The South and the World Community
By Sue Thrasher
Vol. 7, No. 1, 1985, pp. 20-1, 23-24
At some moment during the 1950s and ’60s, many of us in this room made a decision about where we were going to work and what we were going to work for–a decision that made us take a stand for the future of the South and for what we believed was right. In my own coming of political age in the 1960s, that was an easy decision. The issues facing our region in those years were clear-cut.
I was in school in Nashville at the time and remember very distinctly when it all came together for me. I was driving from my hometown in western Tennessee back to Nashville when I heard on the radio about a church bombing in Birmingham where four young girls had been killed. All of you remember that particular moment.
I made a decision then that the people who bombed that church on behalf of the white South–did not speak for me. They did not represent me. If I were to be a citizen of this country, and a Southerner, I had to provide an alternative voice to what those people were saying.
Today, in the mid-1980s, I think that where we stand as a country in our relationship to the rest of the world is similar to where we as Southerners stood in the 1950s and ’60s. Again, we have to make decisions and personal commitments. I don’t intend to let Reagan–or any of the people who make national policy in this country right now–speak for me on the issues of Central America and the rest of this world anymore than I let the voices of the white South speak for me in the 1960s.
“Today, where we stand as a country in our relationship to the rest of the world is similar to where we as Southerners stood in the 1960s.”
Two years ago the organization that I work for, the Highlander Research and Educational Institute, located in New Market, Tennessee, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. In 1932, when Highlander began, Myles Horton, its founder, said what remains true today “the issue of the coming decades will be economic democracy.”
Initially, Highlander worked with the labor movement, training many of the South’s labor leaders in the 1930s and ’40 . It stood for civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s. Working out of Highlander in the 1950s, a woman that the Southern Regional Council is honoring this year, Mrs. Septima Clark, helped establish the citizenship education schools. Mrs. Clark and these schools helped thousands of people in the South register to vote.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Highlander turned its attention toward Appalachia and involvement with the poor peoples’ movements in that region.
In the 1980s, we’ve continued our concern with Appalachia, with labor, with civil rights-with a just society. But today there are new questions, new issues to be considered.
In the 1960s it made all the sense in the world to focus our attention entirely on this region, and to work as much as possible to focus the attention of the rest of the world on the rural South. Our task then was to put forth a new vision of what we thought the South should be. The difference now is that we have to advance a vision of what we want the world to be, of what kind of world we want to help create.
Perhaps it is a mild case of Southern chauvinism that leads me to believe that because of our own history of struggle for the last thirty years, we are in a unique position to shape a vision of a just and equal society that slips over the MasomDixon line and more/importantly at this particular time in history, slips across our southern border to our Latin American neighbors.
At Highlander, we’re talking about what our work should be in the years ahead. And, we have made a commitment to bring an international perspective whenever we can. Regional institutions should be able to relate what’s going on in the rest of the world directly to our own work at home. Nor is it hard to find these ways. Let me give a few examples.
Last week I saw a work in progress–a film that should be finished very soon and that all of you should see. You may remember “Babies and Banners,” the film about the women in an historic Detroit auto workers struggle. One of the women who helped make that, Lorraine Gray, is finishing a new film called “Women and the Global Assembly Line.”
Lorraine’s film shows women around the world in a “global” assembly line–a line that shifts and moves in search of cheap labor and cheap raw materials. We previewed the film recently as a work-in-progress, wondering if we might use it with Appalachian and Southern women as a springboard for discussion of their own work situations and as a means of educating them about the particular problems faced by Third World women.
The filmmaker was especially concerned to know how women workers in this country would respond to the film. Would they see the women as competitors for their jobs and simply blame them for plant closings in the US? Or would they be able to see the commonalities of all women workers as the assembly line becomes more global?
We sent the film back not really knowing the answer to her questions, with an illustration of something that we have to grapple with in years to come. How are we going to talk to people in this country about the fact that a lot of the jobs are leaving? They’re not coming to the so-called Sunbelt anymore, they’re going further South, for much lower wages and, in most cases, for less than human working conditions.
