Friday, August 28, 2015

Speak Your Piece: The Appalachian Vote and Dirty Uniforms


Jesse Jackson spoke to 4,000 people in the Hazard high school gym in his 1988 presidential campaign.
Photo: Mimi Pickering

In 1988, the Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Appalachia and it changed his life.

Jackson was running for president and he brought his campaign to Hazard, Kentucky, a small town deep in the state's mountain coalfields. When he ate cornbread at Bailey's, like every place he went in Eastern Kentucky, Jackson attracted a crowd. One young woman there at the roadside eatery pushed her newborn into Rev Jackson's arms. The child's grandmother blurted, "Don't nobody dare tell him what this baby's named," and then gave up the secret. The child's name was Reagan.

Jackson promptly put his palm on the youngster's forehead and commanded, "Heal!" His old time preacher style "drew whoops from the restaurant regulars in this Eastern Kentucky hardscrabble hill country," the Washington Post reported.

More than whoops, however, Jesse Jackson drew respect and a following. A reported 4,000 people crammed the high school gym in Hazard to listen to Rev. Jackson speak.

Sen. Barack Obama might have been able to pull 4,000 people to the Hazard high school gym in 2008, but he never came to Eastern Kentucky. He held rallies in Louisville, Kentucky, and Charleston, West Virginia, the two largest cities in the states. But he never ventured into the coalfields. He never ate cornbread at Baileys and never went to Hazard.

It's assumed these days that Sen. Barack Obama has an "Appalachian problem" because he won only 38 percent of the vote in mountain counties. There was a quick answer for these results. The exit polls showed that two out of ten voters in West Virginia said race was an "important" factor in their decision and these voters voted overwhelmingly for Sen. Clinton. This led to the assumption that Appalachian voters were unique in using race as a guide to their vote. Columnist Leonard Pitts said he felt "sorry" for West Virginia because of the "bigotry in Appalachia so vividly in display." Funny, but two out of ten voters in New York said race was important in their decision — split between Clinton and Obama — but nobody felt "sorry" for them.

It turns out that West Virginians were entirely average in the percentage of voters who considered race an important consideration in their vote. In Alabama and Mississippi, three out of ten voters said race was important, and 62 percent of those voted for Obama. Two out of ten voters in Georgia said race was important, and 72 percent of those folks voted for Sen. Obama. In Illinois, 23 percent of the Democratic voters said race was important — a higher percentage than West Virginia — and 73 percent of those voted for Obama. In America, there's a lot of sorry to go around.

Surely there is "bigotry in Appalachia," but then what are we to make of reporter Scot Lehigh's description of Jesse Jackson's visit to Hazard in 1988:

Inside the dimly lit high-school gymnasium, a capacity crowd of 1000, dotted with only an occasional black face, erupts into cheers as Jackson enters. "Jesse, Jesse, Jesse," comes the familiar chant. "Jesse, Jesse, Jesse." Jackson strides to a small restraining wall that separates the basketball court from the bleachers, and the crowd surges forward. Kids vault the wall, and surround him, and soon the grownups, too, are spilling out onto the musty canvas that covers the basketball floor. Jackson moves along the wall, pressing the flesh, hoisting and hugging kids, a presidential pied piper leading a mesmerized line of children. But this crowd is not content to follow; they want to touch. As he moves by, the group behind him splits like a drop of quicksilver and rolls around him to reach out again. "Jesse, Jesse, Jesse."


Jackson didn't win Perry County in that year's primary. Al Gore, then the young senator from nearby Tennessee, easily carried Hazard and the state. But Jackson got as many votes in Perry County as the eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis. Jackson showed up and in an election that featured Gore, Dukakis, Gary Hart, Sen. Paul Simon, Rep. Dick Gephart and Bruce Babbitt — all respected national leaders of the Democratic Party — the black preacher from Chicago got 16 percent of the Perry County vote. Barack Obama ran against only Hillary Clinton twenty years later and won 8 percent.

I think his trip to Hazard changed Jackson's life because he kept showing up in Appalachia. He was there on the 30th anniversary of the Farmington mine disaster in West Virginia. He brought Rev. Jerry Falwell to southeastern Ohio for a march aimed at attracting attention and investment to Appalachian communities. In 1998 he proposed a test for presidential candidates: "Do you matter to Mud Creek, Kentucky? Do you have anything to say that is relevant to the people of Eastern Kentucky and central West Virginia and Appalachian Ohio?"

