Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was inspired by the teach-ins of the anti-war sentiment during the Vietnam War. Teach-ins are the mobilization of university students for a particular cause He was particularly passionate about solving environmental issues, and in 1969 he advocated for an environmental teach-in for the following spring. His organization Environmental Teach-In, Inc. helped mobilize around 20 million people to march and demonstrate in their city streets on April 22, 1970. Many of these people were young students eager to join in ushering in the “birth” of the environmental movement in the United States.
Schools and community organizations across North Carolina held their own Earth Day events thanks to Nelson’s mobilization of university students. This article published by The Charlotte News showcases North Carolina student efforts as early successes in the new movement. “It was a day when students fought filth hand to hand” – when students from Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte planted flowers around the administration building. In Hickory, Lenoir Rhyne University students collectively prayed for a better fate for their planet. In Montreat, college students cleaned up nearby trash and distributed 250,000 flower seeds.
Perhaps one of the most radical efforts involved Charlotte teens from various schools who dumped city trash in front of city hall to demonstrate how much trash littered the streets of the city. These teenagers brought a variety of litter, such as cans, wrappers, cigarettes, and plastics, demonstrating that city trash was disrupting our physical environment. They proceeded to clean up the garbage after laying it in front of the building, yet assured by-standers that this trash was just “a drop in the bucket.”
As a large public university, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte certainly played a role in Earth Day 1970. An article written by a student in the Carolina Journal outlined the events that UNCC would host for Earth Day and environmental awareness. This movement, which was “concerned with life” and meant to “educate the public as to the nature of the problems we face and why we are confronted with them” generated a high level of discomfort across the nation.
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Students were encouraged to attend UNCC Earth Day events such as cleanup efforts, speeches on environmentalism by visiting environmental experts, and workshop sessions that taught students how human activity was harming the earth. Indeed, students became well aware that the problem was humanity, yet it was up to them to stop it.
If the problem is us, then how can we collectively advocate for environmental justice?
We need to find a sense of unity and equality to address such a complex issue. When Earth Day was born, many other social movements were gaining ground. Civil rights, peace efforts, and social liberation encompassed the 1960s and 70s, so Earth Day was another movement that challenged common sentiments and practices. One question people began to consider was if specific communities endure more environmental problems, such as pollution, low water quality, or a lack of a healthy, safe environment. This question, and many more, point us in the direction of fighting for racial justice because we cannot achieve environmental justice without acknowledging and fighting for human rights.
How did environmentalism become intricately connected with racial justice?
One answer lies right in Charlotte at UNCC, where Dr. Benjamin Chavis attended in the late 1960s, right at the peak of the civil rights movement.
A few years prior, he was a youth coordinator for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. After he graduated from UNCC, Chavis became an officer for the United Church of Christ. The church would send him to Wilmington, NC, to attempt to relieve tension between Black students boycotting high schools due to Ku Klux Klan’s presence there in 1971.
However, on February 6th, a white-owned grocery store was firebombed and the police and firefighters on the scene claimed that snipers from a nearby church’s roof shot at them. Chavis and some students were found at the church and arrested on charges of arson. Chavis told the press that white snipers had started shooting first and the Black students were only responding in defense.
Nonetheless, Chavis, eight other Black men, and one white woman were all found guilty of arson and conspiracy. Chavis received the longest sentence of the Wilmington Ten, which was 34 years, yet only served two years. Many community and political organizations, such as Amnesty International, referred to the ten prisoners as “political prisoners.” Newspapers across the world described the trial as emotional and possibly fabricated since Black people were constantly targeted by police during this time of racial tension.
In 1972, Chavis served as a panel member for the NC Criminal Justice Task Force on a report on Black discrimination in the Charlotte justice system. In this report, Chavis and the other members argued that this discrimination, including “the lack of reform, the lack of Blacks in the system, police brutality and other inequities” was part of the design of the political system of Charlotte.
Chavis believed there were two evils in the world: racism and economic exploitation. These two evils greatly affected Black communities and he was a main figure in bringing awareness to this issue of environmental racism. He is famously known for coining the phrase “environmental racism” at the 1982 PCB protests in Warren County, NC. Warren County is a predominantly black community with severe exposure to the state’s disposal of soil containing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which leaked into the water supply.
Environmental racism, defined in Chavis’s foreword to Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots (1993), is “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 policy making, enforcement, and remediation.” In 1986, Chavis and the United Church of Christ published a landmark study: Toxic Waste and Race in the United States of America. This report revealed the racial disparities in exposure to dangerous environmental contaminants.
In 1993, Chavis became the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was met with criticism from newspapers and fellow members due to his radical reputation. One example is when he traveled to Los Angeles to mediate tension among Black Americans who were protesting police brutality during the trial of Rodney King in 1991. He also hoped for the NAACP to become a global organization that would include other marginalized groups, such as Asian Americans, Latinx, and people across the world who experienced racism. Some long-standing members disapproved of Chavis’s endorsement of President Bill Clinton’s plan to lift the gay ban on the American military. Chavis’s phrase “environmental racism” bothered many members and even white sympathizers as well. A July 1993 article in Time Magazine titled “He’s No Gentle Ben” explains that Chavis’s “focus on victimization and the continual demand for preferential treatment” has led to less white support.
