ACORN: Organizing in Arkansas

Black and white photo of American flag hanging off of suburban house, text reads "ACORN Organizing in Arkansas"

Raiford Ragsdale/Nexus Gallery

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 2 No. 1, "America's Best Music and More..." Find more from that issue here.

Tied to both the South and the West, Arkansas is a land of mixed identities. Each spring rice, cotton, and soybeans transform the eastern part of the state into a thriving delta, but the Mississippi River separates this rich farmland from the deep South. The Ozarks can claim scenic hills and Saturday night square dances, but they lack the regional mountain culture of Appalachia. The cowboy hats in Ft. Smith seem distant echoes of the Texas plains. Neither Cajun, oil-rich Louisiana to the south nor border-state Missouri to the north offer a sense of kinship.

Politicians like John McClellan, Wilbur Mills, William Fulbright, and Dale Bumpers wield significant power in national counsels. But working Arkansans exercise little control over the life of their own state, despite its 1836 motto, “The People Shall Rule.” Aluminum companies, milk producers, oil and timber companies, powerful utilities, and the remnants of a plantation system maintain hegemony over the rich resources of Arkansas. Meanwhile, seventy per cent of the state’s households still exist on less than $7,000 a year.

Arkansas’ history has been punctuated by erratic political action against these controlling forces. The 1930’s produced a unique indigenous union organizing effort when the Southern Tenant Farmers Union sprang from the discontent of the Depression; but the boldness of the STFU’s interracial struggle against the cotton lords surpassed its actual lasting gains. Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth’’ clubs found a strong, but short-lived following. Though Little Rock was internationally famous for its school desegregation problems, the civil rights movement never established viable organizations in Arkansas. And unions have yet to secure a solid foothold in this “right-to-work” state.

By the late 1960’s, Arkansas was an organizational vacuum. Moreover, grass-roots organizing had reached a state of uncertainty throughout the country. Saul Alinsky’s efforts in Chicago, Rochester, Buffalo, and Providence produced short-term victories, but lacked long-term structures for continual change. The welfare rights movement was stymied as the flat grant system, the primary point of leverage, was incorporated into the social service budget by several state legislatures. Cesar Chavez was making progress, but no one knew how to transfer the power of secondary boycotts to neighborhood organizations. And other organizing models from earlier Populist and Progressive eras had been discarded.

Out of a need for change in Arkansas and a search for a new grass-roots organizing model, Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was established in 1970. ACORN drew on the unique experience of the STFU, established a membership dues system similar to unions, and defined its efforts statewide like welfare rights organizations. This statewide organization consisted of local neighborhood-based groups in the Alinsky tradition, planned for alternative service centers based in these groups, as with the Community Service Organization in California, and depended on large numbers of skilled organizers to work for change, as did the North Dakota Non-Partisan League during the Progressive era.

In the four years since its inception, ACORN has maintained this eclectic blend of political strategies and has grown into a significant grass-roots organizing model for the South and the nation. ACORN now has forty-three affiliated community groups thoughout the state and 4700 member families. Regional offices have been established in Little Rock, Ft. Smith, Pine Bluff, Fayetteville,

Jonesboro, plus a membership service center in North Little Rock. ACORN membership crosses race, class, sex, and occupational lines but remains within that 70 per cent of Arkansans whose income is less than $7,000 a year.

ACORN members belong to local groups that fight local issues: poor school bus transportation in Fort Smith, the quality of health care offered to senior citizens in Springdale, blockbusting in the transitional Oak Forest neighborhood in Little Rock, the Wilbur Mills Expressway running through the backyards of several groups in Little Rock, and many others. At the same time, ACORN community organizations join forces in broader actions. Members lobby in the state legislature, monitor administrative decisions and regulatory commissions, and sit on boards of social service delivery systems. The central staff coordinates research, shares expertise among groups, and supports the organizers in the field.

ACORN has demonstrated that people organized on the local level can solve community problems, can control local elections, and can affect public policy on the state level. But what about problems that are rooted beyond a neighborhood or beyond the state? Recently, ACORN has felt the growing pains that any model must experience. Drawing on the proven method of forming a local affiliate around discontent, ACORN’s structure has stretched beyond Arkansas into the centers of national power for the first time.


Fighting A.P.&L.

Redfield is a small town in Jefferson County in southeastern Arkansas, not unlike the hundreds of rural communities which dot Arkansas and the South. But Redfield has become much more than a wide spot in the road to the people of Arkansas, to ACORN, and to the Arkansas Power and Light Company. AP&L, with its parent holding company, Middle South Utilities, sees near Redfield the future site of one of the world’s largest power plants, a gargantuan complex with 75-story smokestacks thrust into the sky. At $850 million, it will be the largest single private investment undertaken in the state. The coal-burning steam facility will generate 2,800 megawatts of electricity per hour, doubling the company’s present capacity. Three 100-car trainloads of strip-mined coal from Kerr-McGee and Peabody mines in Wyoming will roll into Redfield each day to fire the plant’s generators.

