In an op-ed published on the day of his funeral, Congressman John Lewis offered one final lesson.
“Democracy is not a state,” he wrote. “It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
And he also urged us to study the movements of the past, writing:
“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you.”
We’ve spent the first few episodes of this season of the Reckon Interview examining some of the ugliest, painful parts of Southern history. Today, we’re going to take our cues from Rep. Lewis and discuss the history of coalition building in the South.
Southerners have built movements that have changed the world. But movement building takes work. Missing from our textbooks are the stories Appalachian white women finding common interests with the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Or Kentucky hillbillies aligning themselves with Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers in Chicago. Dr. Jessica Wilkerson is a labor historian at the University of West Virginia, she and I spoke about her book “To Live Here, You Have to Fight,” and the history of labor movements in Appalachia. And R.L. Nave spoke with Arekia Bennett about her work registering and mobilizing young voters in Mississippi.
Here are a few excerpts from the conversation with Dr. Wilkerson to get you started. We’ll have excerpts from the conversation with Arekia Bennett tomorrow. But you can listen to the whole episode here.
Dr. Jessica Wilkerson on “To Live Here, You Have to Fight”
“To live here, you have to fight” is a play on a couple of phrases that were common among these women I write about who lived, in worked in, and were activists in the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky. And they were drawing upon the famous phrase by Mother Jones, the labor activist, who said “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” Many women would repeat that phrase. They also had posters of Mother Jones that they would put in scrapbooks. They really used her as a model for their own activism.
And then there was another woman, a contemporary at the time, Bessie Smith Gayheart, who was an environmental justice activist during the 1960s and 70s. And she said, “I’m going to stay here but to stay here, you’re going to have to fight.” And she was speaking to this idea [some people had] that if people struggled in Appalachian coal field communities, they should just leave. And she’s really digging in and saying, No, this is my home, I’m going to fight for this place. And so really the women that I write about were fighting for their homes and their communities.
These are communities in Eastern Kentucky, their working class, most of them white communities in Eastern Kentucky, and then some in West Virginia, and southwestern Virginia. And the period they’re doing that is the 1960s, a moment of multiracial organizing. One thing I found really compelling and fascinating about them is that they saw their own struggles as parallel or sometimes intersecting with the civil rights movement and by 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign, and there was an Appalachian movement of, they called themselves hillbillies who went to Resurrection City and participated in the Poor People’s Campaign.
One of the major issues at the time, of course, is the War on Poverty that is part of the Great Society under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. So, for one, they are fighting for access to federal resources. Some of your listeners may be familiar with the imagery that’s coming out at that time that is using Appalachian whites as kind of the poster children of the War on Poverty.
That, of course didn’t always mean — it usually didn’t mean — that they were getting access to those resources. So much like people in, you know, Black folks in the Deep South, they’re fighting for access to federal resources. This is an issue of equity. And as I said, they were in the coal fields. The coal fields were undergoing dramatic transformations around mechanization. And also, many families were dealing with disability. Many men had black lung disease; the federal government didn’t recognize that as a disease. So that’s one other thing they’re fighting for is just, you know, health care issues. And then finally, they’re fighting for the right to organize and to gain access to power, again, much like the civil rights movement.
Especially by the late 60s where you have Martin Luther King Jr and then, of course, the Black Power movement, which has a big influence, especially on Appalachian youth. It’s saying, you know, we should get access to these resources that belong to all of us. And we should have a say in how these resources reach our community. And so those are just a few of the issues that I think lend they lend themselves to these broader coalitions.
Prof. Jessica Wilkerson on the way Appalachia is used in politics
This has everything to do with racial politics. You know, the fact that there’s imagery of white Appalachians during the war on poverty. At the time, Johnson was going on tours of places in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia speaking with poor people, poor white people in Appalachia. And that was, at least in one sense, a ploy to get Southern white Democrats to support the War on Poverty. It was a way of pointing at Appalachia and saying, “see, we’re going to send resources to white people?”
I would say, today, Appalachia is often used in the media as kind of white people who are stubborn and they’re not willing to vote in their own interests, right. But it’s still largely about a racial politics and kind of pointing at Appalachia as the problem that needs to be fixed or the people we can blame for many of the problems that we have.
