Save Our Cumberland Mountains—The Courage to Work for Justice

Save Our Cumberland Mountains
The Courage to Work for Justice
By Connie White

Vol. 15, No. 2, 1993, pp. 11-15

The following essay on the work and vision of SOCM (Save Our Cumberland Mountains) was presented as a talk to the Appalachian Studies Conference held in Berea, Kentucky, in March.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about the organization that has meant so much to me and many others in this state. I’d like to tell you a little bit about the history of SOCM, some of the issues we’ve worked on and lessons we’ve learned; some of the things we’ve done well and some of the things we haven’t figured out yet.

Save Our Cumberland Mountains is a grassroots, democratic citizens group. Our members are fifteen hundred families living in the Cumberland Mountains and Plateau area of Tennessee. Many of our members belong to local SOCM chapters. The organization is governed by a board elected from and by SOCM members.

SOCM started in 1971 when people in the rural parts of a five-county area had no doctors and wanted to do something about it. They got together and formed community health councils. They worked on the health care issue and also got interested in making other changes.

They and a group of students did research and found out that in their five counties, 80 percent of the minerals and 35 percent of the land was owned by ten companies, most of them out-of-state, absentee landlords. Although these companies held all that wealth, they paid only 3 percent of the property taxes in those communities. The community people stayed together and worked on other problems too. At that time stripmining was totally unregulated. There were no laws. Blasting was damaging peoples’ homes and ruining their wells. Streams and mountains were destroyed. SOCM members and others throughout the mountains fought for laws to protect their homes and families and communities.

I know that several of you in this room were some of the first fighters against stripmining. Probably many of you remember the days in the 1970s when a call would go out to come to a public hearing on a stripmine permit. Tennessee was so lawless and corrupt in those days that some of us would be asked to speak and some would be asked to go and watch because we looked so big and mean and ugly and we ourselves were our only protection from thugs who would try to silence us by any means they could. You may remember that 1979 was the year of the Wartburg Massacre, when four SOCM members were beaten by the Cook boys and their thugs as they sat in the Morgan County, Tennessee courthouse at a stripmining permit hearing. In 1979 and 1980 Sam and Roberta Baker and John Johnson and Millard Ridenour all had their homes burned after they spoke out against wildcat mining. SOCM members gathered to help build their homes back. I remember that day—it seemed like every blow of the hammer was a victory song that rang out all across Elk Valley.

From those early days till right now we’ve been struggling to figure out how to bring about change, how to get a voice in decision making, and how to create an organization for the long haul. We’ve learned a lot of hard lessons in these past twenty years, and I’d like to tell you about three of them.

The first thing we’ve learned is that we can change the world, but only if we work together. We aren’t just victims, we don’t have to stand passively by. We can do something about it, but we have to organize, we have to work together. Those first SOCM members, back twenty years ago—none of them could have gotten laws to regulate stripmining on their own. No one person could have said to a stripmine operator “You can’t destroy the creeks. The stream belongs to everybody, you can’t just bulldoze it away.” No one person could have said “You can’t blast so hard it cracks the walls in my house.” No one person has that much power, because there was too much money to be made by the coal operators to be so easily stopped. But when people came together, when they figured out together how to act in their own best interest, when they supported each other and cared about each other and took risks for and with each other, then their homes and communities could be saved. They had to do it together—that’s where the power is.

A second important lesson we’ve learned is about the way change happens. We’ve learned that we can’t wait for somebody somewhere to do the right thing, to make the ethical or logical or scientifically sound decision. All of us in this room want to believe that when a law needs to be passed, when a wrong needs to be made

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right, that our government, that somebody in some agency, will just do it. We want to believe that environmental policy and human justice issues are decided on the basis of rational thought and a sense of ethics. For example, we want to think that the decision-makers decide on some rational basis about where to put garbage and toxic waste and hazardous facilities. But in our experience, that is almost never true.

Castle Bunch learned that the hard way. He lives near Oliver Springs, in Anderson County, Tennessee, where an attempt is going on by Chambers Corporation, a large out-of-state company. They want to situate a mega-landfill and most likely bring in out-of-state waste to the community where Castle lives—the small rural mountain community of Shoat Lick. That area was previously stripmined, the rocks were fractured by blasting. There is no soil left. It’s a horrible spot geologically and hydrologically for a landfill. Forty families live very near and most of them depend on well water which almost certainly would be contaminated from landfill runoff, because of the fractured rock strata. And, Chambers is a corporation with lots of environmental violations in other states and a history of intimidation and violence against people who speak out against them. Castle Bunch lives near the proposed site and his family depends on their well for water. One night in September at a City Council meeting, after he had spoken against the proposed landfill, Castle was attacked by several men wearing Chambers T-shirts and hats. He was assaulted and knocked to the ground and kicked before others in the room could stop it.

