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Higher Education Module

Race, Medicine, and Health in America

Class 4: 1982 Warren County, NC Protests


The Civil Rights Movement was considered the mother of social movements; the strategies, tactics, and ideas of the Movement would be employed by the anti-war movement, Second-wave feminism, and the environmental movement. In particular, the strategy of marching and sitting-in was pressed into action by environmental activists in 1982 when the Governor of North Carolina authorized the dumping of 60,000 tons of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Warren County with a population that was poor and roughly sixty-four percent African American. During the ensuing weeks, residents and allies marched and peacefully lay in the middle of the street to prevent dump trucks from bringing the contaminated products to the waste site. Over five-hundred protestors were arrested, representing the first mass arrests of environmental protestors in American history. Robert Bullard’s book is one of the first that deals with toxic dumping in minority and poor communities, mostly in the southern half of the United States. Books by Eileen McGurty and Eileen Spears extend this narrative of PCBs in our environment, and in the case of the latter, frames activism within an Alabama community in the midst of waging other environmental battles. The article by Markowitz and Rosner frame the politics of industry and race along what is known as “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana along the Mississippi River. Together, the pieces highlight the history of environmental racism where poor and minority communities bear the brunt of toxic environments.

Class Resources

Bullard, Robert. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. New York: Westview Press, 1990, pp. 1-50.

Markowitz, Gerald and David Rosner. “A Hazy Mixture: Science, Civil Rights, Pollution, and Politics.” In Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, pp. 263-287.

McGurty, Eileen. Transforming Environmentalism: Warren County, PCBs, and the Origins of Environmental Justice. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009, pp. 1-81; 142-163.

Spears, Eileen Griffith. Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014, pp. 1-78.

Additional online resources

National Library of Medicine. “Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBx).” ToxTown. Available on line at //

Discussion Questions:
  1. How did the modern Civil Rights Movement provide a foundation for the environmental injustice movement?
  2. What are your environmental rights? What resources do you have at your disposal to help ensure your environmental rights are not violated? Do other groups of people have similar or less resources at their disposal than you? Why or why not?
  3. What does the Warren County protests tell us about “Not in my backyard politics” and the history of waste dumping in certain spaces? Why are poor and minority neighborhoods often the dumping grounds for unwanted waste products?
  4. Are you witness to environmental injustices today? If so, what are they and how might we go about changing policy?
  5. Drawing on the online ToxTown information on PCBs, what are some of the ways you might be exposed to PCBs in your environment?