Fairfield United Action

Magazine cover with white text reading "North Carolina's bitterly contested 1984 US Senate race between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt will easily go down in history as one of the meanest, ugliest, and most divisive campaigns ever. North Carolinians could not read a newspaper, watch TV, or open their mail without being bombarded by political rhetoric, mudslinging, and pleas for money."

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 1, "The Jesse Helms Machine." Find more from that issue here.

Kathy Rogers lives in Lebanon, a small town in Fairfield County, South Carolina. The land is pretty, but the people are uneasy — they are poor, 58 percent of them are black, and they are mostly ignored in local decision-making. Rogers has belonged to a group called Fairfield United Action for nearly four years, and speaking of it brings tears to the corners of her eyes. Before she joined this local activist organization, she says, part of her life was empty. “It has taught me how to deal with people, how to stand up for my rights. It’s a good feeling, doing what you know is right.” 

Rogers and dozens of her neighbors have banded together over the past four years in unprecedented numbers, and Fairfield United Action (FUA) was one of the first projects supported by the Fund for Southern Communities. Fighting policies of South Carolina Electric and Gas Company (SCE&G) — especially its Summer nuclear station in Jenkinsville — was what brought FUA together in the first place, but lately it has grown to mean much more to county residents. Besides waging war with SCE&G, they have worked to register and educate voters, to abolish racially unbalanced grand juries, and to get a jobs program for county youths. 

Members cite the abolition of Fairfield County’s white-majority grand jury system as their most tangible victory. Grand juries in South Carolina wield a great deal of power, with the duty of reporting on and investigating county facilities and operations, as well as the duty to recommend who should be tried for criminal offenses. And in this black-majority county, no more than four blacks had served on its 18-member grand jury since 1975. FUA staffer John Ruoff testified as to the inequity of the grand jury selection process at 1983 hearings, saying the probability of randomly selecting juries with Fairfield’s racial compositions was one in two trillion. Soon, the selection policies were changed and a new grand jury was chosen, comprised of 12 blacks and six whites. 


Fairfield United Action was born in 1980, when a number of the county’s working-class residents were worried about the construction of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Power Plant, and their concern came to the attention of Bebe Verdery, an activist who had moved to South Carolina two years before. “I looked around to see what was there,” says Verdery. “I had been doing some anti-nuclear work with Palmetto Alliance, and I saw how things affected low-income people. Palmetto Alliance was doing good work, but it mainly affected young, white, middle-class people.” 

Verdery went door-knocking at houses close to the nuclear plant site in Jenkinsville, talking to people about the plant, which eventually opened in 1982. “There was concern, anger, among people who lived around the plant,” she says. “This encouraged me to work with the community. The plant was far along in construction.” 

Much of the anger focused on the company’s land acquisition practices. In 1979 SCE&G had bought up the land for the plant’s cooling lake, forcing many residents to sell. “My family owned 148 acres and they took practically all of it,” says Bob Hollins, now chair of FUA’s board of directors and a member since 1980. He lives on the shore of the Summer plant’s artificial lake, and he did not want to sell his family’s land. “We got more money than most people,” he says, “but we didn’t get what the land was worth.” According to Verdery, “There was a lot of residual anger over the way the land deals had been handled. A lot of less-educated people were approached first. They sold at low prices; there was a lot of anger.” 

Soon after meeting Hollins and others like him, Verdery began to work as an organizer, forming a planning committee, writing a proposal, and securing a $35,000 grant from the Catholic Church’s Campaign for Human Development. Later, the Fund for Southern Communities and other groups pitched in with funds. 

Verdery became staff director and was soon spending much of her time exploring with FUA members what a community action organization could achieve. Soon, groups of the mostly black residents were marching off to nuclear licensing meetings and asking questions about the safety of the V.C. Summer plant. “We went to Summer’s office, and he wouldn’t meet with us in 1980. Here are a group of black people talking about nuclear power, asking him: if it is all so safe, would he cover damage to their property? It showed a broad amount of support in the community.” As Verdery says, “If you contrast it with the nuclear movement in general, you’ll see that we had a lot of black involvement and we organized lots of regular, local people.” Verdery says that the idea that young professionals and the middle class are the only ones likely to protest against nuclear power is a “stereotype that doesn’t hold water any more.” 

FUA member Maryam Shareef is one of those who joined because of concern about the Summer plant. “I’ve been to Three Mile Island,” she says, “and it is not a pretty sight. The nuclear thing here — I did not like the idea of it being so close. FUA has been doing good, positive things in our community. It got SCE&G to do a lot of things it had no intention of doing.” One of those things members cite is significant changes in the plans for emergency evacuation of the area, including two predominantly black schools that had been neglected in earlier planning. 