“Another thing that is coming South, and being sent further south, is toxic waste.”
The other thing that’s coming South, and going even further south, is toxic waste. In the past five years we have had numerous workshops at Highlander in which we bring people together who are organizing against toxic waste dumps, usually in their communities’ backyards. We have found that people can organize against a toxic waste dump in an Applachian holler, but the chances are ten to one that if they win, the toxic waste will be shipped to the Chemwaste pits at Emelle, Alabama in Sumter County. If the Sumter County people can keep it from coming there, it will be dumped on someone else.
The latest plan for doing away with toxic waste, by the way, is to truck it down the highway to Mobile, put it on a barge and burn it in Mobile Bay. You can imagine there are a few people in Mobile who are concerned about that. Will we soon be shipping our toxic waste to Latin American countries just as we have shipped them pesticides and drugs that have been banned in this country? Toxic waste is an issue that faces us in this region but I don’t think we can talk about doing away with it here only to get it shipped somewhere else.
Another example that illustrates why we need to understand the international economy came to our attention last year in one of the Appalachian communities that we’ve worked with–a West Virginia coal town called Gary. Nearly a hundred percent of Gary’s work force is employed by the United States Steel Company which runs several mines and a cleaning plant in the area. About a year and a half ago US Steel entirely shut down its operations in the Gary holler and ninety percent of the work force became unemployed.
When US Steel began to call people back to work, after many weeks of unemployment, management called the miners into the company offices one by one. They did not ask to come to a union meeting and talk. The company told the miners, “If we’re going to keep this mine open in this holler, we have to increase production by ten percent. Otherwise we close this mine entirely in March.”
Production at Gary increased fourteen percent during the first month of the mine’s reopening. Since then the mine has been kept partially open. But the significant thing about this situation is that US Steel began closing down the mines
in Gary, West Virginia at the same time it was buying new mines in South Africa. The economic situation of Gary is directly related to US Steel’s ability to seek cheaper, non-union labor and offer far less safety protection for its workers.
At the Highlander Center we have long been interested in adult education. Earlier, I mentioned Mrs. Clark’s work in the citizenship schools in the 1950s. Right now one of the best laboratories of adult education in the world is Latin America. Perhaps you know of the work of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian who has helped to shape many Latin American and African educational programs. Two years ago, as we were talking about an international perspective to our work, we joined with Freire’s organization, the Council for Adult Education in Latin America (CEAAL), the International Council on Adult Education (JCAE)–headquartered in Toronto, and the Vice-Ministry of Adult Education in Nicaragua, to organize an “encuentro”–an exchange between adult educators in Latin America and adult educators in North America.
The week-long conference was held in Managua. In addition to learning about literacy and education projects throughout Latin America, we also learned about Nicarauga–its postrevolutionary reality and its attempts to “reconstruct the country” by providing for basic food needs, health care and education.
What we were most impressed by in Nicaragua and what we have kept close to our hearts since returning, were the adult education projects and the tremendous efforts to teach “people how to read and write. Within the first year after the Sandinista revolution the Nicaraguan government instituted a country-wide program, Alfabetizacion, an effort that reduced basic illiteracy from over fifty percent to approximately twelve percent. As in the citizenship education program at Highlander in the 1950s, the intention in Nicaragua is not just to teach people how to read and write, but to teach people how to be good citizens. The adult literacy programs constitute part and parcel of what it means to be involved, active citizens in the life of your country.
We saw several adult literacy sessions at work. In one building–that served as a school during the day, and an adult education center at night–there were about eight different classes going on the evening we were there. I went to a class with twelve to fifteen people, mainly women in their fifties and sixties. They were learning how to read and write. Most of these women worked as maids; there are still upper and middle class people in Managua who have maids.
The teacher was a young man who had learned how to read and write in the literacy program of 1980. He had gone through all five levels of the adult literacy program and was now teaching people at the first level. I watched as the older women went go to the blackboard and very painfully tried to write sentences. From writing and reading, they went to a session on mathematics, and again, painfully and slowly attempted to subtract four figures, one from the other.
