Environmental Justice Is Black History

Happy Black History Month! This first week of Black History Month, we share the story of one who has worked toward justice for black communities and the environment for forty years. 

Dollie Burwell is known as the “Mother of Environmental Justice” In 1982, Burwell and hundreds of others, primarily women from her Black North Carolina community, marched to block trucks from bringing in soil contaminated with PCBs, a known carcinogen, to a nearby landfill. The EPA approved the permit in 1979, and the community lost its fight despite four years of protests by activists and lawsuits. 

Burwell enlisted her congregation, the Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church, in the struggle, and they guided the work in a civil and nonviolent way. Community members obstructed trucks for six weeks by laying across their path. 

While other communities demonstrated against hazardous environmental waste, pollutants, and dangerous working conditions, the Warren County community’s four-year struggle against dumping more than 6,000 dump trucks filled with PCB-laden soil spurred the national environmental justice movement. 

Environmental justice was birthed out of a nexus of the faith of women and men who believed they had the right to safe and healthy environments to live, work and play and the centuries-old struggle of those black people for human dignity. The very same impulse undergirds the environmental justice movement today. 

While some have attempted to silence and stymie continued progress toward a just, thriving, and equitable world, we remain committed to forward progress.