SOCM’s original name, Save Our Cumberland Mountains, grew out of our origins as a grassroots community organization based in poor isolated coalfield communities in five northern counties (Anderson, Campbell, Claiborne, Morgan and Scott) in the Cumberland Mountains. SOCM kept this name for the first 36 years of its history.
Beginning in 1971 research began about the failure of large absentee land corporations to pay taxes on their mineral-rich land. In 1972 residents won an appeal to require this taxation. After that win, residents formed an organization to take on other critical problems in their communities: unregulated strip mining of coal which blasted the sides of steep mountains onto homes, roads and streams, insufficient revenue for schools, roads, and other services, and general neglect on the part of county officials. The organization, which came to be called SOCM (pronounced “sock-em”), was membership-based. From the start, members democratically ran the organization.
Despite many threats and incidents of violence, we achieved major victories during our early years: mineral tax and severance tax revenue for poor coalfield counties, a state Surface Rights Law requiring the surface owner’s consent before strip mining coal on the land, the defeat of many mining permits, and, working with allies, the enactment of a new federal strip-mining law.
During the years of expansion onto the plateau, growth pains arose internally about the identity of the organization. In a series of leadership retreats, members faced decisions about whether SOCM would be an organization based only in the coalfields and focused only on coal-related issues or whether it would become a multi-issue organization building a strong, empowered membership by working on whatever issues affected members. Our members resoundingly chose a multi-issue membership focus, paving the way for geographic, member, and issue expansion in the following decades.
In the 1980’s, we began expanding from the coalfields into the Tennessee Valley and further into East Tennessee. Members took on issues that affected the residents of their communities: oil and gas development, solid, toxic, and hazardous waste issues, the rights of temporary workers and other economic justice issues. SOCM joined and provided leadership in coalitions that formed to undertake organizer training, cooperative fundraising, and common issues, especially national work about coal. To facilitate consistent decision-making, we changed from a loose-knit, town meeting type of democracy to an organization with a representative board of directors, a local chapter model that would emphasize and provide a place for local leadership development and issue committees that could coordinate the growing statewide policy focus.
During this period of ambitious growth and development, we won a precedent-setting ruling on mining in toxic coal seams, defeated many proposals for toxic and hazardous waste facilities in communities, exposed concentrated land ownership and continuing taxation problems in sixteen counties, exposed poor state enforcement of strip mine laws, thereby prompting Federal takeover of the coal regulatory program, won a new state Surface Rights Law that allowed reunification of surface and minerals under some circumstances, thereby giving surface owners control over their land.
In the 1990’s, SOCM’s growing alliance with JONAH, a predominantly African-American community organization in rural West Tennessee, sparked the growth of an organizational commitment to confronting the injustice of racism and opened SOCM to an even wider range of issues. We formed multi-racial chapters in Bedford and Maury counties, began multi-racial youth organizing efforts, and hosted both multi-day and shorter “dismantling racism” trainings. Environmental justice work in the 90’s expanded to include battling the growth of chip mills and unregulated clear-cutting of forests as well as new toxic and solid waste issues. We celebrated a huge victory in 2000 when we won our multi-year organizing effort to have 61,000 acres of Fall Creek Falls State Park designated “unsuitable for mining”.
We also increased its participation in a variety of coalitions during the 90’s. After more than a year of various training and research, members voted to join the Tennesseans for Fair Taxation coalition working for structural state tax reform. SOCM, in conjunction with other community organizations, formed the Southern Organizing Cooperative to “improve the art and practice and funding of community organizing in the South.” Ten organizing and policy organizations, including SOCM, formed the Tennessee Partnership on Organizing and Public Policy to work on common state policy justice issues.
In the early 2000’s, we expanded into West Tennessee to fight toxic aerial spraying that was making nearby residents ill. During this time, our anti-racism work also intensified. Additional anti-racism training was held across the state, and our Board approved a mandate to confront racism within the organization. We also worked to restore voter rights to ex-felons who have completed their terms and forged new ally relationships with groups working for universal health care and for immigrant rights.
Mountaintop removal (MTR) strip mining emerged as a critical environmental justice issue during this decade. Local residents fought and continue to fight new permits that allow mining companies to literally blast the tops off of mountains, and they have opposed TVA’s plans to lease its mineral land for this purpose. We organized a two and a half week Canoe Relay, carrying Mountaintop Removal polluted water four hundred miles down the Cumberland River intending to present it to the Governor. SOCM was one of the founding members of the Alliance for Appalachia, joining other groups in central Appalachia to combat MTR and to work for economic alternatives and healthy, sustainable communities in the coalfields. We have developed broader energy policy positions, uniting with other grassroots groups to form Citizens Lead on Energy Action Now (now known as American Clean Energy Agenda), a national network of grassroots organizations working for good jobs and a clean energy future by phasing out coal and other fossil fuels and phasing in renewables, energy efficiency, and green jobs.
Our members govern the organization and set its policies and priorities. Members have inspired and guided us throughout our history. They are a force that can build capacity for greater democracy in our country. Many early SOCM members, especially in isolated coalfield communities who braved threats and intimidation to speak out for change, have left a legacy. Little did they know they were building the base for a powerful, multi-racial, statewide organization to work for social, economic, and environmental justice issues in our local communities, our state, and our nation.
In 2008 our Board made the decision, which was ratified by members at the annual meeting, that SOCM’s name needed to catch up with the organization’s geographic reach. The new name, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, keeps the acronym while reflecting our growth and development through the years: the statewide stretch, the overall justice focus, the commitment to developing member leaders, and the inclusion of a diverse group of members that work for justice from the Smoky Mountains to the Mississippi River.