Late in 1998 I drove to Nelsonville, Ohio, where Jackson was holding a conference on the Appalachian economy. He had opened an office in the little town in the rumpled landscape of southeastern Ohio. He told the meeting that "when the (presidential) inauguration takes place in 2001, somebody is going to be discussing Appalachia."

A month later, Jackson brought President Bill Clinton to a gathering of CEOs from Bell Atlantic, Frito Lay, TCI, Citigroup and the New York Stock Exchange to talk about poverty in the mountains. Jackson told the business elite that this was the time to make a commitment to Appalachia. It would take work to invigorate the region's economy, he said, and the job would be messy. Then he turned to Clinton and reminded him that those who wore "clean uniforms" never got in the game. "Those who play have stains on their uniforms," Jackson said.

If you eat an early breakfast in the mountains, there's a good chance you'll sit next to some miners fresh off the hoot owl shift. Their uniforms and their faces will be smudged from their jobs underground. They showed up for work and they expect their politicians to show up, too. John Kennedy showed up in West Virginia in 1960 and Jesse Jackson got his clothes dirty in 1988. Lyndon Johnson came to Eastern Kentucky to announce a War on Poverty more than 40 years ago and John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and John McCain came this season to say they remembered.

And Barack Obama? Does his candidacy matter to Mud Creek? It's hard to tell because his uniform is still clean.


Obama and Appalachia

I am an urban black male, with a lot of demographic similarities to Senator Obama. I have though, spent a good amount of enjoyable and enlightening time in Appalachia and working with Appalachian people. The premise of Bill's article is that folks ought to be careful about assuming that Appalachian voters are racist. The real problem is that Senator Obama hasn't shown up. I guess I both agree and disagree. There is no doubt that the best route to getting someone's vote is asking for it. Senator Obama would have had a better chance of getting votes in Appalachian West Virginia and Kentucky if he had invested more face time. If I were advising him, I’d suggest that both for political and governing purposes he spend a little more time visiting the region. Still there are some other points to consider. In Pennsylvania where I currently live, Senator Obama did put in the effort in Appalachia (yes, there is plenty of Appalachia in PA). Indeed he was criticized for barely visiting his stronghold of Philadelphia. Yet, the Senator’s share of the Appalachia vote was meager here too. It may well be that given the limited time to campaign that the Senator’s campaign made the choice to campaign in places where his efforts would find greater purchase. So off to Oregon he went. Eventually given Senator’s long-time focus on poverty, if he is elected I should hope that his Administration would give some effort to working on Appalachian issues. I would be interested in hearing if folks think Hillary Clinton has been an advocate for Appalachia. Has John McCain been an advocate for Appalachia? Do they talk about Appalachian issues when they are outside of Appalachia or on the floor of the Senate? Can they point to anything they've done for Appalachia? That is a real question not a rhetorical one. Do they lead on solving Appalachian problems? Indeed Jesse Jackson did champion rural and Appalachian issues and as Bill's piece confirms he didn’t win the Appalachian vote either. He did better than Senator Obama, but still lost to then Senator Gore and tied Mike Dukakis, who I know didn't spend nearly the time Jesse did in Appalachia. I will strongly agree with Bill's point that the issue of race isn't limited to Appalachia. But I suspect it does include Appalachia. In that vein I've been particularly disturbed by the willingness of lots of folks to believe the most absurd rumors about Senator Obama or to see his statements in the worst possible light. I have found it amazing how willing folks have been to simultaneously believe that Senator Obama is a Muslim and to criticize him for spending 20 years as a member of a church where the pastor at times, shocker of all schockers, occasionally was critical of how the United States has treated people of color. Well which is it? Is he a Christian or a Muslim? I heard a story about one woman who explained holding both views by proclaiming that Obama is a spy. How ridiculous can we get? More to the point, have you ever heard Senator Obama utter anti-white statements? Well no you haven't. Funny how easily folks dismiss the fact that he is half-white himself and was largely raised by his white grandparents. I've been amazed at how folks have focused in on the fact that sometimes Senator Obama doesn't wear a flag pin. Rumors have ciruclated about him not knowing the words to the Pledge of Allegiance and so forth. Well neither Senator McCain or Senator Clinton wear a flag pin all the time either. And what is patriotism? Is it wearing a flag pin or living by and defending American ideals? Is it more important to say “let’s support the troops?” or is it more important to insist that troops aren’t used frivolously or under false pretenses, to insist that they have the supplies they need to do their job when called upon, to provide comfort to their families while troops are off protecting our interests and to make sure that the needs of the troops are taken care of when they return home. So why are folks so easily distracted from the issues that they claim are important to them, to oppose candidates for frivolous reasons? Is race part of the eqauation? Well maybe. I understand that voting against self-interest is not a new phenomenon or limited to Appalachia. But while I won't suggest that Appalachia has a greater problem with race than other parts of the country, I wouldn't simply assume that it isn't a factor either. Should Obama spend more time in the region? Indeed he should. But do not use that reality to assume that is the only reason he didn't poll well.

