Reading Katie Lamar Jackson’s “A Movement of the People”

The state where I live has as its descriptor: Alabama the Beautiful. And it is a beautiful place, one that has wonderful landscapes, varied geography, and significant biodiversity. However, my home state also regularly ranks among the worst for “eco-friendly behaviors,” and our state environmental management agency is often criticized for its lack of impact.  And these failures matter to me. I’m not only a life-long Alabamian, but also a person who recycles, composts, chooses paper over plastic, etc. because I want Alabama to stay beautiful for my children and their children. And I don’t want politicized myths and narratives about manmade climate change to affect people’s willingness to be “eco-friendly.” (I’m not gonna recycle— that’s what those radical-left Democrats do!)

So it was with deep personal interest that I began reading Katie Lamar Jackson’s small monograph A Movement of the People, which discusses a late-1960s cleanup movement that led to widespread grassroots efforts in Alabama throughout the 1970s.  Published by the University of Alabama Press with the subtitle “The Roots of Environmental Education and Advocacy in Alabama,” the book is less than one-hundred pages, but its story spans nearly two decades, from 1965 to 1983. 

The whole thing started with a rural mail carrier named Lance Tompkins in Dale County, who saw trash all along his route and looked into what could be done about it. Jackson’s three-page introduction leads into how “Tompkins’ simple request sparked a movement that grew into the Alabama Environmental Quality Association (AEQA).”

The AEQA was a great example of grassroots effort that thrived on a healthy mixture of popular support, business support, and governmental support. As a member of the Alabama Farm Bureau (AFB), Tompkins asked the organization whether rural cleanup could become an aspect of its work. That request landed with the then-new AFB Women’s Committee and its recently hired leader Martha McInnis. In November 1966, the first cleanup days were held. Support was then garnered county-by-county, and committee members recruited help door-to-door. Ultimately, Jackson tells us, one hundred thousand people became involved statewide.

The next key figures were AW Jones and John Bloomer. Jones was a retired economist from Auburn, and Bloomer was the editor of the Birmingham News. With the additional dimensions that these two brought, the effort became more than picking up trash and telling other people to, too. By the end of the 1960s, there were banquets to recognize outstanding participants, McInnis was invited to the national Keep America Beautiful conference, and the state legislature passed the Solid Waste Disposal Law of 1969.

As the 1970s began, the AEQA was chartered as a 501(c)3, and the state created the Alabama Environmental Quality Advisory Council (AEQC).  The movement was building in momentum. Jackson writes that the AEQA had “eight regional councils [and] eleven interest groups in the areas of education, youth, communication and media, conservation, community improvement, civic and service clubs, city/county/state government, business and industry, health, rural, and legislative.” As for the mission:

Work for a solution of problem’s concerning man’s relationship with his natural and man-made surroundings; encourage the preservation of Alabama’s natural beauty and environment through a program of public education; develop among Alabama residents pride in their communities and state; encourage and assist in the development of voluntary community development; promote the establishment of local volunteer environmental programs; allow the full use of the environment of each present generation without adverse effects on full use by each future generation.

This mission was supported by then-governor George Wallace, who named April 1972 as “Environmental Quality Month,” then did the same in 1973.

This grassroots environmental movement was working both within the halls of government and outside of them. There was direct action, organizing, and education. Funds were allocated, programs and plans were formalized, and partnerships were developed. And this when on for about a decade . . .

. . . until 1983, when the state budget eliminated all funding for the AEQA and AEQC. Times had changed, and the manner in which these issues were addressed had, too. George Wallace had been a big supporter during his time as governor from 1971 to ’79, but by his return in 1983, the end was already in the cards. Though it isn’t mentioned in the book, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) was created in 1982, under then-governor Fob James. 

What I liked particularly about A Movement of the People is the way that its story counteracts the narrative that says, “Somebody ought to do something about that.” Whether that somebody is the government or a vague notion of a nameless person, it is easy in this busy world to buy into the belief that we – ordinary people – are powerless to affect change on bad situations that we didn’t cause, didn’t contribute to, and don’t know who did. In Lance Tompkins’ case, it was trash on rural roadsides and properties in the Wiregrass region of Alabama . But in our everyday lives, just about all of us see things we’d like changed for the better. The common narrative says that we’d be busy-bodies for speaking up or getting involved in what doesn’t concern us, but I believe in a different approach: when you speak up and suggest action, you’ll know pretty quickly whether other people feel the same way. If you’re all alone, it’s might be better to mind your own business . . . but if you hit a chord, there might be an army behind you just waiting to take on the task.

For those who may be interested in this issue, here is ADEM’s Guide to Citizen Participation on their website.

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