Around 1973, the Appalachian Student Health Coalition (ASHC) recognized that groups working in the east Tennessee area needed additional legal services not initally provided by ASHC through its medical work in rural communities. Thus, in the ASHC’s spirit of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted,” the East Tennessee Research Corporation (ETRC) was born in 1974.
Founded by Vanderbilt law grads and former members of the ASHC, John Williams and John Kennedy, and funded primarily by The Ford Foundation, this organization was a public interest law firm that provided legal and technical assistance to rural community groups in east Tennessee. With the hiring of attorney Neil G. McBride, the group set about collaborating with organizations such as Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM)–now “Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment”) to build a strong alliance that centered the environmental and social but also intersectional interests of the Tennessee Valley in its work.
ETRC proved to be a powerful instrument for this cause, going on to resist forces which would negatively impact the region. One of their earlier battles was for enforced regulation of weight limits on trucks being used to transport coal throughout the area. This group also put pressure on coal companies who were mixing different coal qualities together—a practice that, at the time, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) said was “standard.” Another meaningful success was waging a vigorous campaign to prevent James F. Hooper III’s placement on the TVA Board of Directors—something for which Hooper later filed a libel lawsuit against them. Later, they received some well-deserved satisfaction in closing this loop when President Jimmy Carter nominated the infamous “green cowboy,” David Freeman, to be Chairman of the TVA.
One of the foremost issues they dealt with was that of strip mining. The complicated relationship of mining to the region became especially apparent during the debates surrounding the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (MSHA). Because coal fields in the region were major employers, many people were wary of measures intended to crack down on the industry. However, some citizens were extremely concerned about the effect strip mining was having on the region’s landscape and water supply. Despite resistance, the MSHA was enacted into law by President Carter in November of 1977.
Although the ETRC was no longer in existence as of 1978, their successes laid the groundwork for future progress in the U.S. South. In fighting these battles both in and outside of the courtroom, they planted themselves squarely in the longstanding but often overlooked tradition of activism in Appalachia.
You can find out more about the East Tennessee Research Corporation in the Neil G. McBride Papers, 1977-1989 in The Southern Historical Collection. You can also listen to the Southern Oral History Program’s 2010 interview with McBride as well as read his and John Williams’ description of their work on the Appalachian Student Health Coalition Archive Project website.