Maureen O’Connell grew up in St. Louis, Ill., in the 1940s. She was a community organizer for Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) from 1974-1992, and she served as Executive Director of the organization from 1992-2009. She begins the interview by talking about her childhood in East St. Louis, Ill.; her father’s involvement in the labor movement; her Irish heritage; growing up in an Irish Catholic family; and family life with ten siblings. She discusses becoming a teacher in Louisville, Ky. in 1967; joining the Louisville Peace Society; learning about the civil rights movement in Louisville, Ky. and supporting the West End Community Council; the Black Power movement; and becoming aware of the Black Six case in Louisville. She talks about volunteering in her community; learning about “The Movement”; connecting with the women’s movement; the influence of civil rights organizing on her life; and reading Michael Harrington’s Poverty in America. She explains how she ended up in Clairfield, Tenn. in 1969; volunteering for Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM); conducting research for the Vanderbilt Student Health Coalition; her family’s reaction to her political activities; her friendship with Anne Braden and participation in the Southern Conference Educational Fund. She describes how Save Our Cumberland Mountains has changed over the years; building coalitions between African American and rural white communities, especially JONAH (Just Organized Neighborhoods Area Headquarters); participating in the Southern Empowerment Project; and anti-racist organizing. She describes women’s leadership in Save Our Cumberland Mountains and gender roles in social movement organizations. She describes threats and intimidation that members of SOCM faced; tensions in communities between strip miners and those who opposed strip mining; and the Wartburg Massacre. She discusses legislation that regulates strip mining; SOCM’s relationship to the environmental movement; the resonance of environmental justice in low-income, working-class communities; and SOCM’s position on labor and economic justice issues. This interview is part of the Southern Oral History Program’s project to document the women’s movement in the American South.
Interview with Maureen O’Connell by Jessie Wilkerson, August 11 2010 U-0545, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007,Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.