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Elizabeth Catte notes that women’s grassroots leadership has been fundamental to progressive movements in Appalachia. She offers illustrations that range from Florence Reece penning the ballad “Which Side Are You On?” during a 1930s labor struggle, to teachers in Mingo County, West Virginia, leading the state’s teacher strike.
I agree that we can learn from the history of women’s activism in Appalachia—and women’s relationship to extractive capitalism—as we accept Catte’s call to move forward “through the past.” In response, I would like to provide further context by discussing another crucial moment in the history of women’s grassroots organizing, when women drew upon the zeitgeist of the 1960s and took advantage of Great Society legislation, most notably during and after the War on Poverty.
The consensus in Appalachia is that the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty was a failed liberal experiment. That characterization forgets how War on Poverty initiatives were vigorously opposed by local elites who served the interests of the coal industry, calling for investigations of antipoverty programs as a way to undercut their credibility. It also erases from memory the grassroots organizing of women. They worked in alliance with activists from across the region and country to implement and shape the most progressive legislation since the New Deal. They also envisioned a new economic future for Appalachia. Although the War on Poverty was cut short by the fracturing of the Democratic Party and conservative backlash, these women’s vision—for redistributive economic policies and a collective sense of fairness—remain an extraordinary source of political inspiration.
Edith Easterling was one such organizer. In 1964 she was a resident of one of the heaviest coal-producing counties in eastern Kentucky and the spouse of a disabled coal miner. Theirs was a pro-union household, and Easterling was politically active in her rural white community. She participated in the local PTA, making sure that resources were distributed to poor rural kids, and she campaigned for local Republican candidates, the “mountain Republicans” Catte describes in her essay. Easterling’s loyalties were not to a political party, however, but to her family and neighbors. So, when Lyndon Johnson and other Democrats promised federal aid to impoverished areas of Appalachia, Easterling wanted to know more.
Easterling took seriously the Economic Opportunity Act (1964), the signature legislation of the War on Poverty, when it called for “maximum feasible participation” of the poor in antipoverty programs. She soon joined forces with the Appalachian Volunteers, a federally funded service program led by young, white, college-educated men and women. The majority were not from Appalachian communities, but there were exceptions: Easterling’s daughter Sue Ella was among the first to join the organization, and she introduced her mother to federal antipoverty workers. Easterling soon became a paid organizer.
Starting in 1966, Easterling worked with antipoverty activist Joe Mulloy, a young Kentucky native inspired to join the Appalachian Volunteers because he wanted to be a part of progressive change in the South. Together they began organizing poor and working-class people in the Marrowbone community in Pike County, Kentucky. They opened a community center and library, where they ran workshops on a range of topics, from welfare rights to Appalachian labor history. They also joined the burgeoning movement against strip mining and helped expand it, exposing the costs of extractive capitalism on working-class communities. Easterling soon became part of a network of progressive activists in the South, and she and her husband opened their home to civil rights activists who traveled to the region, hoping to build alliances between black and white workers.
Easterling’s activism eventually earned her a spot on the board of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, a nationally known training school for progressive activists. It also put her, along with Mulloy and others, in the crosshairs of local officials who claimed outsider activists were plotting a takeover of eastern Kentucky.
The backlash extended into 1968, when the Kentucky state legislature created the Kentucky Un-American Activities Committee (KUAC). Initially formed to stymie civil rights and Black Power activism in Louisville, the committee soon targeted majority-white antipoverty organizations as well. KUAC called Easterling to testify and questioned her about her relationships with civil rights activists and so-called “subversives.” Easterling defended her allies and refuted the claims of local elites, who, she argued, cared more about lining their pockets than expanding democracy.
The following year, Easterling sent a friend her appraisal of the state of activism in Appalachia: “Interest has aroused, stones unturned, dander up, fever risen, and people speaking out on what they [believe].” She thought the movement would weather the backlash, and it did for a time. Well into the 1970s, Appalachian activists—many of them women—continued organizing. Their focus became redistributive policies, including a guaranteed income, access to health care, and welfare as a right of citizenship.
No component of the movement better captured the philosophy and optimism of the period than did the mixed-sex, interracial, regional organizing around welfare rights, a campaign led nationally by black women and fueled by the Poor People’s Campaign that grew out of Martin Luther King, Jr’s civil rights activism. For instance, the bylaws of the Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Organization, made up primarily of white welfare recipients and retired and disabled miners, stated its guiding principle that “the wealth created by the resources of this great country should be directed to give an adequate income to all its citizens.”
West Virginia organizer Shelva Thompson saw welfare rights as a way to build solidarity among working people. “There’s not just one group of oppressed people in the mountains,” she argued. “We’ve got miners, we’ve got welfare recipients, we’ve got blacks, Indians. But the government until now has kept those groups fighting each other till they never had time to fight the oppressor. And hopefully Appalachia is waking up.”
As Robin D. G. Kelley has written previously in Boston Review: “We cannot change this country without winning over some portion of white working people, and I am not talking about gaining votes for the Democratic Party. I am talking about opening a path to freeing white people from the prison house of whiteness.” Poor people’s movements of the 1960s and ’70s provide a blueprint for how to once again expose whiteness as “a foundational myth for the birth and consolidation of capitalism.”
Thompson called for class solidarity, and she and others also centered women’s unpaid caregiving labor in the coalfields. If they and their children were hungry, it was because capitalists owned the land and paid workers low wages. If they were sick, it was because industry denied them health care and polluted the environment. If they lacked decent schools, it was because tax policies favored corporate landowners over working-class communities. When the economy failed working people, they argued, women were left to pick up the pieces, caring for children, disabled adults, and the elderly.
By the late 1970s, the most progressive movements in Appalachia hobbled under a racist and sexist backlash that targeted welfare recipients. At the same time, the Democratic Party failed to follow the lead of welfare rights activists, whose economic proposals centered caregivers and made connections between welfare rights and worker rights. Appalachian women’s activism became muted. We must endeavor to recall and take inspiration from its radical spirit. If a working people’s movement in Appalachia seems impossible today, it is because we have failed to remember how and why they organized in the past.
Jessica Wilkerson is an Assistant Professor of History and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. She is the author of To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice.
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