Virginia is again at the center of a major civil rights battle: Once again, it’s on the wrong side

October 25, 2019 12:01 am

Richard Walker and other opponents of a proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Buckingham County protested at a State Air Pollution Control Board meeting in December, 2018, by standing and turning their backs during a Department of Environmental Quality presentation. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Dec. 19, 2018)

By Jonathan Sokolow

The year 1963 was transformative in the Civil Rights Movement and in our country.

In January, George Wallace was inaugurated as governor of Alabama, pledging “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”

In April, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested while leading a campaign in Birmingham that is most remembered for his historic “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and for the fire hoses and police dogs that were used by police under the command of Birmingham’s infamous Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Conner.

In Virginia, the Danville Movement was met with brutal police repression, resulting in more than 600 arrests on June 10, when Danville police attacked civil rights activists with nightsticks and fire hoses, sending 47 people to the hospital. 

On June 11, Gov. Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama, defiantly disobeying a federal court order to admit three African American students. That evening, President John F. Kennedy went on television to call on Congress to enact civil rights legislation. Hours later, Medgar Evers, leader of Mississippi’s NAACP, was gunned down in his driveway.  

Things would get worse in 1963 before they got better.  But the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed. 

Watching these events unfold, the wife of a prominent Philadelphia corporate lawyer named Bernard Segal, asked her husband “where are the lawyers.”  Her comment prompted Segal to pull together 53 lawyers to sign a statement, published in the Birmingham papers, calling on Alabama officials to respect the rule of law. That got the attention of the office of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.  

Within days, President John F. Kennedy sent a telegram to 250 lawyers inviting them to a meeting at the White House.  Those invited were not civil rights activists, but members of the “downtown law firms” — what we would now call “establishment” lawyers.   

On June 21, 244 of these lawyers met with President Kennedy in the East Room of the White House.  That meeting led to the founding of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, known in the civil rights community as the “Lawyers Committee.”  

In June 1964, the Lawyers Committee opened an office in Jackson, Mississippi, staffed by volunteer lawyers — including my father — from big law firms in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.  As the lawyers arrived in Mississippi, three young civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — disappeared after being released from jail into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.  Their bodies were discovered two months later.

Since 1963, the Lawyers Committee has been a leading force in the civil rights community and it has built an impressive record.  It includes lawyers across the United States, including in Virginia. And while times have changed in many ways, the past is never far away.  

As William Faulkner noted, “The past is never dead.  It is not even past.”

Virginia learned that lesson in February, when Gov. Ralph Northam admitted – then denied a day later – that he appeared in a racist yearbook photo depicting two people in blackface and Ku Klux Klan robes.  That same week, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he had put on blackface when he was younger.  

The media focused on the blackface scandal.  But the real challenge we face is uprooting systemic racism, inequities that exist in our economic, social, legal and environmental structures.  

Which brings us to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

In June of this year, the Lawyers Committee filed a powerful brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in a case that seeks to preserve a small historic African-American community in Buckingham County, Virginia known as Union Hill. 

Union Hill was founded by freed slaves after the Civil War on a tobacco plantation on which they had toiled. The community is over 80% African American and many residents are direct descendants of the freed slaves who founded the community.  Union Hill includes two historic Baptist churches and hundreds of gravesites, both marked and unmarked, that are a silent but powerful reminder of the community’s deep ties to slavery.

Union Hill also is the place where Dominion Energy, the utility monopoly that wields outsized political power in Virginia, seeks to place a 54,000-horsepower compressor station, powered by burning fracked methane gas, to service its $7.8 billion, 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline. 

Targeting African American communities for placement of toxic facilities is all too common. As the NAACP reported in its 2017 study Fumes Across the Fence-Line, “African Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than Caucasian Americans, and they are 75 percent more likely to live in fence-line communities than the average American.”

A rendering of the compressor station proposed for rural Buckingham County as part of Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Image via Buckingham County Board of Supervisors)

The Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board, whose members are appointed by the governor, issued a permit for the facility in January.  The board had been scheduled to consider the permit at a meeting last November, but the decision was postponed after two board members expressed concerns about environmental racism.  Six days later, the governor fired those two board members. They later told the Washington Post that the board was given misleading data about Union Hill by Dominion and by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality.

