Tommy Fletcher still lives in the ramshackle frame house that President Lyndon Johnson visited on April 24, 1964, to launch his War on Poverty. At the time, Fletcher was a former coal miner in his early 30’s. Now in his 70’s, Fletcher keeps to himself. He never did find steady work. Photo by Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
As a general assignment feature writer, I have the good fortune of being tapped for a variety of assignments. Last year, at my editor’s urging, I began seeking out potential story ideas with our newspaper’s national editor, Greg Victor, whose only staff writers are based in Washington, D.C.. During one ofour impromptu meetings, Greg showed me a wire service article about a new litter-control program in Kentucky. The dumping of old chairs, rusty ovens, broken push mowers, washing machines and other household appliances over hillsides into hollows remains a serious cultural obstacle to progress throughout Appalachia. This news item prompted Greg to think this might be a good time for an in-depth look at what is happening in Appalachia nearly 40 years after the nation’s War on Poverty riveted the public eye to this region.
Greg asked if I would be interested in trying to explore this question, and of course I was.
As the daughter of a West Virginia family from Shinnston, in the north-central part of the state, I saw the assignment as a way to learn more about the region that shaped me without claiming me. I have always had a back-and-forth attitude toward “home,” believing it is too easily stereotyped and widely scorned while what I know about it is really different. Its negative portrayals are all too negative, and what is positive about the region remains all but unknown outside its borders.
“Carefully Choosing the Images of Poverty”
– Steve MellonAppalachia is a huge region that can nevertheless be plucked almost at random for microcosms of its sameness—rural living that is almost quaint, oddly genteel, modest, unwittingly plain and innocent, in fact, the very opposite of the image of the United States in general. I asked photographer Steve Mellon to team up with me. He has roots in eastern Kentucky and is known in the newsroom for his depth of thought and sensitivity. My first and overriding goal was to avoid the predictable images of poverty and attitudes of glib superiority that prevailed in nearly every article I’d read about the region.
For the first three weeks I researched old articles, government reports, and documents. I read books about coal miners, grassroots activists, and first-person accounts of community projects during the War on Poverty’s early years. I called old colleagues in Huntington, West Virginia, where I worked on my first newspaper, for ideas. I did preliminary phone interviews with people who are now active in developing efforts and initiatives to reinvent the economies of entire towns in anticipation of coal’s decline. Some people remembered President Lyndon Johnson’s visit to Inez, Kentucky and the sudden spotlight on poverty in 1964. Throughout the project, I got invaluable help with statistics and historical perspective from Mike Kiernan of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
By the time I set out to report the story, I had decided to focus on central Appalachia, the area that I think of as the region’s “gut”—specifically, southwestern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Appalachia extends to western Pennsylvania, home of two of the most distressed counties in the region, and I knew my focus might seem like a slight to local readers. But it is in this gut of Appalachia where poverty is thickest. In this area, one can drive an hour or two in many directions and reach more counties where poverty is the way of life than anywhere else in the region. I figured that if we could examine how the region has changed here, we’d be describing substantial, and perhaps the most indicative, changes in the region.
When my friends found out I was going to Inez and Hazard, Kentucky, some of them twang-sang the first few bars of the theme from the movie “Deliverance.” I have stopped taking people’s potshots at Appalachia and the poor people who live there personally, but I have realized that my people are the last ones in this country who can be made fun of without incident.
Steve and I trolled through the mountains for one week in June and another week in August. The national editor only reluctantly approved the second week of reporting; I know he felt pressure to show that taking a general assignment feature reporter out of circulation for national reporting didn’t have to mean it would grow into a huge and time-consuming project. I got our second valuable week back in Appalachia by convincing him that this effort was worthy of my time, and it did turn into a project. Once reported and written, the stories took up three days of Page One and significant jump space in November.
Our first visit, in Huntington, West Virginia, was to a traveling rural health clinic. The clinic personnel came from the Marshall University School of Medicine and went into adjacent counties where for generations residents have had insufficient medical care. The pediatrician in charge, a Cuban-born woman who considers West Virginia home, spoke tenderly and in awe of her patients. Having lived most recently on the outskirts of New York City, she displayed an almost protective attitude toward people in whom I found solid Appalachian qualities, as they responded “yes ma’am” and made their kids say it, and were rarely assertive or expectant.
Largely because Steve and I had no interest in hunting down stereotypic characters, we didn’t find but one—the man in whose front yard President Johnson was photographed that April day in 1964 when he declared the War on Poverty. Tommy Fletcher still lives in what looks like a shed, albeit with a new porch and railing. We felt compelled to go back to this spot and talk with him, but I considered his life to represent little more than a clichéd image. His life, according to others, has been a series of haplessness and hard-luck stories. He was uncommunicative, with a caved-in mouth and sad distant stares. I was almost glad he did not reveal much of his life since 1964. Instead of seeking out those with hard-luck stories to tell, the people we sought to tell Appalachia’s story today were those whose lives have changed. They are people overseeing economic incentive projects, people who have been inspired to take an active role in reinventing their towns and economies now that coal is in decline. We found lots of families who work hard, often barely making ends meet, but who have children enrolled in college who are preparing for better prospects ahead. There was a financial planner who challenged us to reflect people as they really are, and he used the word “ain’t” with dramatic flair, as if to mock any idea we might have that this dialect denotes lack of intelligence.
From regular trips I took out to my hometown, I knew that Appalachia had become less isolated (and, as a consequence, more up-to-date) during the ensuing decades. This does not mean that everything that has happened represents progress. Strip malls sit in what used to be meadows, and one is never far from a Ponderosa Steakhouse. More people wear the look of middle-class America and sound savvier, a consequence of having media at their fingertips like the rest of America.
What I worried about as I researched and reported this story was that few people would want to read about a place that for so long has been known for its poverty. A lot of people resent those who are poor and don’t even want to know that they exist, not to mention wanting to read about their lives. Especially since our story was set to appear during a time when the nation’s economic boom was still going strong, it seemed all the more ironic to suggest that such a thing as nascent economic recovery would make compelling reading in a three-day series. Even though we would be focusing on people who were not really poor in many aspects of their lives—they have homes, food, families, jobs and the camaraderie of community—still they were not doing anything extraordinary in the way most people who make the news do. What kept me going was a sense of faith that many of our readers would still relate to what struggle means and see, in those whose lives we featured, a bit of themselves.
Ultimately, what we wanted to portray about Appalachia was the story of people who weren’t defined (and stereotyped) by their poverty but rather by their efforts to confront and overcome the barriers of economic circumstance. By telling that story, we hoped our readers would recognize in our subjects the universal “we.”
Diana Nelson Jones, a native of Shinnston, West Virginia, is a weekly columnist and feature writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she has worked since 1990. She has also worked at The Tulsa Tribune, which folded in 1992, and the Huntington (W.Va.) Herald-Dispatch.