Analysis Human Rights

The Appalachian Presence in the Poor People’s Campaign

Jessica Wilkerson

Forgotten by history, young Appalachians formed a vital presence in the original Poor People’s Campaign—and they took the lessons they learned home.

Imagined by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the goal of the Poor People’s Campaign was nothing less than to transform society. For six weeks, thousands of poor people from all regions in the United States assembled in Washington D.C. in a makeshift tent city they named Resurrection City. Daily they held teach-ins and marches and met with government officials. They demanded jobs, a guaranteed income, land rights, a voice in politics, access to housing and food, and an end to wars. On June 19, 1968, some fifty-thousand people gathered for Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom. One day later, the National Guard forcibly removed them and tore down their city.

Today, the “Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival” has begun to spread across the country. The Reverends Liz Theoharis and William Barber have coordinated with multiple organizations to continue the unfinished work of the first Poor People’s Campaign: the fight for justice and equality.

Among those who converged on the nation’s capital in the 1960s for the original campaign were Appalachian youth. Too often muted in the histories of the time, young Appalachians formed a vital presence in the Poor People’s Campaign. Importantly, they also brought the lessons of the Campaign home to their Appalachian communities through the organizing work they continued to do back in the mountains.

The history of the Poor People’s Campaign reminds us of the significant role Appalachian youth have played in building and sustaining campaigns for justice, and the importance of supporting young activists in Appalachia today.

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The Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 built upon years of organizing. Led by Black civil rights activists, it was an expansion of the Black freedom struggle and an invitation to poor and working people across the country—Chicano, American Indian, and poor whites—to join in solidarity. Most histories of the Poor People’s Campaign mention that poor whites from Appalachia joined the movement, but they typically name only Myles Horton, a seasoned labor and civil rights activist, who directed the Highlander Folk School, a civil rights training school in Tennessee. Horton joined some of the planning meetings and offered resources, but he was not the primary mover and shaker when it came to the poor people’s movement in Appalachia. Youth were.

Appalachian youth began to mobilize during the War on Poverty, when college-aged people joined the federally funded public service programs Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and the Appalachian Volunteers, and set up education and recreation programs throughout the region. By 1966, young people gathered in community centers and traveled to other cities and towns to network. Their conversations soon turned to all the things that they saw as unjust: crumbling schools, hemorrhaging of jobs, a punitive welfare system, imperial wars, environmental destruction, and racism.

In February 1968, a group of Appalachian youth showed up to the “poverty tour,” during which Sen. Robert F. Kennedy toured Appalachia to hear public testimony about food programs and the War on Poverty. High school students from Harlan County, Kentucky, and Dickinson County, Virginia, greeted the senator and his caravan with a protest. Several white boys and girls and one Black boy positioned themselves on a grassy bank alongside the road. They wore brown paper bags over their heads; they knew they would be suspended from school if their identities were known. They carried signs that declared “Poor Power,” “Don’t Give Us Promises! Give Us Education, Jobs,” “No power, No rights, No freedom,” and “Stop Strip Mining Now!”

The Harlan County group initially called themselves Youth for a Better Harlan, but soon revised their name to Harlan County Youth Liberation, associating themselves with a youth movement that offered a left critique of corporate power, government bureaucracy, and the war in Vietnam. Their stated purpose was to educate themselves on the issues of the day and work to “bring about a change in the economic and political condition of Harlan County.” In their newspaper, they publicized the Poor People’s Campaign, and they also drew connections between Appalachian youth and youth movements across the country—reporting on a high school walkout led by Mexican American students in Los Angeles, for example, and drawing a parallel to the campaigns for better education in Appalachia.

In the spring of 1968, members of the Harlan group attended planning meetings for the Poor People’s Campaign in West Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina. In Charleston, West Virginia, Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference electrified the crowd. One student remembered: “We was over there, the welfare mothers was over there, the black lung people was there. All the poor people in that part of the country went!” Appalachian students then joined the movement in Washington, D.C., where they marched with Black, Chicano, and Native American groups on Solidarity Day and joined delegations of Appalachians to confront congressional leaders.