The women that I write about, many of them were born in the 1920s. And that puts them as young children, and some of them young women during the labor struggles of the 1930s. And of course, the coal fields of Appalachia were a really significant place for the labor movement with the United Mine Workers organizing there and pushing Roosevelt on the New Deal and so many of them had a memory of that.
By the 60s, they’re drawing upon that collective history, the fact that many of their fathers and brothers were members of the United Mine Workers and that they were supporters of the union. And when the War on Poverty begins, they begin organizing community centers, they organized to become members of the Appalachian volunteers and the VISTA organizations so that they can influence the policies that are related to the war on poverty and so that they can control some of the resources.
And so, you know, the history that I write about really pushes back against this notion that people in Appalachia are only concerned about themselves and any problem that they have is based on individual behavior. The women I write about were dealing with that same argument in the 1960s. And the way they responded was to say, look, the coal industry controls everything in our communities. They control state politics. They control local politics. They control the courthouses. And they keep wages low. And they keep us sick. And they keep us tired and disabled. They also pollute the environment. This is not about individual behavior. This is about power and who controls the resources.
Dr. Jessica Wilkerson on organizing in the 60s
this is something that I thought about all the time, especially when I was in the archives, and came upon all of these underground newsletters that people printed — organizations in Appalachia printed and distributed. So they would create these newsletters where they could provide information about, say the latest legislation that was passed. They would cover stories about campaigns in, say Los Angeles or Louisville, Kentucky. They would then also cover what was happening in their own communities and list all of the upcoming meetings. And if you needed a ride, who to call.
What’s amazing about them is the kind of breadth that these newsletters had in terms of covering the social movements at the time, nationwide, but then also what that local variant looks like, and then getting people to show up to meetings. And it wasn’t easy. People lived far apart. They lived in rural mountain communities. At that point, there weren’t good highway systems. They would drive back and forth and pick people up and, you know, get people to the meetings.
I think that’s something that we should remember. I mean, of course, it’s difficult in the time of COVID. We can’t show up in person. But when we can show up again, that if you go ask someone to show up to a meeting, they’re more likely to show up because you asked. People want an invitation. You know, that’s really how they were able to organize the movement.
Dr. Jessica Wilkerson on lessons for today’s coalitions
I think one of the most important lessons from the Appalachian movement and how it kind of fit in to the broader movements of the 60s and 70s is that our movements really need to listen to and center, in particular Black women and other people of color, and the most vulnerable of our communities, people who are harmed the most by policies. To listen closely to what they are saying would be the best way forward.
I have a chapter in my book about Appalachian women’s participation in the feminist movement. And it’s a episode where women from Eastern Kentucky who are working class and poor, meet with the Commission on Women in Kentucky, made up of elite women who were appointed by the governor. And they meet at a courthouse, you know, the women on the commission are really invested. I mean, they’re there they want to listen. They hear the testimonies of Appalachian women. And the Appalachian women are saying, look, we care about survival and economic issues. We’re not so much in invested in getting access to credit cards, or you know, maybe becoming a leader of a corporation is not exactly like the dream for us.
And so you know, this commission listened to them. But at the end of the day, those kinds of commissions and the kind of feminism that becomes dominant in terms of policy doesn’t really help poor and working-class women across race, and their vision of what equity would look like is really sacrificed. I think many of the problems we see today are a result of that. And we can see that across the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. You know, what happened to those policies?
And so, that’s what I would say is that, you know, when people say they want Medicare for all, and a majority of people are saying that, let’s hold on to that. It’s going to be called socialist, or communist. But what would it look like to fight for that and to convince, you know, people who might have questions about how that would work that, in fact, it’s gonna be better for the country?
And I think there is a contemporary model for this with the teachers’ movements. So in West Virginia, teachers led a movement a couple of years ago as part of the Red for Ed movement. And they’re really fighting for access to the common good, right? They are defending public education and public resources. And I think their vision of what progress and the common good looks like is actually very similar to the women in the 60s and 70s, who were organizing. So I hope we can hold on to that.
For more about Appalachian movements, listen to the full conversation here.
Tomorrow, the Mississippi Votes’ Arekia Bennett tells us organizing during a pandemic.