Like a flashback to the 1960s, the marches have started again in this poor, mostly black community.
Once again, people are demonstrating by the hundreds and being arrested by the dozens. Famous civil rights leaders are flying in from New York, Washington and Atlanta, facing lines of helmeted state troopers, piling into paddy wagons and being carted off to jail with the local people.
But this time the black ministers are not the only ones preaching protests. Now even elderly white women are talking it up in the grocery stores, going to jail with men, women and children of both races, clasping hands at nightly rallies and singing "We Shall Overcome."
The issue in Afton has become bigger than race. This township has become the site of North Carolina's first toxic waste dump and suddenly everyone, black and white, feels equally threatened.
State and federal officials have produced volumes of reports, all pointing to Afton as the safest and most economical spot in North Carolina for such a dump.
But almost nobody here believes the studies.
"We know why they picked us," said the Rev. Luther G. Brown, pastor of Coley Springs Baptist Church, the area's largest black congregation. "It's because it's a poor county -- poor politically, poor in health, poor in education and because it's mostly black. Nobody thought people like us would make a fuss."
But the people of Warren County have made quite a noisy fuss. They have marched daily to the dump in double-file, lying in front of yellow state trucks hauling dirt laced with the toxic chemical PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl), locking arms and refusing to move until state troopers lug them out of the way. By last Friday, 485 arrests had been made, according to the Warren County sheriff's office.
The protest has not stopped the trucks, but even federal and state officials concede that the people of this small town have drawn attention to some big questions.
For example, if government authorities are so sure that toxic landfills are safe, why put them in sparsely populated communities? And, more troubling to people here, why are society's poisonous materials so often buried near homes of the poor and politically weak?
The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates toxic waste, does not require that it be buried in rural areas, but it generally turns out that way, said Tom Devine, the EPA official in Atlanta who approved the choice of the Afton site. In the deep South, that often means they are buried near black communities.
The federal government has approved two other toxic chemical landfills in rural communities of the Southeast -- one in a pasture three miles from Livingston, Ala., in a county whose population is 80 percent black; the other in the rural community of Pinewood, S.C., 15 miles from Sumter.
"It's obviously a desirable characteristic to have it in a rural area," Devine said. "All the dust that escapes when you move that material, it would be pretty impractical to haul it through a city where there are people everywhere."
North Carolina officials picked the Afton site partly for the same reason when they were faced four years ago with cleaning up one of the most sensational toxic chemical spills in recent history -- the deliberate dumping of several thousand gallons of PCB-laced oil along 240 miles of state roads in the rolling Piedmont country.
A truck driver later admitted that he had dribbled the chemical out of his tractor-trailer under cover of night, hoping to save the cost of transporting it out of state.
Few people in the rural region had even heard of PCB at the time, but soon their television screens and newspapers were filled with reports about its dangers, complete with warnings from Gov. James B. Hunt to stop grazing cows and to destroy crops along contaminated roadsides.
They learned that PCB was a highly toxic substance used for decades as an insulator in electric transformers, that it had been linked to cancer in laboratory animals and to liver damage in humans and that the federal government had banned its manufacture in 1977. They learned that scientists were at odds about its long-term effects. The more they heard, the more they panicked, and the louder they clamored for removal of the dirt.
Hunt enlisted several state agencies in a crash search for a dump site in the 14-county region of the spill. EPA rules required that the estimated 40,000 cubic feet of contaminated dirt either be burned or buried in a federally approved landfill. A public plea brought offers of 100 sites from local governments and private property owners.
O.W. Strickland, the state's chief of solid and hazardous waste management, said he and aides inspected each site seeking the one that would most isolate the PCBs from water supplies or the food chain.
The search team performed soil tests at 11 sites, then selected six for further soil and hydrological studies. The Warren County site, then a wheat field, topped the list, Strickland said. EPA approved the selection in June, 1979.
But Warren County officials were uneasy about the selection process. In its haste, the state had produced no environmental impact statement until months after picking the Afton site. And although Afton was called the safest site, officials still had to obtain waivers from EPA because the soil was not as compacted or the water table as low as federal rules required. EPA granted the waivers, saying the state could design the landfill to compensate for the problems.
The county commission filed suit, alleging that the Afton site was environmentally unsound. But late last year, a federal judge ruled in the state's favor, saying North Carolina officials had met all of the requirements for landfill siting.
Last May, EPA approved a $2.5 million grant to North Carolina from the Superfund program for toxic waste cleanup, and construction crews arrived in Afton to begin digging the landfill.
Through it all, a small group of Warren County residents calling themselves Concerned Citizens About PCBs was meeting, writing letters to the local newspaper, to Hunt and to President Reagan, insisting that the citizens were being treated unfairly.
Hunt targeted Sept. 15 as the day state trucks would start scooping up the tainted soil and hauling it to Afton. As the date approached, Concerned Citizens intensified its protests, calling mass meetings at Brown's church. Large biracial audiences attended.
"If anybody had ever told me whites and blacks would get together in this county like this for anything, I wouldn't have believed it," said Jim Ward, a white hog farmer.
At last, the group decided to take to the streets. "We decided we had to march, but most of us in the group were white and we didn't have any experience marching," Ward said. "We had to call in somebody who did."
Brown called in the Rev. Leon White, head of the United Church of Christ Commission on Racial Justice in Raleigh and a leader of hundreds of civil rights marches over the last two decades. Within days, Afton became a gathering point for veterans of the civil rights movement.
White called Ben Chavis, famed as a member of the "Wilmington 10," now living in New York. He also called the Rev. Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization founded by Martin Luther King Jr. Lowery sent in a regional organizer named Golden Frinks to preach at the mass meetings and organize the marchers, and he also called in Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.).
All of them converged here in the first weeks of the protest. White and Frinks held training sessions for the protesters on how to march, how to go limp when police moved in for an arrest. They and the other leaders sat down in front of the state dump trucks with the locals and went off to jail under the glare of television cameras.
The protests have continued for almost a month now, with only minor delays in the dumping as state patrolmen haul protesters aside.
Almost every day, state officials go on television to denounce as "ludicrous" and "totally unfounded" the charge that they discriminated against Warren County in picking the Afton site.
They say the landfill, unlike older ones that have failed around the country, is sure not to leak because of special seals and intricate monitoring systems. They stress that the concentration of PCB in the soil being buried here is below the level considered hazardous by EPA. Last Friday, Hunt proposed using state funds to monitor wells in the area and to provide health screenings for county residents.
But many of the residents say their fears will not go away when the landfill is full and sealed sometime next month.
"They say we are sparsely populated, and that may be true," Brown said. "But there is an elementary school just two miles down the road from that dump. This church is only two miles away, and it has 600 families in it. What about us?"