Clarence Cofer has also learned how decisions are made, how change comes about, the hard way. In the Clymersville community in Rockwood, in Roane County, Tennessee, Horsehead Industries is operating a hazardous waste recovery plant. They are operating this plant essentially without environmental regulation. Clarence and many others in the community, worried about high levels of lead and other toxic substances in the air and water, have asked the state to require Horsehead to obtain water quality permits. You would think that this hazardous waste plant would have to subject itself to the laws and regulations of this state. Shouldn’t the Division of Water Quality want to objectively and impartially enforce the law? So far it has not. The people of Clymersville cannot sit passively by, putting their children’s health in jeopardy while the state ignores their requests to enforce the law.

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In Oliver Springs and Clymersville, in stripmining and land ownership and hazardous waste facilities and toxic dumps issues, we’ve learned over and over, that we can’t separate out human justice issues from environmental issues. Often the communities that are most at risk for being environmental victims are perceived as being powerless, without wealth and influence, and with no ability to act in their own best interest. But inside themselves and with each other, community people have to find the strength and the courage to challenge the power and wealth of big corporations, have to challenge the bureaucracy of agencies. I think it is especially hard for us to challenge the social structure and the status quo that is so powerful in our communities. It is hard to speak out, it is very hard to take an unpopular position. For most of us, it is painful to act in ways that call attention to ourselves, but we have to break the silence. We have to find the courage to work for justice, and we can find that strength in each other and in working together.

We’ve learned something about patience in SOCM, and we learned that the hard way too. We learned that change doesn’t come about by one good action, or one set of powerful testimonies at a hearing. Those big blows help, but the real key is a consistent pounding away at a problem, being there day in and day out, getting a hold of it and not letting go. That means we have to learn how to build organizations for the long haul, groups that will be around to keep working. The more entrenched the problem, the harder it will be to change. We also learned to be patient with each other, to listen and help each other. None of us was born knowing how to create an organization like SOCM. We have to figure it out as we go along and we haven’t always gotten it right. Learning patience also helped us understand what it means to be beaten but not defeated. It took us seven years to win our surface rights law—a law that’s the strongest of its kind in the nation; it gives surface owners, often small family farmers and rural people, a way to get their minerals back so that the land they own is really their own. We were crushed in Nashville in the state legislature time after time; we retreated and regrouped. We came back and we came back, and finally we won. We learned that we are only defeated when we quit.

The third thing we’ve learned is that in changing

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the world, we change ourselves.

For most of us, when we start working with an organization like SOCM, we doubt that we have very much to offer. I remember the first SOCM meeting I attended in 1977. I thought, I love the way these people speak out, I admire the courage they have and the knowledge they’ve gained through their work, I love how they connect the best values and sense of right they have in their hearts with the work they do out in the world. But what could I do? I’m a farm girl from Cave Creek. I’ve hardly expressed an opinion anywhere beyond the supper table. That day, back so many years ago, was when I began to learn that you don’t have to know the most or talk the best to be a leader and you really can do a lot of things you never believed you could have done. What happens over the years is that you work together on things that you care about, you help and support each other, you take little steps and little risks and you grow stronger and more confident. One of SOCM’s greatest gifts is the ability to really believe and act on a different idea of leadership. We’ve learned that leadership isn’t finding one or two or three charismatic people. But it’s developing the idea in all of us that leadership means taking your turn, and that the best leaders are the ones who pay the most attention to giving leadership development opportunities to lots of people. Leaders are the ones who think, “Now what’s the next most challenging step that this SOCM member or that SOCM member can take?” And then support them when they take that step. So many of us in SOCM started out thinking our contribution is to fill a seat in a meeting. And before we knew it, we were bringing refreshments or making calls to ask other people to come to the meeting or chairing a small group or speaking at a public hearing. And before you know it, you wake up and you’re talking to the Appalachian Studies Conference!

Part of the change for a lot of us was realizing the importance and value of family and place. We’ve learned to be proud of being from these mountains and valleys of Tennessee. We’ve learned that we can be proud of how we were raised, how we talk. We don’t have to be polished and shined up. Being a SOCM member helps me be proud of that and be proud of my family. It helps me know what an incredible privilege it is to live each day on the same piece of dirt where my father and my grandmother and my great-grandmother and my great-great-grandfather were raised.

But for many of us it’s also helped us think critically about our home, about the way people are divided by class and by race, the way women are treated, about who has power and why—and how to take that power and use it more responsibly.

