Robert Kennedy’s two-day “pover­ty tour” of Appalachian Kentucky in February 1968 doesn’t get a men­tion in most of his biographies.

They almost invari­ably ref­er­ence his 1967 vis­it to the Mississippi Delta, where he saw mal­nour­ished chil­dren liv­ing in dirt-floor shacks, the despair he dis­cov­ered on the Pine Ridge Indian reser­va­tion in South Dakota and rat-infest­ed ten­e­ments in Harlem, and his cham­pi­oning of Cesar Chavez’s Chicano farm­work­ers in California. But there’s almost noth­ing about his com­ing to Eastern Kentucky, which I find odd because it hap­pened only days before he announced his deci­sion to chal­lenge Lyndon B. Johnson for the pres­i­den­cy. Even his­to­ri­an Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s thou­sand-page opus, “Robert Kennedy and His Times” leaves it out of its chap­ter on Kennedy as a “tri­bune of the underclass.”

Book cover: All This Marvelous Potential
Book cov­er: All This Marvelous Potential

Until recent­ly, most of what I knew about Kennedy’s Senate field hear­ings of Feb. 13–14, 1968 I learned from cov­er­ing Los Angeles direc­tor John Malpede’s “RFK in EKY” 2004 re-enact­ment for Appalshop, and from for­mer Kennedy staffer Peter Edelman’s lec­ture at the University of Kentucky the night before the per­for­mance. Recently, I recalled those events in an arti­cle for WinCity News & Views, cit­ing my ear­li­er work for The Jessamine Journal.

In that arti­cle, I con­sid­ered includ­ing a bib­li­og­ra­phy of some recent books on Kennedy and Appalachian Kentucky that I want­ed to rec­om­mend to read­ers, but I thought it would make it too long. So I offer those here in a sep­a­rate commentary.

Journey through the past

In “All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia,” National Public Radio reporter Matthew Algeo has writ­ten the sto­ry I would like to have done myself. The award-win­ning author and jour­nal­ist sug­gests Kennedy’s pur­pose was, in part, polit­i­cal. The coun­try was rife with spec­u­la­tion about an RFK pres­i­den­tial run, and he want­ed to test his anti-pover­ty and anti-war mes­sage among hard­scrab­ble white vot­ers in one of America’s for­got­ten places.

The offi­cial rea­son for the vis­it, how­ev­er, was for the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty to study the prob­lems of unem­ploy­ment and wel­fare in the coal­fields of Appalachia and to gauge how well the War on Poverty was working.

The oth­er mem­ber of the com­mit­tee who was sup­posed to have joined Kennedy for the field hear­ings was Republican Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, who had been a close friend of Bobby’s broth­er, President John F. Kennedy. Cooper had to can­cel because of the death of his uncle, but Kennedy was joined by Kentucky Congressman Carl D. Perkins, a Democrat who, like Kennedy and Cooper, was an advo­cate for help­ing the disadvantaged.

Others involved in the tour were Harry Caudill, author of “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” who had invit­ed Kennedy to come to Kentucky; Gov. Bert Combs, whose roy­al blue car was used to trans­port Kennedy on the 200-mile trip; Tom Gish, edi­tor of the cru­sad­ing week­ly Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg; William Greider, who cov­ered the vis­it for The Courier-Journal and lat­er became a reporter for The Washington Post and nation­al affairs edi­tor for Rolling Stone; and Kennedy aides Edelman and Tom Johnston, a Kentuckian.

Book cover: Appalachian Fall
Book cov­er: Appalachian Fall

It’s the unsung heroes of the sto­ry, though, that I find most inter­est­ing. People like Milton Ogle of the Appalachian Volunteers; Dee Davis, who was then a Hazard high school stu­dent and is now direc­tor of the Center for Rural Strategies; Bonnie Jean Carroll, the teacher at the one-room school­house at Barwick, and stu­dents includ­ing Tommy Duff who pub­lished the Cloverfork Newsletter and got into trou­ble for expos­ing poor con­di­tions at their high school at Evarts. Algeo inter­views many of the peo­ple who were part of the two-day tour and fol­lows what hap­pened to some of them in lat­er years. He com­pares the Appalachia of that time to today and tells why it matters.

The book was pub­lished in 2020 by Chicago Review Press.

Appalachian reckoning

A con­stant crit­i­cism of those who come to “dis­cov­er” Appalachia and its prob­lems is that their efforts are often super­fi­cial. The jour­nal­ists and politi­cians make no real attempt to under­stand the peo­ple, or they exploit the stereo­types in the fash­ion of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” If you want to get a bet­ter under­stand­ing of Appalachia and its chal­lenges today, I rec­om­mend two recent books that aren’t like that at all.