Verdery left the staff about two years ago, leaving John Ruoff, by then a two-year veteran, in her place as staff director. Both stress, however, that FUA is “people, not staff.” Says Ruoff, “I tell people all the time: if I could do this by myself, I wouldn’t spend 40 hours a week chasing people down.” 

Ruoff has spent many hours driving around the county talking to people about FUA, and he was perplexed at first. “Country folk kinda wonder what white folks are doing in the community asking questions. But they saw who we were, and it was clear there was a lot of concern, unfocused concern.” When he became staff director, he says he realized there was potential for strong community involvement, but he and Robert Lewis, the other paid staff member, let other group members lead the way. “We do our best to organize staff, but organizations like FUA are about folks coming together, realizing they have power over their communities. Real change has to come from folks.” 

How big is Fairfield United Action? Ruoff says it’s difficult to measure its current size, since it fluctuates depending on who can find time to attend meetings or distribute petitions. “It’s hard to gauge support; we’ve done petition campaigns where we’ve had 1,600 signatures.” Bob Hollins says FUA has about 40 full-time members. Often members of the seven-person board of directors, or other members who have been with the group for a good while, will act as spokespersons for a community concern. In the past several years, Ruoff says, FUA has let the Fairfield County power brokers know that the citizens want a say in how the county is run. 

One of the ways FUA has asserted itself is by registering and mobilizing new voters. “The folks in Fairfield County are pretty cagey. You can’t exclude blacks, so let’s have token representation. But blacks have never been a majority on county council or on the school board,” says Ruoff. But last spring his group helped pull together a coalition to push voter registration. “We registered 600 new voters,” he says, and black candidates were nominated. According to Ruoff, “If one of our nominees hadn’t died, we would have had the first majority-black county council in history.” 

FUA’s activities are not met with universal approval, of course. Ann Pope, who sits on the county council, says she’s not impressed. She describes one council meeting attended by FUA members: “Their sole purpose was to try to create havoc and embarrass the council. We do not censor people in any way. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it was not a constructive meeting. There was nothing constructive about that group.” 

Faye Johnson, the editor of the Winnsboro Herald Independent, the newspaper in the county seat, shares this view, characterizing FUA as an “anti-group.” Says Johnson, “They are not a popular organization here. The only people involved with them are the very poor, very illiterate.” 

FUA members such as Bob Hollins, who is a former county treasurer, would no doubt disagree with that assessment, but he does think the group has had a profound effect on the poor and underrepresented in the county: “They call this part of the country the black belt. We’ve been neglected; we don’t get to participate in the decision-making process. But the people here have confidence that Fairfield United Action can get the desired response.” 

Or, as member Ernest Owens says, “I lived in Fairfield County all my life. Before I joined Fairfield United Action, I didn’t see that I could do nothing about things. But you get to know how. I ain’t no educated man, but I’ll do anything I can to help people. I will, really.” 

FUA’s current activities reflect a recognition that registering new voters is good, but not enough. As Ruoff says, the real war is going to be fought on the economic front: “The merchant-lawyer clique has kept development out, wages low. They’ve chased plants out of here.” 

Ruoff admits that Fairfield County is not among South Carolina’s most impoverished, but is nonetheless not what it should be to its residents. “We’re not as poor as places like Jasper County, but it shouldn’t be what it is. It has opportunities to improve. Economic opportunities could be seized on. Nuclear plant tax money could be used to make improvements; part of what we’re talking about is the idea that we need to look at our own resources.” 

FUA has recently been formulating job strategies to counter unemployment among local teenagers. Says Ruoff, “We need to develop small businesses. Everything leaves the county. There’s no place tor people to shop. There ain’t much to do in the county. People tend to drink, fornicate, and smoke dope.” He says, “I know a whole bunch of college graduates who’ve been schlepping groceries down at the Winn-Dixie,” and that many young people leave the county because they can’t find work: “There’s no future for them here.” 

Council member Ann Pope says the group is being pushy in requesting a county-wide jobs program. But Ruoff envisions the economic development fight as the next battle for FUA, to build on its minor victories on utility and grand jury issues. “It will bring people together. Out there in nowhere South Carolina, our people are involved in major struggles. We’re building a model for other communities,” says Ruoff. “South Carolina is probably the most backward state in the country, but I’m absolutely convinced that when a fundamental change comes about in this country, it’s gonna come out of the South. It ain’t gonna come out of a D.C. or a New York. It’s gonna come out of a Fairfield County.”