I’m still a farmer’s daughter from Roane County, and very proud to be that, but because of SOCM I’m also a citizen of the world, someone who cares about and works hard to affect things that happen in public life too. I have a right and a responsibility to do that. I just want to testify that in trying to bring justice to environmental issues and human issues, each of us is rewarded with an incredible sense of richness, not in material things, but in the knowledge that we contributed something, that it mattered that we’ve lived and walked on this Earth for a few short years.

Although we’ve learned these things and more, there are still many, many things we don’t know. We were also asked to talk about the hard parts, the challenges, the things we haven’t gotten right.

I’ll always remember my father saying that back in the 1940s, the U.S. government told the world that they had done us Roane Countians a big favor, that the Oak Ridge area was so poor that a jackrabbit had to carry his lunch across it. This was the same area that my people had farmed for generations, the area that seemed like milk and honey to them. I saw my mother go out to the plants each day to help put food on our table and thought, is this the day, is this the month, is this the year when making our living will make her sick?

And living downstream, where even the municipal water system at Kingston has had to be turned off at times because of mercury spills. I saw my father and four out of his five sisters who stayed in Roane County get cancer. I saw the Oak Ridge plants fight to try to continue to exempt themselves from the water and air quality regulations that help protect us, to literally say they are above the law. But we also know from our own experience that these Oak Ridge jobs sometimes are the only chance that we as ordinary people have to make a decent living, to have good health insurance which can literally make the difference between life and death, and have a retirement where we can live with the dignity that is so well deserved.

So even though there are hundreds of SOCM members in the surrounding counties, even though we have twenty years organizing experience, even though we have won important victories in incredibly difficult circumstances, in the past decade we still have not been very effective on the environmental and economic issues related to the Oak Ridge weapons plants.

And there are plenty of other problems we haven’t figured out that we are still working on. How can we apply our knowledge and experience in land-based issues to problems such as the fight for a fair tax structure in the state? How can we make industries responsible to the SOCM communities that have given them a home? How can we create public policy that helps us grow our own jobs, or get permanent jobs with a living wage and health insurance for our families? How can we work toward a

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government that is by and for ordinary people like SOCM members and people all over this region?

Not only are there hard problems in the world outside to be figured out, there are also ways of working together within an organization that we still aren’t very good at. There are barriers to be broken down between people—economic and social and particularly racial. We are doing better with this, trying things, making mistakes and learning from them. I think our real failure here has been that we didn’t start trying to work specifically on issues of race until the past three or four years.

As you know, many of us join an organization like SOCM out of immediate self-interest—there’s a stripmine or a toxic waste dump to be fought. But the mark of a good citizen’s group is that members can find their concept of self-interest widening. So at first you’ve just got to get that stripmine permit denied, but as you grow and develop you come to feel that you have to get a tougher law on stripmining and you need to help the next community with their dump problem and begin to pay attention to the political process more and you find yourself caring about a lot of things that you didn’t used to notice. And even though you weren’t brought up to think so, it begins to seem right and fair that all people be treated fairly and allowed their dignity and it seems in your self-interest to work on common problems and take down those barriers of race. But it has taken us too long to get to the point of actively trying to remove those barriers.

We were also asked that as voices from the community, we think a little about what challenges we might offer you as individuals and as an organization as you support efforts for change in Appalachia.

The first thing I’d ask you to do is to look around in your own community for organizations working for change and join one. Work with your neighbors and learn together. Contribute your considerable skills, but don’t expect your voice to be any more important than those of your neighbors. Take your turn with the hard stuff and the boring stuff and the exciting stuff and come back to the Appalachian Studies Conference and tell us about it.

Many of you are teachers, and in your classes, it’s important to understand and acknowledge the economic and political forces at work in the region. But it’s also important to raise up examples of people joining together to change the way things are. It’s important to study the dynamic of people’s action—real stories of ordinary people who developed their leadership and their skills and confidence and made changes. It’s important that students see what can be done when people join together. And in an even broader sense, it’s important that students have the opportunity to feel some pride in their culture and heritage, and not have to be ashamed of the way they were raised. Then they can also look critically at problems and understand the forces at work when we as Appalachian people have been unable to act in our own best interest. In your classes and as you send your students out to work for and with organizations and communities, you can do that. I hope you can continue to find ways to help all of us to connect the best parts of ourselves, our values, what we care about with the work we do everyday, whether the work is in colleges or communities or both.

Longtime SOCM member Connie White lives in Loudon, Tennessee. The author wishes to thank Maureen O’Connell, Susan Williams, Beth Bingman and Steve Fisher for their encouragement and support.