The first is “Appalachian Fall: Dispatches from Coal Country on What’s Ailing America,” by Jeff Young and the Ohio Valley Resource. It is writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of pub­lic broad­cast­ing jour­nal­ists in the region, led by Young, who grew up in West Virginia and lives in Louisville.

I read this book, pub­lished in 2020 by Tiller Press, about the same time as “All This Marvelous Potential.” For those who think Appalachia’s prob­lems are unique, “Appalachian Fall” sug­gests they may be a fore­taste of what the future holds for all of us.

Book cover: Twilight in Hazard
Book cov­er: Twilight in Hazard

The sto­ries include those of min­ers who block train tracks to protest being cheat­ed out of their wages after their com­pa­ny goes bank­rupt, farm­ers rais­ing hemp as a new cash crop, activists fight­ing moun­tain­top removal min­ing, dis­eases of despair rav­aging places like Clay City, Kentucky and the dan­gers of con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed water in Martin County.

The oth­er book, “Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning,” is the mem­oir of Courier-Journal reporter Alan Maimon’s years spent cov­er­ing Eastern Kentucky for the newspaper’s Hazard bureau, pub­lished last year by Melville House. 

Mamon, for­mer­ly of The New York Times’ Berlin bureau, got the assign­ment in 2000 with the Louisville news­pa­per to cov­er the region “like a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent would.” He report­ed on envi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion, the opi­oid epi­dem­ic, vote-buy­ing, bare-knuck­le pol­i­tics, assas­si­na­tions, the rea­sons for the decline of the coal econ­o­my and the wor­ship of Donald Trump by immers­ing him­self in the com­mu­ni­ties he cov­ered for many years and get­ting to know their peo­ple. He even mar­ried a coal miner’s daughter.

The book also takes a no-holds-barred look at the tragedy of the decline of the news­pa­per indus­try, which can’t all be blamed on tech­nol­o­gy, and what that means for the future of journalism.

It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing look at a peo­ple, a place and the prac­tice of news­pa­per reporting.

The evolution of RFK

Book cover: Bobby Kennedy The Making of a Liberal Icon
Book cov­er: Bobby Kennedy The Making of a Liberal Icon

I’ve read many biogra­phies of Robert Kennedy, whom I con­sid­er one of the most intrigu­ing and inspir­ing fig­ures of my life­time. The first one, I think, was Jack Newfield’s mem­oir, writ­ten short­ly after Kennedy’s death. But the one I would rec­om­mend is also one of the most recent: “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” by Larry Tye, a for­mer reporter for The Courier Journal and The Boston Globe and a Harvard Nieman Fellow. It was pub­lished by Random House in 2016 and is based on pre­vi­ous­ly unre­leased gov­ern­ment files, unpub­lished mem­oirs and hun­dreds of inter­views, includ­ing those with the senator’s wid­ow, Ethel Kennedy, his sis­ter, Jean Smith and his for­mer aide, John Seigenthaler.

I find the sub­ti­tle mis­lead­ing because Bobby Kennedy was not a typ­i­cal lib­er­al and didn’t like the label. But Kennedy was some­one who changed in many ways through­out his short life. This com­pre­hen­sive and well-researched biog­ra­phy chron­i­cles this trans­for­ma­tion — from cold war­rior to peace can­di­date, from McCarthy acolyte to civ­il lib­er­ties advo­cate, from a millionaire’s son to a defend­er of the poor, from a prag­mat­ic politi­cian who court­ed seg­re­ga­tion­ist Southern sen­a­tors to an ally of civ­il rights pro­test­ers and from a cru­sad­er against union cor­rup­tion to a cham­pi­on of immi­grant field work­ers’ efforts to organize.

Kennedy was often described as ruth­less, and it’s true he could be impa­tient with those who got in his way and was hard when deal­ing with hard men. But he could also be gen­tle with poor chil­dren and oth­ers who were most vul­ner­a­ble. In an age of cyn­i­cism, he was an opti­mist. As a polit­i­cal oper­a­tive, he was a real­ist, but one who could “dream of things that nev­er were and ask, ‘Why not?’”

If you haven’t read a full-length biog­ra­phy of Robert Kennedy and would like to, start with this one.

  • Randy Patrick

    Randy Patrick is a deputy coun­ty clerk for elec­tions and vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and a for­mer reporter and edi­tor of The Winchester Sun.