In 1972, after seeing research by some university students about land ownership and taxes paid in the five counties and the fact that the state constitution requires taxes be paid on minerals, 13 citizens filed a legal petition to make the local tax assessors appraise minerals as part of the value of land. They won the petition and, having obtained several hundred supporting signatures, decided to form an organization they called Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM, pronounced “sock-em”). Unregulated strip mining of coal was one of the first issues they decided to take on.
From the beginning, SOCM was organized to be membership-based and member-run. People would speak for themselves, not have staff speak for them. SOCM would work on projects members chose to work on. Through the method of community organizing, members in a local community came together to form a group. They listened to each other, told stories about how they were affected by problems in the community, and received strength from being together. As a local group they decided what to work on, who were decision-makers who could do something about their problem and how to influence them. They found scientists who were allies, and they learned science themselves. They always knew, however, that in order to win, they needed to build a strong grassroots base of political power to influence decision-makers and public opinion.
They incorporated culture into their meetings, singing old union struggle songs and writing their own songs. Staff did lots of training and leadership development. Members learned how to research issues and how to think through a comprehensive strategy. They developed stronger skills in running their own meetings, talking with the media, recruiting new members, and conducting grassroots fund raising. Members practiced and role-played before taking action, had lots of encouragement, and evaluated activities later for lessons learned.
SOCM’s organizing is based on the belief that regular citizens, both those with little formal education and those with more, have great potential to learn, to speak, and to act for themselves, and that participating in public life is what democracy means.
For the first several years as SOCM members took action, there was a backlash from the coal companies. Many people received threatening phone calls. Some homes were burned by arsonists, but no one was ever prosecuted. Some members were physically attacked. Because of the principle of multiple leadership, however, coal companies couldn’t destroy SOCM by intimidating any one or several leaders.
From the beginning SOCM was multi-issue and multi-county. In local communities members worked to have roads improved and streams cleaned up. They worked together for a severance tax on coal which was passed by the state legislature to bring in revenue to the coal counties for roads and schools. They