Changing Appalachia

Changing Appalachia

Reviewed by Tal Stanley

Vol. 15, No. 3, 1993, pp. 32-35

Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change, edited by Stephen L. Fisher (Temple University Press, Philadelpia, 1993, 365 pages).

One of the first things I remember about that spring ten years ago is the weather: rain. Indeed, it seemed to rain all spring and we could not see White Top Mountain for days at a time. I also remember that spring as a season of deep, profound change and struggle for my life. A new social consciousness began to emerge for me. I was a college senior participating in a seminar led by Steve Fisher. The seminar focused on issues of work and workplace democracy in America and Appalachia. We discovered and explored how those of us in the seminar had been shaped and injured, divided, and limited by a class society. We discussed how work particularly and society generally might be changed to be democratic, fair for all. From the perspective of ten springs of work and study those discussions have changed much of my thinking and continue to be formative for my life.

In Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change, Steve Fisher and his collaborators continue that process of education and change. Serving as both narrative history and a tool box for social protest and dissent, resistance and change in the Appalachian region, these sixteen essays are guided by five foundational questions and issues. First, “what factors have led to the success or failure of particular change efforts” in Appalachia? Second, “how have issues of race, class, gender and culture shaped resistance efforts?” Third, “what impact have national and global structures and events had on local movements for change?” Fourth, “what is legitimate about the notion of regional identity, and what role, if any, has it played in progressive efforts?” Fifth, “what organizing strategies make sense for the future?” By addressing these five questions, each of the essayists works to dispel the culturally-produced images of Appalachia as an isolated backwater, populated by gun-toting, ignorant people complicitous in their victimization, “culturally incapable of rational resistance to unjust conditions.” What follows are eyewitness histories of grassroots movements in the region and the practical lessons learned through success and failure.

The first seven essays critically examine the issues, potentials, and obstacles to community organizing in Central and Southern Appalachia. Beginning with Mary Beth Bingman’s account of her participation in the anti-strip mining protests in Knott County, Kentucky in January, 1972, the efforts at resistance and change that are examined are those which have emerged in the region over the last twenty years. Together with Bingman, Sherry Cable’s account of the Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens organization, Bill Allen’s writing about Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Joe Szakos’ essay on Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, and Hal Hamilton and Ellen Ryan’s discussion of the Community Farm Alliance, provide glimpses of the evolution of social resistance and change, both in local communities and in the movements themselves. The essays point to a “movement of movements” diverse in its goals and membership, complex in the ways real change is realized.

These candid histories trace the transformation of organizing movements from local, individual frustration and dissent into agents of local, state, and even national collective resistance and social change. Yet throughout the failures and successes, these organizations maintain a distinctive Appalachian identity and strength. These essayists point to a number of elements common to successful Appalachian efforts at change which are repre-

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sentative of a movement away from single-issue protest groups to multi-issue organization, from less staff-dominated leadership to more shared decision-making in a context of radical democracy.

As narrative histories and effective organizing tools, this first section of Fighting Back also discusses the cultural racism, isolationism, and parochialism that tends to cripple organizing efforts, but also suggests ways that an empowering solidarity might be produced in those same efforts. Don Manning-Miller offers an overview of citizen’s groups in Appalachia and criticizes an inherent tendency among many grassroots organizations to ignore the presence and debilitating effects of racism within their own structures and membership. He outlines specific steps by which citizen groups may confront and collectively change their racist inclinations, so that Appalachian activism may be committed to a “thoroughgoing equality within and among organizations and in society at large … [and to] a successful people’s movement in our time.”

Also in the first section, John Glen’s narrative history of the involvement of the Highlander Center with Appalachian community organizing details the false starts and sometimes painful effort at redirection through which resistance and change movements must move in order to be multi-issue, multi-regional, multi-racial, and democratically defined. This is an undocumented facet of the Highlander history, but it is a history intertwined with the emergence and evolution of many grassroots movements in Appalachia. Glen shows that what may have worked in the labor movement and the civil rights struggle may not be applicable in every place, and that regional and local differences do matter. He demonstrates the complexity of social dissent and change in Appalachia, and convincingly argues for the long view of social change for the region and for Highlander, what Raymond Williams called “the long revolution.” Taking this long view enables Glen to assert that for the Center and for Appalachia “the battle for the future of the region will remain an extended and sometimes confusing struggle.”

Fighting Back’s second part, “New Strategies in Labor Struggles,” discusses some of the ways the struggle for change is experienced in Appalachian workplaces. Perhaps the most moving of the essays in the entire volume is Jim Sessions and Fran Ansley’s narrative, “Singing Across Dark Spaces: The Union/Community Takeover of the Pittston Moss 3 Plant.” Sessions and Ansley discuss how at the height of the 1989 UMWA strike against the Pittston Coal Company, the union and the community found direction by retelling the community’s memories of struggles between miners and management in the 1930s and by appropriating the nonviolent tradition of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Pittston struggle held out the possibility that we might “…get a glimpse of what a less oppressive set of race and gender relations might one day look like.” While acknowledging the bitterness and disappointments concomitant with any social struggle, this narrative makes clear that near St. Paul, Virginia, inside and outside the Moss 3 Plant there were “moments of transcendence that [were] capable of teaching us, of making us feel the possibilities that reside in us, in the people around us, and in the groups of which were are or can be a part.”

