 opposes the toxic waste landfill.

“The thought that the state would pick this county of all the 100 counties in North Carolina, as a dumping site was just unthinkable," civil rights activist Ben Chavis said in the PBS documentary “Environmental Justice: Opposing a Toxic Waste Landfill.” Chavis and several other Warren County protestors from 40 years ago gathered at Duke University this week to recall that history-making movement. He is credited with coming up with the term "environmental racism."

"I joined the 500 and some more people who got arrested," he said. "In fact, they didn’t arrest me for laying in front of the truck. They arrested me for driving too slow.”

Those taking part in the protests have said over and over, what made them so successful was the diversity of voices and people in the streets.

Wayne Moseley, a white man, was one of the first people to be arrested. He told a standing-room-only group at Duke, that it was a beautiful morning when they began their march at Coley Springs Baptist Church. And then all of a sudden there was a helicopter hovering overhead and patrolmen in riot gear.

Jenny Labalme -- crowd praying .jpg
Jenny Labalme
A group of protestors join in prayer in Warren County in 1982.

“The patrol commander read a statement ordering us to leave or that we would be arrested," he said. "Not skipping a beat, Rev. White just (motioned) to the heavens just saying we get our orders from the man above.”

When Moseley and others chose to sit in the roadway to block the trucks, 66 of them were arrested that first day. As the Warren County jail cells filled, many were taken to the exercise yard. Moseley says they were hot and hungry. Moseley says a group of women tried to bring them chicken and biscuits.

"We would then yell out – throw me a wing, drop me a thigh!" he recalled. "Over the fence, our food would go into our waiting hands.”

The events commemorating the Warren County protests have turned into a welcoming reunion for those who were there. Jenny Labalme was a 22-year-old student at Duke University with a camera. She spent weeks documenting people like Dollie Burwell, who is considered the mother of the environmental justice movement.

Since the Warren County protests of fall 1982, a lot has changed in how hazardous waste is disposed of and its proximity to Black, brown and indigenous communities. And more changes are to come. The Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to make that announcement in Warren County next week.

Jenny Labalme's photos are featured in this story.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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