Obama and Appalachia

Obama and Appalachia I am a native Appalachian – born in Southwest Virginia, grew up in the coalfields of West Virginia, attended Berea College. That certainly doesn’t give me an upper hand on commenting on racial issues in Appalachia but I do have first hand experiences and stories relating to the people who make up Appalachia. First of all, of course if you want race to be an issue – you will make it an issue (Obama). If you want money to be an issue – you will make it an issue (Hillary). It is up to the writer and the reader. I believe if race is an issue in Appalachia, it is random. I haven’t seen any protest marches against African-Americans since I have lived in Appalachia, at least not in West Virginia. What many people may not understand is this point I wish to make: The county of which I am a resident in West Virginia is 95 – 97% white. I believe those figures are similar in many of the hollows in Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia. We don’t have the experiences or relationships to make a call on the issue. Now this may sound not possible but it is possible – if someone such as Obama came to these remote places, the native mountain people may appear standoffish or shy or caught up in observation instead of being friendly because this is not a normal occurrence. Another feeling may be of distrust brought about by the years of absentee landowners – coal operators – who have taken so much away from the people. A distrust of outsiders. Jesse Jackson came to Appalachia in 1988. He returned in the summer of 2004 accompanied by UMWA President, Cecil Roberts. The big bus and the campaigners onboard called their tour “Reinvest in America: Put America Back to Work.” I attended the rally held at Scarbro Loop at the New River Health Clinic, Fayette County, West Virginia. A 30+ mile drive from my home and workplace. Jesse, dressed in a navy blue jumpsuit, milled through the coalminers, hugging and shaking hands. It was crowded. Some of miners suffering from black lung were accompanied not only by their wives and children but their oxygen tanks as well. Jesse jumped up on a picnic table to make a fiery speech to the crowd urging the mountain folks to get out and vote. The crowd raised their hands in unison and agreement. UMWA President, Cecil Roberts, was right behind Jesse. His speech was union based – getting and keeping jobs in America and promoting a stronger union. It was no secret, the two crusaders were supporting the Democrats. Tables draped in flag material were placed beneath the big shade trees so prospective voters could register without being bothered by the heat. Following a string of passionate speeches by Jesse Jackson, Cecil Roberts, state and local politicians, we all went indoors to the cafeteria to enjoy a meal of southern fried chicken, apple pie and sweet tea and photos, hundreds of photos. But Bush took West Virginia. I don’t think his success had a great deal to do with race or Jesse Jackson’s visit. Based on information from my friends, co-workers, and relatives – Bush’s success had to do with addressing issues which may be closest to the Appalachian heart, Bible, guns, pro-life (in any order). Whether it was accurate or inaccurate propaganda, it worked in West Virginia. People, who voted told me, “No one is going to take away my gun or my Bible.” Another point I wish to make is many of the opinions formed by people living in remote areas, whether it is Appalachia or on an Indian Reservation, is through stories and reports from the news media. When our news media became a form of entertainment, it lost a lot of creditability. Also, those stations broadcasting non-stop news reports are biased (how are lay people to know that). Their views are slanted and slated. RBL asks the question if Hillary or McCain have addressed problems in Appalachia? Not that I know of. The War on Poverty has long been over – the warriors left, the poverty stayed. We still have deep poverty in the hills of West Virginia. We have one elementary school I know of that does not have drinking water. The Board of Education purchases drinking water in bottles for the students. We have a student only wanting a blanket for Christmas to keep her warm while she sleeps on her end of the couch at night. I don’t know who will be elected President of the United States and I appreciate this country and what it offers to many, but in Appalachia, I strongly believe we have problems much larger than race. b. l. dotson-lewis