Fifty years after a book brought attention to Appalachia • More concealed weapons, and fewer violent crimes • Rural unite!
Fifty years ago, Harry Caudill wrote Night Comes to the Cumberlands, a book about the Appalachian coal country that was subtitled “A biography of a depressed area.”
The book set off a new interest in the people and economy of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia within the Kennedy Administration. Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty in Kentucky and in 1965 Congress created the Appalachian Regional Commission to address the needs of this “depressed region.”
Two talented reporters at The Lexington Herald-Leader have begun a series that looks at what has happened in Appalachia fifty years after the publication of Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands.
Caudill was an early environmentalist and his book (and especially his essay in The Atlantic magazine) helped start a new effort to address the costs of coal strip mining.
“During the last 15 years, coal-mine operators have systematically destroyed a broad mountainous region lying within five states — Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Alabama,” he wrote in the magazine. “By a process which produces huge and immediate profits for a few industrialists, the southern Appalachians are literally being ripped to shreds.”
Reporters John Cheves and Bill Estep review the insights and life of a courageous and eventually embittered Eastern Kentucky war hero, lawyer, legislator and environmental activist. It is the first chapter in what will be a continuing series and, eventually, a book.
Part Two of the series tells how Harry came to become the most public voice decrying coal strip mining, poor schools and corrupt politics. Here is how John and Bill say Caudill came to write Night Comes to the Cumberlands:
Despite his qualifications — his roots, his eloquence, his outrage — Caudill did not intend to write a book. But he was upset by a scene he witnessed in the spring of 1960.
A coal-camp school on Millstone Creek, near Whitesburg, invited him to deliver a speech to its eighth-graders. Caudill described it:
“A shower sent a little torrent of water through the ancient roof onto one of the scarred desks. The worn windows rattled in their frames. … Outside, the grassless playground lay in the shadow of an immense slate dump and was fringed by a cluster of ramshackle houses. One of the graduates had been orphaned by a mining accident, and the father of another wheezed and gasped with silicosis. The fathers of three others were jobless.”
The school ceremony opened with hollow-cheeked children singing “America the Beautiful”: “America, America, God shed His grace on thee, …”
Caudill “came home and got to telling me that he was just so saddened by that experience,” his widow, Anne Caudill, said in an interview this year. “He started talking to me, talking about what had brought Eastern Kentucky to the state that it was in. The long history of the place. He was just thinking it through.
“I thought it was interesting enough that I wrote it down as he talked. If he had in mind that this would be published, he never said.”
Thanks, John and Bill.
Rural Unite! — There are more calls for rural legislators to unite, all coming after Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack’s observation last week that rural voters had lost their relevance.
The Mitchell (SD) Daily Republic notes that passage of the Farm Bill continues to be delayed and that urban areas are coveting the water in the Missouri River. In an editorial, the paper writes:
The lesson from all of this is clear: If rural America wants to remain relevant, it must put forth strong leaders and stand up for itself. Our congressional delegates and other officials must be firm, and they must band together with other rural-state leaders to be heard.
It’s already a frustrating time in rural America. The drought is making everyone edgy.
The last thing we need is further delay on the farm bill, or discussions about diverting Missouri River water far away from us, or federal fees on water that flows through our state.
Speaking of the Farm Bill — The Politico notes that larger budget debates have stalled final negotiations on finishing the Farm Bill. The publication writes:
House-Senate talks over a five-year farm bill are caught in the same quandary. Differences remain over the commodity and nutrition titles, but negotiators also seem reluctant to make the necessary compromises until they see a clear path for the bill to move forward.
A veteran of many farm bill debates, Mary Kay Thatcher, a chief lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau, told POLITICO that a deal is “entirely doable, positively doable” before Christmas. But at this stage no one is certain of the outcome, creating the real threat of a spike in milk prices after Jan 1 when the current dairy provisions expire.
Lacking Treatment — Nearly 1,000 Kentuckians die each year from drug overdoses, many in rural areas. The Louisville Courier-Journal finds that the state has few treatment options for addicts.
That is particularly true in rural counties. “Treatment shortages are most severe in Appalachian counties with the state’s highest overdose rates,” the paper reports. “Six Kentucky counties that rank among the 10 highest for overdose deaths have just one outpatient center or no center at all.”
Armed and Not Dangerous — Six years ago, Kansas allowed its residents legally to carry concealed handguns. “But almost six years and 50,000 concealed-carry licenses later, concerns about allowing Kansans to hit the streets packing heat in their pockets and purses have proved largely unfounded,” reports The Kansas City Star.
The state’s homicide rate has remained constant since 2007 while the rate of other violent crimes (robbery and aggravated assault) has “decreased significantly,” the paper reports.