Benjamin Chavis: Shaping the Environmental Justice Movement

The celebration of Black History Month calls for us to reflect on how experiences and history for Black liberation have shaped our present and future. To highlight the invaluable groundwork Black individuals have laid for the environmental and climate movement, each week this month CleanAIRE NC will be highlighting Black leaders at the intersections of environmental justice, climate change, food justice, outdoor recreation, sustainability, and more. 

Black excellence should be celebrated every day. We hope that elevating these voices and their work can guide us all as public servants in our mission to support a healthy environment for all.

Ben Chavis: Shaping the Environmental Justice Movement

by Daisha Williams

The fight for Black liberation has always gone hand in hand with environmental justice. The Environmental Justice movement that we know and fight for today would not be what it is without the Black community and the Black voices who shaped it. One of those voices belongs to Benjamin Chavis, who helped to create the foundation for Environmental Justice and protested side by side with Warren County residents at the 1982 sit-in against North Carolina’s polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill in their community, which catalyzed the movement. 

Recognizing that environmental issues are civil rights issues, Chavis (who at the time was the executive director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice) was the first to term the phrase environmental racism in 1982, as:  “Racial discrimination in the deliberated targeting of ethnic and minority communities for exposure to toxic and hazardous waste sites and facilities, coupled with the systematic exclusion of minorities in environmental policymaking, enforcement, and remediation.”

1982 sit-in in Warren County, NC

To validate this definition, Chavis was then instrumental in conducting and publishing the UCC’s landmark 1987 report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. This breakthrough report demonstrated a clear pattern: communities of color were more likely to be chosen as sites for toxic waste facilities, with a disproportionate number of uncontrolled toxic waste sites being located in urban areas near Black and Latinx neighborhoods. The report further suggests that this occurrence did not happen by accident but rather the locations of these sites were chosen because of race.

As the report caught national attention in the years to come, Benjamin Chavis and the UCC were once again instrumental in advancing environmental justice through organizing the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C, on October 24th, 1991. For the first time, communities were able to speak about and bring awareness to the environmental injustices that their communities were facing. This conference laid out the groundbreaking 17 principles of Environmental Justice, which set precedence and understanding for the intersectionality of environmental justice work and continues to guide those efforts. 

It has been thirty years since those principles were articulated, but they still remain more relevant than ever, especially as Black communities continue to suffer. Leaders like Benjamin Chavis achieved widespread support to ensure the environmental justice movement is ingrained in Black history and Black culture. So this Black History Month and beyond, let’s vow to protect environmental justice and the critical parts of Black history, past and present, which have laid the groundwork for it. And let’s work to broaden protections for Black people across the country to ensure we all can reap the benefits of a clean, healthy, and safe environment.


Editor’s note: Top photo is provided courtesy of Creative Commons.

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