The TVA, Norris, and Its Legacy

Despite its failure to provide equal opportunity to all families affected, the image of a modernized Norris Basin and opportunities for thousands of families, the TVA succeeded in creating a lasting image as one of the most successful New Deal initiatives. Journalist Lorena Hickock recounted her first experience touring the Tennessee Valley:

"A Promised Land, bathed in golden sunlight, is rising out of the grey shadows of want and squalor and wretchedness down here in the Tennessee Valley these days. Nearly 10,000 men are at work in the Valley now, at Norris and Wheeler dams… Thousands of them are residents of the Valley, working five and a half hours a day, five days a week, for a really LIVING wage. Houses are going up for them to live in—better houses than they ever had in their lives before. And in their leisure time they are studying—farming, trades, the art of living, preparing themselves for the fuller lives they are to lead in that Promised Land.[1]

Even those embittered by the process of losing their homes or disappointed by unfulfilled promises understood saw the benefits they enjoyed from the work of the TVA. John Rice Irwin, whose family moved twice due to eminent domain decisions in 1935 and again in 1942, notes that even the most adamant opposition would have to admit after a few years that the TVA was beneficial to the area overall.

There is no question that the TVA had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the Southeast U.S. By creating a massive infrastructure of dams, hydroelectric power, flood control, and support for industrial development, the agency was able to move much of the rural South into the industrial era. The speed at which it was completed, in part resulting from the urgency to turn around the economy in the grips of the Great Depression, was equally impressive. Eminent domain was clearly a central policy tool that was used to fast-track gargantuan projects. It also had its negative human consequences in the form of forced displacement and resettlement of thousands of individuals and families. For some resettlement represented an improvement, for others, it just perpetuated their marginal economic status and racial segregation.

The TVA is held up as one of the most successful efforts of building coalitions of support for its programs and actions. In tumultuous times it recruited support from all corners of local and regional communities to rapidly move its projects ahead. Sociologist Philip Selznick in what is often described as the classic study of the TVA, analyzes how local grassroots community groups and other voluntary associations were “co-opted” by the agency in building legitimacy for its work and, on the surface at least, sharing responsibility for its actions. As Selznick puts it this represented a “sharing of the burdens of and responsibility for power, rather than power itself.” [2] Those residents forced to move to make way for the Norris Dam were made keenly aware of that power—the ultimate power of eminent domain.

[1]New Deal Network, 2015. “Letters from the Field: Lorena Hickok Reports on the State of the Nation” in “TVA Electricity for All.” Accessed February 13, 2016.

[2] Selznick, Philip. TVA and the Grass Roots: A Study in the Sociology of Formal Organization. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966, p. 264.