Ben Chavis was driving on a lonely road through rolling tobacco fields when he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the state trooper.

Chavis knew he was a marked man. Protests had erupted over North Carolina’s decision to dump 40,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals in a poor Black farming community in Warren County, and Chavis was a leader of the revolt. The trooper pulled him over.

“What did I do, officer?” Chavis asked that day in 1982. The answer shocked him.

“He told me that I was driving too slow.”

Chavis was arrested and thrown in jail. When the cell door slammed shut, he gripped the metal bars and declared: “This is racism. This is environmental racism.”

The term stuck, and now — nearly 40 years after Chavis spoke the words that have come to define decisions by governments and corporations to place toxic pollution in communities of color — the issue has risen from the fringes of the American conservation movement to the heart of President Biden’s environmental agenda.

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Photo Credit: Ricky Stilley