The Irreplaceable Ed Bishop

[imgbelt img=Edbishop.jpg]Ed Bishop died this week at the age of 90. He spent his life working to make life better in rural communities. There isn’t anyone who can take his place.


[imgcontainer left] [img:Edbishop.jpg] [source]North Carolina State University

Ed Bishop in the early 1960s, just before he led Lyndon Johnson’s commission on rural poverty.

A hero of rural America died his week.

Dr. C. E. (Ed) Bishop was born in June of 1921 in Campobello, in the hills of South Carolina. We met him after he retired, but still worked every day at MDC Inc., a rural development organization in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

And every day he had the same question: How can the lives of rural people be made better?

There isn’t anyone like Ed Bishop in the U.S. today — someone who can command the respect of presidents but understands completely the way people live in the poorest community. We won’t just miss Ed because he was a good, kind person, but also because he is irreplaceable.

Here is a column I wrote about Ed Bishop for the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader in 1994. (Ed would joke that we were “cousins,” but there was no relation.) It’s about Ed and it is about a time when the federal government turned its attention to what was happening in rural communities.


It’s not easy to maintain passion, in a marriage, a job or a faith. It is even harder, as the years weather away the rough edges, to care about the insoluble problems of the world — to look at those in need and to give a damn. 

After 72 years and all the success this country can heap on a person, the best thing that can be said about C. E. Bishop is that he cares, that he still gives a damn. 

That’s saying a great deal. Because Ed Bishop’s life has been full. Born in South Carolina and educated at Berea College and the University of Kentucky, Bishop has been a president of two universities (Arkansas and Houston) and has served as an adviser to four presidents. 

Bishop’s passion, however, has always been the plight of the poor people of rural America. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson asked Bishop to direct the National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty. (The commission’s chairman was Edward Breathitt, then governor of Kentucky.) One year later, Bishop and Breathitt presented The People Left Behind, what has stood, for 27 years, as the federal government’s most ambitious plan for driving poverty from the countryside. 

It would, today, be the place for any serious effort at reducing rural poverty to begin. 

“Rural poverty is so widespread, and so acute, as to be a national disgrace,” The People Left Behind reported in 1967, “and its consequences have swept into our cities, violently.” Urban riots in the summer of 1967 caused Johnson and his advisers to see a connection between urban and rural poverty. As opportunities in the countryside diminished, they believed, more rural people moved to already over-crowded and destitute cities. Johnson’s immediate reason for the commission, Bishop believes, was to find some way “to keep people in rural areas.” 

 What Johnson and his advisers wanted was a quick fix, a way to keep people on the farm and out of the turbulent ghetto. That’s not what Bishop and Breathitt produced. 

 Bishop didn’t buy into Johnson’s premise — that people could (or should) be kept out of the cities. Too much had changed in rural America. “We aren’t talking about reversible changes,” Bishop says. “They are irreversible.” 

 The philosophy of The People Left Behind, therefore, is not about places. It is about people. The report’s recommendations weren’t designed to save places from inevitable economic change, but to help the people who suffered the economy’s consequences. “We emphasized that government had to cope with poverty, real poverty,” Bishop recalls. 

The first half-dozen recommendations in the report, therefore, have to do with full employment, an expansionary fiscal policy (even if it meant moderate inflation) and higher minimum wages. Most of the other major recommendations are aimed at giving poor rural people opportunities (in education, health, housing, finance and training). 

 “When I think of real poverty,” Bishop says today, echoing the philosophy of his 1967 report, “I think of a paucity of assets. You just don’t have anything to sell.” The answer, Bishop believes, is to give everyone marketable skills, to give each person something to sell. In the language of the economist, Bishop says, “we’ve got to find a way to make the human resource more productive.”