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Burnette, Tony

By Steven A. Hill. Copyright 2019. Published with permission. For personal educational use and not for further distribution.

29 Dec. 1964-

Tony Anthony Burnette, President of the Northampton branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and director of its Eleventh District, was born in Enfield, North Carolina, on December 29, 1964, to parents Alberta Burnette and Dewitt Taylor. Burnette’s life has been characterized by public service: as a sailor in the United States Navy, a police officer in Northampton County, and a leader in North Carolina’s NAACP.

Photograph of Tony Burnette, used with permission of Tony Burnette.Burnette is a 1983 alumnus of Southeast Halifax High School.  From 1987-1994, he served in the United States Navy as an Aviation Ordinanceman onboard two aircraft carriers, the USS Dwight David Eisenhower and the USS Enterprise, and he is a Gulf War veteran. Burnette believes that his time in the US Navy brought exposure to different races and cultures that has helped shape his inclusionary outlook on leadership.

Following service in the Navy, Burnette graduated Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) from Halifax Community College. He then served as a law enforcement officer for 25 years, in full-time and part-time capacities in Virginia and in Northampton County, North Carolina. While rising to the rank of Chief of Police in Seaboard and Rich Square, he was also commander of Northampton County Sheriff’s anti-drug task force. He was noted for his “loyalty and dedicated service” and willingness to “put his life on the line to protect and serve” the citizens of Northampton County. Other agencies where Burnette worked in law enforcement include the towns of Jackson, Gaston, Garysburg, and the Enfield.

In 2002, Sgt. Tony Burnette resigned as head of the sheriff’s office's narcotics task force and ran for Northampton County sheriff, although he was not elected. From 2003 to 2011, while in the police reserve force, Burnette also worked as a manager for Lowe’s distribution center and owned “Burnette’s Restaurant” from 2008-2011. At age 46 in 2011, a near death heart attack resulted in triple bypass surgery that saved Burnette’s life. The experience compelled Burnette to refocus and recommit his life’s work to public service. In 2015, he was elected president of Northampton County’s branch of the NAACP with a mission to help improve the lives of citizens in Northampton County, which has been classified as an economically challenged Tier 1 county. (Tier 1 counties are based on a ranking by the N.C. Department of Commerce and are the most highly economically distressed counties in the state.)

Burnette demonstrates a brand of leadership that displays change and continuity from the era of segregation. Today he welcomes everyone to the NAACP, regardless of race, color, creed, or political affiliation. His leadership continues the longstanding tradition of working to improve the health and well-being of the people of Northampton County. Burnette has shown leadership in many areas of community development, including: working to pave dirt roads throughout the county; creating a scholarship fund for collegebound students; through Operation Restore Hope, helping individuals with a criminal past reintegrate into society and find gainful employment; organizing and leading citizens to vote through “March to the Polls” events; and in raising awareness about murdered and missing citizens to help find new leads and promote law enforcement action and assist affected families.

One of Burnette’s most significant leadership efforts as the local NAACP president has been in the environmental justice movement. In 2017-2018, he led a grass-roots efIn the red hat is Debbie Davis, the Northampton Citizens Against Coal Ash leader. Center: Tony Burnette. Holding the microphone is retired judge, Alfred Kwasikpui. Photograph taken on September 18, 2018 by Steven A. Hill.fort to protect residents from the environmental dangers of coal ash and natural gas pipelines in North Carolina’s northeastern counties. When VistaGreen, LLC applied to the Northampton County to rezone 852 acres of land to construct a coal ash containment facility, the NAACP jointed with Northampton County Citizens Against Coal Ash to try to stop it. Burnette called on residents to stand up to VistaGreen and fight the creation of the facility.

Burnette’s philosophy of protest embraces direct action and a vision for rallying citizens to be mobilized to greater participation in government. During the November 2018 election cycle, the Poor Peoples’ Campaign (PPC), a national movement, provided a financial grant to the Northampton NAACP to address the persistent problem of low-voter-turnout. Through partnering with the Reverend William Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign, transportation and drivers were provided to carry voters to the polls who otherwise may not have done so because of disability, illness, or inability to drive to the voting sites. The result was dramatic: early voting in the county rose from 10% to 50%. 

Another example of Burnette’s “direct action” approach happened on September 18, 2018, when he inspired a massive turnout of citizens to stop what he called the “scourge” of coal ash. While the fight against coal ash had been ongoing in the county for nearly two years, the September 18, 2018 Board of Commissioners meeting marked a climactic victory for the NAACP and Burnette. More than 200 of his supporters attended the meeting, wearing white “T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘No Coal Ash in Northampton County’ and holding signs that proclaimed: NO COAL ASH. The show of protest at the Board of Commissioners meeting influenced them to vote against VistaGreen's application to expand coal ash storage facilities in the county.

Burnette continues to focus on building relationships through slow and methodical strategies. He regards Dr. Rev. William J. Barber II as a mentor because of his success in bringing together people from all walks of life for a common cause.

Tony Burnette and his wife Brenda Burnette, also a decorated law enforcement officer with over three decades of service, have four children. The Burnettes are members of the Allen Chapel AME Church in Jackson, North Carolina.


Burnette, Tony. Conversation with the author. September 18, 2018; Harmon, Carolyn. “Commissioners say 'no' to Vista Green”.  Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), September 20, 2018.

Burnette, Tony. Conversation with author. September 26, 2018.

Campbell, Terrie. Undated newspaper clipping, from Tony Burnette’s personal collection.

Carson, Erin. “Justice for Damon”. Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), August 16,  2015.

Dixon, John. “Helping out to get second chances”. Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), June 30, 2017.

Dixon, John. “Northampton County leaders react to coal ash plan”. Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), February 8, 2017.

Dixon, John. “Two days, two sides”. Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), June 6, 2017.

Farrell, Gareth. “Northampton NAACP awards essay scholarships”.  Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), July 2, 2017.

Hoang, Khai. “Additional FBI support gained for missing”. Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), June 29, 2016.

Hoang, Khai. “NAACP set for ‘March to the Polls’”. Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), November 1, 2016.

Lindber, Matt. “Ali revered by Valley leaders after passing” Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), June 4, 2016.

Martin, Lance. “Burnette chosen Rich Square police chief”.  Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), October 18, 2000.

Martin, Lance. “One more hat on the rack: 7-year dream becomes”. Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), January 16, 2009.

Martin, Lance. “Sheriff's office adds computer to fight crime”. Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), February 11, 2002.

Martin, Lance, “Vincent gets 54 percent of votes in sheriff's race”. Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), September 11, 2002.

McKnight, Michael. “Rich Square Police Chief resigns, officer leaves”. Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), June 5, 2001.

“Mentors needed in Northampton County”.  Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina), July 3, 2001

Image Credits:

"Tony Burnette."  Photograph. From the collection of Tony Burnette. Used with permission.

Hill, Steven A. [Debbie Davis, Tony Burnette, Alfred Kwasikpui.] Photograph. September 18, 2018. Used with permission of Steven A. Hill


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