- The Greater Good: Media, Family Removal, and TVA Dam Construction in North Alabama by Laura Beth Daws and Susan L. Brinson
The creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 has long been understood as a crucial moment in the early history of Franklin Roosevelt's administration and in the history of the South more broadly. Generations of scholars have rightly regarded the [End Page 89] TVA as one of the most transformative New Deal projects and the crown jewel of 1930s American economic planning. Underneath that triumphal narrative, however, were the years of displacement and hardship that awaited many families in the path of TVA projects. Laura Beth Daws, associate professor of communication at Kennesaw State University, and Susan L. Brinson, professor emeritus of mass communication at Auburn University, have written The Greater Good as an attempt to reclaim the mostly forgotten stories of the people who were made to move out of the TVA's path. As the authors recount, squatters, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, landowners, and anyone else occupying acreage that would become part of TVA projects found little public outlet for their struggles. North Alabama newspapers provided overwhelmingly positive coverage of the TVA, which most local boosters saw as a godsend to a deeply impoverished region. The TVA's sophisticated public relations arm worked hand-in-hand with local media and leaders to burnish the Authority's image and fend off critics. Daws and Brinson do not argue that the struggles of relocated families outweighed the benefits provided by the TVA: flood control, cheap electric power, and a rising standard of living. Instead, this new book represents an effort to remember the hardship that accompanied modernization and progress, and understand how the TVA controlled the narratives surrounding its projects.
As scholars with communications backgrounds, Daws and Brinson approach the TVA from a different perspective than most New Deal historians. The story they tell is how a major New Deal agency used the power of information, and the scale of its regional influence, to counteract the many challenges to its authority. In Alabama, the TVA quickly became embroiled in numerous struggles with private utilities, most notably Alabama Power. As the TVA confronted lawsuits and other existential threats, it turned to local media to help build a popular case for its survival. The TVA's Information Office posed as an objective fact-providing body, one that worked closely with the editors of North Alabama newspapers and compliant government officials. These alliances were crucial to building widespread [End Page 90] popular support for the TVA. When criticism of the TVA did emerge, these surrogates were usually quick to respond. This also meant that those who objected to aspects of the TVA's agenda had a hard time finding sympathetic outlets that would print their stories. As Daws and Brinson describe it, the TVA simply meant too much to too many people to allow negative stories to come to light.
In addition to looking through the publications of North Alabama newspapers, Daws and Brinson utilize the TVA's own records to great effect. Of particular interest are the human stories they pull from the archives of TVA caseworkers. These caseworkers were assigned to assist (or persuade) families in the path of TVA projects to relocate off the land. The caseworkers thus embodied a dual role: caring for the relocated persons on the one hand, and advancing the interests of the TVA on the other. In many instances, this was an arduous and drawn-out process. The extreme poverty of many North Alabama residents meant that few had extra resources to spare searching for a new place to live. Although the TVA paid approximate fair market value to most landowners, sharecroppers and tenants received nothing. Those landless farmers struggled the most with relocation, and for Black farmers, their difficulties were compounded by race. The limited opportunities afforded to African Americans meant that many were forced to search far and...