The remaining board members approved the permit in January.  As retired University of Virginia professor of environmental policy Vivian E. Thompson wrote: Northam’s dismissal of the two board members who had expressed concerns about environmental racism sent “an unmistakable message: Issue the permit.” 

On Tuesday, the 4th Circuit will hold oral arguments in Richmond on the Union Hill case.  The Lawyers Committee brief is one of three friend-of-the-court briefs filed in support of Union Hill. A second brief was signed by 28 members of the Virginia General Assembly, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP and the Center for Earth Ethics.  A third brief was filed on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Kairos Center and Union Grove Baptist Church, which is one of the two historic African-American churches located in the heart of Union Hill — within a mile of the proposed compressor station.

Dominion Energy chose Union Hill over a nearby alternative location it bought that is larger, more sparsely populated and predominantly white. That fits the national pattern highlighted in Fumes Across the Fence-Line. But with Dominion, the story always runs deeper. In 2014, Dominion’s CEO, Thomas Farrell made a movie called “Field of Lost Shoes” that glorified Confederate soldiers as patriotic anti-racist fighters. Reviewers wrote that the movie “stands as a pinnacle of revisionist bullsh#t”  — whose experience at the box office should match the fate of the Confederacy.” As Michael Dukakis famously said, a fish rots from the head down.

But Tom Farrell’s Dominion has powerful allies. They include Gov. Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, whose office is defending the air board permit. Both Northam and Herring have accepted campaign contributions from Dominion. Northam owns stock in the company and recently appointed Dominion’s director of strategic communications, Grant Neely, as his own spokesperson. Dominion, together with its partner, Duke Energy, have spent $109 million lobbying politicians on this project.

Dominion bet that Union Hill would go silently into the night.

Dominion bet wrong.  

Instead, a nationwide movement has developed under the banner #WeAreAllUnionHill.  In February, more than 1,100 people rallied in Buckingham County with Rev. William Barber II and former Vice President Al Gore.  Rev. Barber called Dominion’s actions “sinful, systemic and scandalous” and Vice President Gore labeled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline a “reckless, racist ripoff.”  In June, a march was held in Richmond headlined by Rev. Barber’s son, William Barber III, Karenna Gore and members of the Virginia faith community.

The Lawyers Committee, as its brief notes, “has participated in hundreds of impact lawsuits challenging race discrimination” and “has promoted the intersection of racial justice and environmental justice since 1991,”  when it “played a critical role in the advocacy that led to President William J. Clinton’s Executive Order 12898, ‘Order on Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.’”

The Lewis F. Powell Jr. federal courthouse in Richmond is home to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which has been a key battleground over the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The Lawyers Committee says it “has a vested interest in ensuring that racial and ethnic minorities in environmental justice communities are protected from industrial pollutants that are harmful to the health of community residents,” and in “ensuring that … Virginia … properly consider environmental justice concerns in its permitting process.”

The Lawyers Committee writes that “freedmen and freedwomen founded this community 150 years ago as one of at least 200 black communities across the country established in the aftermath of the Civil War.” and adds:

“The community has thrived for multiple generations, largely because of self-reliance. The community built schools, operated farms and raised livestock, and families have owned property over the course of multiple generations. And to this day, the community’s residents attend two churches, Union Hill Baptist Church and Union Grove Missionary Baptist Church, which began as brush arbors for slaves before Emancipation. The residents of Union Hill, who are predominantly African-American and direct descendants of the community’s founders, have managed to preserve their rich culture and history.”

That rich history is now at risk because, as the Lawyers Committee brief notes, the proposed compressor station “would cause severe environmental harms to Union Hill and destroy the community” and “would increase toxic emissions in the Union Hill area from less than 80 pounds per year to more than one hundred tons annually.”

At the February rally for Union Hill, Rev. Barber called for the preservation of Union Hill noting “this is holy ground, this is where the slaves were buried who believed in freedom and the ancestors are calling us.” 

Now the community is ground zero in the fight for environmental justice in Virginia.  It is a fight in which everyone in the commonwealth has a stake.

In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This is why defenders of Union Hill say this: We all breathe air. We all drink water.  We are all Union Hill.

Now it is up to the federal courts. And history is watching.

Jonathan Sokolow is an attorney, writer and lifetime member of the NAACP.  He lives in Fairfax County, Virginia. His father, Asa D. Sokolow, was a volunteer attorney in Jackson, Mississippi in the summer of 1964 for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and served for many years on the national board of that organization.

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