Indeed, Chavis’s insistence that capitalist imperialism, economic exploitation, and Black unemployment were the main issues the NAACP needed to address, made some white sympathizers uncomfortable. Many white supporters realized that perhaps they were perpetuating the discrimination Black people experienced. In 1994, he was fired from his position due to signing a court settlement with an NAACP member without board approval. The next year, he founded the National African American Leadership Summit (NAALS), which consisted of meetings with other civil rights leaders to organize a Million Man March. This march was a gathering of approximately 40,000 African American men around the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Its main purpose was to promote awareness of urban and discrimination issues that Black men faced. After his involvement in the NAALS, Chavis has continued to advocate for economic equality in the United States by interacting with various types of artists and media, including music, film, and literature.
Thomas James Reddy, a famous artist, and poet was another UNCC student who advocated for racial justice at his school, and beyond. He first gained media attention as a member of the “Charlotte Three,” a group of three Black men, all civil rights activists, who were accused of burning down a Charlotte horse stable in 1968. They were accused of arson because they, along with other Black students, had visited the stables a year prior but were turned away due to racism. The 1972 trial labeled the men as “political terrorists,” which caused Reddy to receive a 20-year prison sentence. This trial gained national attention with one New York Times article calling it “one more of those vengeful miscarriages of justice by which comfortable society attempted to label urban unrest, racial disorders … and anti-war activity as the work of agitators and terrorists.” Indeed, the Charlotte Three’s conviction was an act of racial discrimination.
The North Carolina Political Prisoners Committee issued a news release describing the Charlotte Three trial’s conditions, including an almost all-white jury and two white witnesses who had previously testified against politically active Black people. The news report recognized the “political and racial threat tactics of the State” as the main strategy of the unfair trial. In 1979, Governor James Hunt commuted Reddy’s sentence along with the two other men unfairly convicted. Reddy’s experience as a member of the Charlotte Three and his time in prison would enable him to fight harder for racial justice and labor rights, including being a founder of the Black Student Union and the Black (now Africana) Studies department at UNCC. Additionally, during the 1970s while imprisoned, Reddy focused much of his time on his poetry and published a book of poems in 1980 titled Poems in One-Part Harmony. These poems centered around racial injustice, which caught the eye of Chavis, who celebrated Reddy’s work by saying: “The poetic sensitivity of TJ Reddy existentially tears down the historic myths of American society while simultaneously this book inspires Afro-Americans to continue to struggle for freedom.”
UNCC’s Projective Eye Gallery held an exhibition of Reddy’s work in the summer of 2017. His paintings on display all-encompassing themes of nature, education, and human ecology, which he began incorporating into his art in the 1960s. During an interview at the gallery, Reddy explained that he painted in prison using cigarette ashes and pigments from flowers around the prison yard. Human nature was a core element of his art inspiration since he found beauty in humanity and simplistic ideas. Many of his paintings are colorful with natural aspects, invoking themes of environmentalism mixed with racial justice.
In speaking about his time of incarceration, he said,
“Just because you’re incarcerated or in a place where you have walls and bars and guards, how is that any different from being outside of prison walls? We’re prisoners, we’re slaves, we’re detained, we’re incarcerated. If we stop to really, really think about it, what’s the difference between being inside or out? … Just because you put handcuffs on me you think my mind is bound or binded by an inability to think?”
Perhaps Reddy’s point can be taken from an environmental perspective as well. No matter how many limitations or obstacles are put in your way, there will always be a fight for environmental and racial justice. Looking at these student activists helps inspire today’s generation of students to continue the fight.
When we look at Earth Day events now, many are not nearly as radical and innovative as the original 1970 events were. Environmentalism certainly encompasses celebrating and protecting nature, but it also means taking care of the people on this earth.
How, then, can we make Earth Day more about racial justice like it once was?
Let’s look at a Charlotte Post article written by Chavis in 2011, in which he encourages us to remember Earth Day as “a day of celebration and rededication to the struggle to free our communities from the devastating toxicity of environmental injustice.” He calls for a Black American Earth Day, which would bring awareness to state and national practices of exposing marginalized communities to dangerous environmental factors, such as threatening pollution, lead poisoning, poor water quality, and overall unsafe living conditions. This day would celebrate grassroots efforts and black organizations’ participation in raising awareness of environmental racism.
Warren County honors Chavis’s contribution to the environmental movement with a historical marker placed at the protest site.
TJ Reddy’s mural “Remembrances of Charlotte’s Second Ward” is housed at the city’s convention center. It serves as another form of inspiration for connecting racial justice to the environmental movement. In this art piece, Reddy incorporates themes of nature to depict a harmonious Black community that once lived in Charlotte’s Second Ward. Reddy’s work reveals how economic displacement can ruin a community, but perhaps through environmental and racial justice work, we can bring back these cultural values that once tied us together.