There was no shame or embarrassment at any time, but rather a great deal of pride and dignity in the room. Pride in themselves and in their ever-increasing abilities and pride in their “new” country, a country that now included them in its future.
These women come to that class five nights a week, two hours a night, to learn how to read and write. By the time they are through they will have gone, like their teacher, through all five levels of the adult literacy program.
In Nicaragua you get a sense of such commitment–not just to teach people how to read and write–but to truly liberate people so that they might become active and productive.
What we saw in those sessions was a process of empowerment. We also saw the same process at work in the countryside in the health program. Having seen what is going on in Nicaragua and knowing the commitment of the people there-people that we made friends with, that we enjoyed rum and coke with, people with whom we talked about mutual dreams and commonalities–it is indeed sad to think that the United States might intervene in the same way that it did in Vietnam.
US intervention in the internal affairs of Nicaragua–and by that I mean our current intervention through so-called covert activities, not some planned military intervention in the future–is interferring with the process of democratization that we witnessed. For indeed, one of our strongest impressions was of people finally being able to participate in the decisions which affect their lives. The spirit was contagious. Everywhere we went we found Nicarguans [sic] intensively engaged in building their own future and, therefore, their country’s future.
When we were planning the adult education conference, the vice-minister of adult education, Ernesto Vallancillos, came to Highlander and spent a week with us in the mountains of East Tennessee. He said that he had been in
this country twice before but that he had spoken only at big universities where the question that people had asked him was whether or not he was a communist.
While he was visiting us, we took him up to Appalshop in eastern Kentucky, and we took him around in Harlan County-“Bloody Harlan” where some of the fiercest union battles were fought in the 1930s. He sat and talked for two hours with a community group that has been organizing against the polluters of a creek in Middlesboro, Kentucky. He saw a side of the United States that he never had seen at Yale University or Stanford.
As we were driving through the Southern Appalachians he was absolutely stunned. He said, “I didn’t know that you had poverty in this country. This is not our image of what your country is like.”
Since we returned from Nicaragua, we’ve maintained ties with the vice-ministry of education. We’re trying to determine our own works in relationship to what is going on there-not just in supporting a revolutionary movement in Central America-but with regard to the kinds of work we’re doing and the kind that they are doing. The more people in Latin America who get to know people in United States communities who are engaged in struggle, the larger becomes the international community who share the same understandings and beliefs. I hope that there will be increasing numbers of people in this country who will feel that they cannot support the policies that lead to intervention in Nicaragua.
There is one more thing that I want to say about international issues.
Last summer two other Highlander staff people and I travelled to Scandinavia where we visited a labor folk high school in Sweden. We were there during a special summer session for workers and their families from all over the country. During the week the families met in small workgroups, to carry out projects around the week’s theme: their fears.
One group produced a play, another an exhibit, and another prepared some art work based on fairy tales. On the final day of the week the groups presented their projects to the entire body. All of these projects had to do with nuclear war.
When we asked one of the teachers why this was the only issue that was being raised, he looked at us as if he couldn’t believe what we were asking. His reply was simple and direct, “We are all afraid here. You have deployed your cruise missiles all around us and we stand to lose our lives here.” That was the single most educational moment for us on the visit. Missile deployment for us was another news item; to the Swedish workers and their families it was an ominous threat.
He replied, “You have deployed your cruise missiles all around us and we stand to lose our lives.”
As we go into the late 1980s and think about what we want the years beyond to be like, I don’t know how our day-to-day work will change, but I do know that we constantly have to be searching for ways to be in solidarity with poor and working class people in the rest of the world–just like poor and working class people here. We have to reach out and create the future with them. We can’t stand alone as a region or as a nation. Our beloved community–as we called it in the 1960s–must be much broader this time.
Sue Thrasher is on the staff of the Highlander Center, New Market, Tennessee. She is a contributing editor to Southern Changes. This essay is a revised version of a talk given to the Fortieth Annual Meeting of the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta this past November.