June 28, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Matthew Stevenson:
Not since the 1960s, in particular the campaigns of John and Robert Kennedy, has Appalachia played a major part in a presidential election. In 1960, when John Kennedy won the West Virginia primary, it signaled his arrival as a serious national candidate. Then it was a backdrop for speaking about poverty, education failures, the importance of labor unions and the sense that the Democratic Party cared more for mine workers than the corporations that owned the mines.
In 1968 Robert Kennedy held Senate hearings around the themes of Appalachia’s downfall, connecting miners’ hardships to the failures of the federal government to provide wage support, health care, retirement benefits, educational support and help for impoverished women with children.
He contrasted its neglect against the waste in Vietnam. In anticipation of his run for the presidency, Robert Kennedy went to Whitesburg, Ky., where he met with the best-selling author Harry M. Caudill.
Caudill’s 1963 book about Appalachia, “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” had enlightened many, including JFK, about the depressed coal regions of Appalachia, which helped to power, but then missed out on, the American dream. He wrote: “Coal has always cursed the land in which it lies.”
Admiring both John and Robert Kennedy, I read “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” as a high school senior. When it came time to select a topic for independent study, I chose the coalfields of Appalachia, even though I had grown up in suburban New York. As part of the research, I spent 10 days riding trains and hitchhiking across West Virginia, to understand better what the Kennedys and Caudill were saying.
Until recently I had not traveled again in Appalachia. This time, I drove a rental car toward the coal counties of southwest Virginia. I was following a freight line of the Norfolk Southern Railroad that ran through Rural Retreat.
Down the hill from Pound Gap is Whitesburg, Ky., where Caudill wrote his books and where Robert Kennedy campaigned in 1968.
Not knowing anyone in Whitesburg, a mixture of sad-looking storefronts and small houses, I headed for the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library, hoping that a local librarian could steer me toward his house or tell me more about Robert Kennedy’s visit.
I found the staff willing to pull manuscripts and clippings that Caudill had donated to the library before he killed himself, in 1990. (He was suffering from Parkinson’s.)
I was shown a book, still out on the open shelves, that Robert Kennedy had autographed on Feb. 14, 1968.
Caudill was among the first to oppose strip mining. Were he alive today, the librarian said, he would despair about mountaintop removal mining, in which summits are broken open like a soft-boiled egg and the shells dumped into nearby streams. Many companies find it expedient to walk away from their environmental indemnity bond rather than restore mountains to something like their previous state.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the senator’s sons, recently helped to make a documentary film, “The Last Mountain,” about this practice. The film picks up the themes evoked by Kennedy’s father and Caudill — that coal is both the life and death of Appalachia.
Profits from the mines go to corporate suites far from such Kentucky counties as Perry, Letcher, and Whitely. Nevertheless, with Appalachia having diversified quite a bit from coal, its poverty and unemployment rates are now closer to national averages than they were when Caudill wrote his books.
To see some of the “removed” mountains, I drove around Harlan County, went to the excellent coal-mining museum in Benham, Ky., descended into an old mine at Lynch, and camped in a state park with a panoramic view of Appalachia. The uneasy night was worth it to be on top of the world for dawn’s early light, which shimmered off several peaks that, from a distance, looked like heads shaved bare.
Around these industrial skinheads were the scars from the excavators that had stripped clear the trees and other vegetation.
Caudill writes: “It is an extractive industry which takes all away and restores nothing. It mars but never beautifies. It corrupts but never purifies.”
Matthew Stevenson is the author of “Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited” and “April Across America.”