Environmental Racism in the Alabama Blackbelt
Robert D. Bullard

Atlanta, GA, October 9, 2000 -- Environmental racism places African Americans and other people of color at special risk. In the real world, all communities are not created equal. Some are more equal than others. If a community happens to be poor, black, and powerless, it receives less protection than powerful affluent white communities. Economics, politics, and race all play an important part in sorting out residential amenities and locally unwanted land uses or LULUs.

Environmental racism refers to any environmental policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color. Environmental racism combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for whites while shifting costs to people of color. Environmental racism raises its ugly heads through unequal enforcement of environmental, civil rights, public health, and transportation laws. It allows people of color to be adversely and disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals, pesticides, and other toxins in the home, school, neighborhood, and workplace.

Government institutions reinforce and support discriminatory zoning and land-use practices, and policies that exclude blacks and other people of color from meaningful participation in decision-making.

Dumping on Alabama's Blackbelt

Sumter County is located in Alabama's blackbelt. The West Alabama county has a population of 15,998 of which over 71.8 percent is black. Over 35.9 percent of the county's population is below poverty. The county has a legacy of farming and cotton production dating back to the plantation system of slavery and the sharecropper tenant farming system that followed.

Sumter County typifies the strong correlation between the exploitation of land and exploitation of people. The rural county is home to the nation's largest hazardous waste landfill. In 1978, Chemical Waste Management, Inc. or Chemwaste opened the giant waste treatment, storage, and disposal facility. It was lured to predominately black Sumter County during a period when racial apartheid ruled the day. No blacks held public office or sat on governing bodies, including the state legislature, county commission, or industrial development board from the county.

The facility was built near Emelle, a small, rural community where blacks make up more than 90 percent of the population. The landfill was tagged the "Cadillac of Dumps." Local Emelle residents thought they were getting a brick plant when they learned of a "new factory" moving into their town. The 3,200-acre facility receives some of the most hazardous wastes collected from Superfund sites in forty-eight states and from foreign countries.

Macon County and Tuskegee University

Macon County is the home of Tuskegee University, an institution founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington. Macon County has a population of 23,314. The county is 86.4 percent black. Over 34.4 percent of the population in the county is below the poverty level. Poverty and race combine to make Macon County vulnerable to environmental racism. Over 64.3 percent of blacks and 82.4 percent of whites in the county own their home.

Milton McGregor, a white gambling magnate proposed building a 700-800 acre landfill near the predominately black town of Shorter. McGregor wanted to build the landfill off U.S. Highway 80, across a dirt road from the all-black White Church in Shorter. The landfill would have accepted up to 5,000 tons of garbage a day from around the South.

A coalition of local grassroots organizations, university officials, black elected officials, and national leaders, including the Rev. Jessie Jackson, joined forces and blocked the landfill. Local landfill opponents were even able to get the backing from Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. On August 23, McGregor withdrew the landfill permit proposal at a public meeting held on the Tuskegee University campus.

Lowndes County and the Historic Civil Rights Trail

Lowndes County lies some 60 miles west of Tuskegee and Macon County. It is also located in the Alabama blackbelt. Lowndes County has a population of 12,881 residents. The county is 75.7 percent black. Over 35 percent of the county population is below poverty. Similarly, 77.7 percent of the county's blacks and 86.3 percent of the county's whites own their homes. 

The same U.S. Highway 80 that runs through Macon County also winds through Lowndes County past Montgomery and on to Selma. The 54-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 80 was made famous in 1965 by the historic "Selma-to-Montgomery March" for the right to vote. On March 7, 1965 civil rights marchers were savagely attacked with billy clubs and tear gas by the local Selma and Alabama state lawmen. By the time the marchers reached the state capitol in Montgomery on March 25, 1965, they were more than 25,000-strong. Lives were lost and blood was shed along that highway. One life was lost one month before the historic march and one a day after the march. The civil rights marches and ensuing state-sanctioned brutality moved President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Thirty-five years later, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) approved a 200-acre, $6.8 million landfill permit on the same U.S. Highway 80 that many consider "sacred ground." The landfill is being proposed by Alabama Disposal Solutions, a company owned by Montgomery businessman Lanny Young. Although Governor Siegelman spoke out against the Macon County dump, he has remained noncommittal on the Lowndes County landfill controversy.

In 1996, the 54-mile stretch along U.S. Highway 80 was designated the "Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail." Congress under the National Trails Systems Act of 1968 created the trail. The trail is also designated an "All-American Road" under the Federal Highway Administration's National Scenic Byways Program, created under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 or ISTEA. Despite these federal government designations and strong sentiment held by black people, ADEM moved forward in approving the landfill permit.

Alabama is a major "dumping ground" for garbage. The state's 25 dumps take in over 31,500 tons of waste daily. Alabamans generate only about one-third of the landfills' capacity. The other two-thirds come from out-of-state garbage. Because Alabama uses garbage as a revenue generator, it has done a lousy job in addressing environmental justice and equity issues. The Lowndes County landfill makes real the extent to which environmental racism is allowed to operate. One of the nation's civil rights legacies is being disrespected and trashed. It is highly unlikely that a garbage dump would be proposed next to the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial. Yet, plans are underway to dump on the Selma-to-Montgomery Historic Trail. This represents a slap in the face and insult to all 35 million African Americans and others who hold the trail sacred.

If you would like to assist the residents in Lowndes County, please contact Barbara Evans, Lowndes citizens United for Action at anniemae@iwon.com or (334) 284-0555.

For more information on things you can do to fight environmental racism see R.D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality (Westview Press, 2000).

Photographs and Captions

Sumter County


Chemwaste's "Cadillac of dumps" in Emelle.

Macon County


Crossing the Macon County line.


The Tuskegee Institute National Historic site.


The famous statue of Book T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute.


The landfill was proposed to be built off U.S. Highway 80 in Shorter.


Road leading to the landfill off U.S. Highway 80.


The landfill would have been built in the wooded area
across the road from the White Church of Shorter.


A rural homestead in Shorter.


Protesters make their voices heard in downtown Tuskegee
(notice controversial Confederate soldier statue in background).


The infamous Macon County Court House was the scene
where blacks fought many battles to get the right to vote.


Rev. Jessie Jackson and Tuskegee University President Payton
review the settlement proposal to withdraw the landfill permit application.


Tuskegee University family and allies hold victory rally.

Lowdnes County


Selma to Montgomery--the longest 54 miles.


Over 600 civil rights marchers were beaten and turned away at the base of
Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma.


The bridge to freedom.


Downtown Selma just across the bridge.


The Voting Rights Museum and Institute attracts visitors from around the world.


Voters on September 12, 2000 elected James Perkins, Jr.
as Selma's first African American mayor.


U.S. Highway 80 marked the bloody path to the ballot box.


Homes on the corner of Langston Hughes Drive and Frederick Douglas Road


The campsite along the trail is "sacred ground."


Friends of the Trail said it best, "Don't Trash Our Treasure."