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Former professor returns

Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 21:02

She protested policies on coal miners, sat in front of coal trucks, and was fired from East Tennessee State University.

After 40 years, Helen Matthews Lewis has returned to campus to discuss her book of writings.

“I guess I was just in the right place at the right time for that,” Lewis said. “But I was there and had several people who believed in better rights for coal miners, so we just sat down in front of the tow trucks.”

Lewis, who was released from ETSU for “nurturing radical students,” was one of a two teachers the university removed during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

The other teacher who was removed, Ed Knipe, was a tenured professor in the sociology department at the time.

A few people were outraged at the way ETSU was treating their employees, and several publications were started to reflect these feelings.

“I remember one was called ‘The Frigot,” Lewis said. “Their motto was, ‘If you don’t like it, frigot.’ And I liked that one.”

After she was released from the university, Lewis wrote a letter to the editor to The Pirate Press, the forerunner of the East Tennessean, that cleared up the way she thought about her removal.

“The university is not a business,” Lewis said in the letter. “It is an institution with the purpose of educating students, which includes ... liberating minds and encouraging free and critical thinking.”

Apart from educating the young minds enrolled in her sociology class, Lewis’ main cause was a fight for the families of coal miners.

At the time, miners didn’t receive any extra insurance or pensions, and were fairly low paid. Lewis fought for a tax on coal  that supported coal industry workers.  
Her book, “Living Social Justice in America,” Lewis talks about the struggles and strides she made in social issues within the Appalachian region.

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