Were electricity the only product of the “White Bluffs” plant, as AP&L has dubbed it, Redfield citizens would doubtless already be accustomed to the rumble of bulldozers and earth-moving machines preparing the construction site. The coal, however, will do more than send electricity through the wires; it will also push 178,000 tons of sulfur dioxide out of the smoke stacks each year. Downwind from the plant lies some of the richest farm land in Arkansas. The rice, soybean and cotton stands found there are among the crops most susceptible to sulfur damage, yet AP&L has made no plans to install sulfur controls at White Bluffs.

The developing controversy over construction of the plant reveals ACORN’s unique structure and approach. Initial reaction to the planned generating facility was favorable. Certainly it would bring new jobs, more industry, and a powerful lift to a sleepy economy characterized by the third poorest school district in the state. As reports of potential pollution levels and other deleterious aspects of the plant became public, local citizens grew apprehensive and angry. The Jefferson County Improvement Organization, an ACORN affiliate whose previous focus had been the poor conditions in the schools, turned to ACORN for help in discovering more about AP&L’s plans for Redfield.

ACORN began organizing farmers in the vicinity of the plant. In the farmland areas of Plum Bayou, Ferda, Tucker, and England, hundreds of farmers began joining two new ACORN affiliates, Protect Our Land Association (POLA) and Save Our Health and Property (SHAPJ. In Little Rock and Pine Bluff, ACORN groups became concerned about the effects of the plant’s emissions on their cities. Finally, the ACORN board, composed of one representative from each affiliate, voted to intervene formally in proceedings against AP&L before the Public Service Commission. Using a 1973 study by Governor Bumpers’ Energy Forum and other resources, ACORN formulated 107 questions concerning the need for more energy and the environmental and economic impact of the White Bluffs plant. These questions as well as briefs from state agencies and ecology groups helped the Public Service Commission decide that AP&L’s environmental impact statement failed to provide satisfactory evidence on the plant’s long-term effects.

Meanwhile, the farmers directly confronted the utility with some imaginative tactics of their own. A request delivered by a delegation of ACORN members and signed by over one thousand area residents asked the company for a utility deposit in reverse. The deposit would serve as a guarantee against any damages suffered by the farmers from the plant’s operations. AP&L wanted neither controls nor responsibility.

Had these area organizations stood alone, the protest might have ended there. But as people around the state were becoming aware of Redfield, ACORN was discovering who pulled the strings at Arkansas Power and Light. The parent company, Middle South Utilities, had its headquarters in New York City. And to the surprise of many, ACORN learned that the company’s largest stockholder was Harvard University.


Going to Harvard

ACORN’s farmers took their case to Harvard with two requests: (1) that an “independent” economic and environmental study be made of the plant’s impact on Arkansas; and (2) that Harvard use its position on Middle South’s board of directors to pressure the corporation on the question of sulfur controls. At Harvard, students learned of Harvard’s “Arkansas connection,” and articles and letters began regularly appearing on the subject in the Harvard Crimson. When Arkansas governor Dale Bumpers, the standard bearer of the “New South,” spoke at Harvard, he encountered unexpected, stiff questioning about politics back home. He responded by calling for responsible measures by AP&L to protect Arkansas from pollution by the White Bluffs plant. The Arkansas press, aided by ACORN, picked up this news item and carried it across the state. The Governor eventually also supported ACORN’s demand that Harvard undertake a systematic study of the plant.

The university’s Advisory Committee for Shareholder Responsibility (created in response to protest over their holdings in Gulf Oil) publicly released a letter to Middle South urging the installation of sulfur controls at the Arkansas plant. As an institution, however, Harvard refused to conduct a study and make recommendations, but observed that individuals associated with the university were free to do so. ACORN then expanded the tactic by successfully soliciting strong statements of opposition to AP&L’s policies from thirteen other university stockholders. Southern colleges—Vanderbilt, Tulane, Emory, the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia—offered the least response to the concerns of what had become a rapidly growing number of Arkansans.

On June 17,1974, the forces of AP&L will meet the Redfield farmers at a formal Public Service Commission hearing. In response to PSC’s objections raised in the previous round of informal questioning, AP&L has hired a number of outside experts and prepared a massive 700-page environmental impact statement. Other intervenors, including the state attorney general and a state  wide ecology group, will be on hand at the proceedings. At that time, the PSC will determine whether AP&L should start construction based on two factors: the Commission’s acceptance of AP&L’s environmental impact statement, and the evidence the company produces to show a need for more energy.

Win or lose, ACORN has upped the price of profit in Arkansas—and perhaps other corporations will think twice before trying to save money by increasing the environmental costs to the citizens of the state. In mobilizing people around the state to come to the aid of the Redfield area residents, ACORN has followed its organizational pattern. But in taking the fight outside Arkansas, it has stretched its own model and opened it both to chance and change. Both the Non-Partisan League of North Dakota and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union weakened their impact after overextending themselves into new states and issues. Changes in ACORN have thus far not involved such radical expansion of its base or constituency. ACORN has kept the fight within Arkansas by focusing on the farmers of Redfield, the Public Service Commission hearings, and the statewide capacities of the ACORN structure. However, for the first time, the source of local discontent has been explored to its corporate roots. Whatever happens in the PSC hearings will involve this transition in people’s consciousness from the farms of Redfield to the investment power of Harvard University.