After the Campaign

The Poor People’s Campaign of the 1960s ended without dramatic legislative victories, but as historian Gordon Mantler argues, it led to long-lasting coalitions and forced a national conversation about persistent poverty. Appalachian youth did not give up. They took the spirit of the campaign home.

Young people in Appalachia carried the torch of the Poor People’s Campaign into regional organizations, transforming them in the process. The largest organization in Appalachia, the Council of the Southern Mountains, had operated as a clearinghouse for federal funding. Led by middle-class white men and women, the organization had historically promoted social reforms like maternal health leagues and jobs programs. Appalachian youth now demanded that the Council take up much broader issues: how laws and institutions created social inequalities.

Sue Ella Kobak, from eastern Kentucky, was among the leaders of the youth movement. In college at Morehead State University when the War on Poverty began, she worked, along with her mother, in anti-poverty programs. She also joined the southern student movement, helping to plan anti-war rallies and organizing chapters of Appalachian Students Organizing Committee, a group that hoped to pull Appalachian youth into social movements. At her university she co-edited a leftist, underground newspaper. In 1968, Kobak spent weeks in D.C., attending rallies during the Poor People’s Campaign, where her boyfriend and future husband, John Kobak, was a part of the Appalachian contingent at Resurrection City. Sue Ella returned to Kentucky for summer school, but she continued to organize youth and secured funds to send them to D.C.

Over the course of the following year, she and other Appalachian youth turned their sights to the Council of the Southern Mountains. Kobak, a co-chair of the Council’s Youth Commission, proposed a “free university”: a “floating education system” that promoted an early example of an Appalachian studies curriculum. Kobak drove hundreds of miles to different college campuses to recruit students to the conference, and organize panels. The Youth Commission proposed that the free university would help to foster the “political and social conscious” of young people, tell a “true Appalachian history,” and forge interracial coalitions that brought together “all of those who are oppressed.”

The free university workshops ran concurrent to the Council’s annual conference in April 1969 in the Smoky Mountains. The conference drew several hundred students, long-time Council members, and grassroots anti-poverty activists. Organizers arranged panels on civil rights, the draft, and women’s liberation. The majority of the panels focused on the Appalachian region, from politics and economics to labor history.

Kobak and others had more in mind than a separate youth meeting, however. They wanted to see the Council transform to reflect their needs and address the most pressing political issues of the day. Leaders of the free university coordinated with Black activists, including Jack Guillebeaux, a civil rights activist from Black Mountain, North Carolina. He and other Black Appalachians, like educator and activist Edward J. Cabbell, had begun to organize against “Black invisibility” in the region.

To the shock of the middle-class members, representatives of Appalachian youth, Black Appalachians, and poor people’s organizations formed a voting bloc and pushed through a radical agenda: amending the Council’s bylaws to say that 51 percent of the board of commissioners must be poor people. They established a Black Appalachian Commission, and they put forward resolutions opposing the war in Vietnam. They called for a guaranteed income for all Americans, and they demanded that federal military spending be re-routed into domestic programs.

Over the next decade, the Council became more militant. In the 1970s, its members publicized protests, promoted labor strikes, exposed corporate abuse in the form of occupational disease and environmental destruction, and documented civil and women’s rights campaigns. It also lost financial backing as middle-class members with institutional affiliations and access to funding agencies left. The organization remained an important clearinghouse in the region for several years, but as political tides shifted and funding dried up, it hobbled into the 1980s and shut its doors in 1989.

The lessons of Appalachian involvement in the Poor People’s Campaign and the free university resonate with our own political times. People living in Appalachia face the consequences of corporate abuse by pharmaceutical industries, continuing battles around land rights, a lack of reproductive health services, and the expansion of the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration.

The Appalachian region also continues to be home to visionary youth who are best situated to imagine solutions to the region’s problems. It is incumbent upon our institutions and organizations, often controlled by middle-class, white professionals—some of whom recently dismissed the concerns of Appalachian youth and activists—to listen to, financially support, and build meaningful alliances with the region’s young visionaries.

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