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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.