The third section of the book examines how a regional identity is a critical force in the “construction of class consciousness, gender relations, regional identity, and community life.” The essays in this section demonstrate the complex and interdependent relationship between regional identity and social change: social change in Appalachia depends on a strong regional identity, but the formation of that regional identity depends on a fundamental change in people’s social consciousness. These authors argue for an Appalachian identity that moves beyond earlier parochialism to a vision of Appalachia closely aligned with other regions and cultures giv-

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ing the promise of “global solidarity” for resistance and change. The most theoretical of the book’s sections, this third section also tends to be the most problematic. Particularly troubling is the tendency toward viewing the postmodern era as an entirely positive and good force. Alan Banks, Dwight Billings, and Karen Tice assert in their discussion of Appalachian Studies that postmodernity is a sensibility that “involves a heightened and healthy skepticism about truth claims” and metanarratives that ignored the regional, cultural diversity of Appalachia and Appalachians. I can agree with this, and much that Banks, Billings, and Tice put forward in their essay regarding the potential of post modernity for Appalachian studies and resistance. Trouble arises when they “reject [the] harshly critical views of postmodernity… [and] see a distinctly democratic temper in postmodernism’s … approach.” This unquestioning position ignores the material, social realities of postmodernity.

Between 1980 and 1990 the former coal producing counties in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia lost an average of 11.5 percent of population; McDowell County, West Virginia alone lost 29.4 percent. The 1990 census reported that 57.4 percent of all households with a single female as householder lived below the poverty line. In Smyth County, Virginia, 73.2 percent of single female households were below the poverty line. In 1979, in the early years of postmodernity, 11.7 percent of the national population was below the poverty line, by 1991 that same number had risen to 14.2 percent. During the same years (1979-1991) the number of African Americans below the poverty line rose from 31.0 to 32.7 percent nationally. In 1992 national unemployment stood at 5.9 percent, but 10.4 percent of African American men and 10.6 percent of African American women were unemployed. By rejecting more critical views of postmodernity, Banks, Billings, and Tice ignore the forces working against empowerment and change.

Steve Fisher’s concluding essay to Fighting Back is the most useful of all. Fisher’s essay helps us to understand that practice and theory go hand in hand and are never divorced from the daily realities of lived experience in real places.

Theoretically, Fisher sets out to review and critique two currently dominant approaches to Appalachian research and social change: Marxism and neo-populism. He focuses his argument on the concepts of “community” and “democracy,” suggesting that although idealized by neo-populists and dismissed by many Marxists, they are more complex and integral to efforts at change than either theory has heretofore admitted. As the romanticized property of the neo-populists such as Sara Evans, Harry Boyte, Lawrence Goodwyn, Jean Bethke Elshtain,

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and Christopher Lasch, “community” and “democracy” are divisive and limiting pressures. Neo-populists “conveniently ignore,” suggests Fisher, “the ethnic, racial, gender, class, and cultural differences that so often divide the people.”

Fisher contends that many traditional Marxists view “community” and “democracy” as barriers to “a collective awareness which is the essence of class consciousness.” Citing the general failure of class-based organizing in Appalachia, he argues that by repudiating traditional institutions, Marxists have misrepresented and ignored the positive local force “community” and “democracy” have as sources of “radical insurgency.” As the capstone to Fighting Back, Fisher’s work presses for “concrete structural definitions” of “community” and “democracy.” Once “community” and “democracy” are connected to concrete social realities we are able to understand how they are used as instruments in global systems of oppression and to see them as providing local roots and sources of radical activism.

Fisher argues for an activism that moves beyond localism, built on the material realities that national and global forces are determinative and transformative of lived experience in any locality. His essay lays the groundwork for a practical class-based activism that recognizes economic conditions as just one among a host of other social forces formative of class consciousness. He asserts that what is required is a people’s history and a history of capitalism … [and] the creation of resistance organizations that take culture and community seriously as spaces for political action while encouraging their members to discover the ways in which their grievances are a result of structural processes occurring at an economic, geographic, and political level far beyond the particular locale where the grievance is experience.

Indeed, this taking seriously culture and communities is the strength of Fighting Back, and the practical work of its editor.

Anyone familiar with Steve Fisher will know that one of his more significant contributions to Appalachian research and activism has been bibliographic. The bibliography which concludes this volume is another one of these contributions, extending all of the essays in Fighting Back from being important only to local, Appalachian efforts of change to national, even global significance; from being valuable histories to indispensable tools.

Steve Fisher writes that in the struggle for Appalachian change “[t]here is no easy path, no neat resolutions…” but sometimes, as in the UMWA’s takeover of the Pittston plant, we get “a glimpse of what could be.” Fighting Back in Appalachia offers us one of those glimpses.

A native of Southwest Virginia, Tal Stanley is at Emory University studying American regionalism in the context of Appalachia.