The Photos That Began The War On Poverty
Andrew Stern took photographs in Eastern Kentucky from 1959 to 1963. His images helped the nation renew its concerns for poor people and poor communities. They are on exhibit in Lexington, Kentucky, through October 12, but can be seen now on the Daily Yonder.
A sampling of Andrew Stern’s Kentucky photography from 1959 through 1963 is in the slideshow above. Click through to see 15 images.
The Kennedy Administration in 1963 did not consider poverty something confined to the cities, a problem that primarily affected African Americans. Poverty to the early poverty warriors was white and rural.
“The war on poverty was in no sense a help-the-blacks program,ï¿½? recalled Adam Yarmolinsky, who helped developed Kennedy’s and Johnson’s anti-poverty programs. “We said, “˜Most poor people are not black, most black people are not poor.ï¿½?
Liberals in Congress and the White House in the early 1960s knew that poverty in America afflicted whites, especially whites living in the eastern mountains. The news coming out of the coalfields was of devastating floods, widespread unemployment and hunger. The pictures were of people, who worked and lived with dignity and purpose but confronted conditions that differed little from the 1930s.
The nation’s renewed attention to poverty began there, in the eastern coalfields. Yarmolinsky said, “Color it (the War on Poverty) Appalachian (not black) if you are going to color it anything at all.ï¿½?
More than anything, the photographs coming out of Eastern Kentucky changed policy and began the War on Poverty, and Andrew Stern took some of best. Stern came to Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1959, after reading a front-page story in the New York Times by Homer Bigart. “Hard times — the worst since the great depression — have come again to the coal fields of Southeast Kentucky and the southwest tip of Virginia,ï¿½? Bigart wrote. Machines were replacing picks, shovels and men. Mines laid off workers, saying they couldn’t pay wages required under a new union contract. Officials told Bigart that 13,056 people in Harlan were “destitute.ï¿½?
From 1959 through 1963, Stern, a German-born photographer, would travel to southeastern Kentucky to take photographs, often with his wife, Mary Lou Wyatt. Stern colored in black and white — and he brought back to Washington, D.C., the images that resulted in the declaration by Lyndon Johnson of a War on Poverty in 1964.
Stern’s photographs are on exhibit now at the Tuska Gallery at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. The photos will be up through October 12.
By Thomas N. Bethell
In the late 1950s and early “˜60s, the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky were locked in the grip of an economic collapse almost as savage as the Great Depression. Mechanization and dwindling demand for coal killed off thousands of mining jobs in an area where no other jobs were to be had. But few Americans knew or — truth to tell — cared.
To see Andrew Stern’s photographs today is to be forcefully carried back to a moment in time when miners’ children were going to school without food and men thought they were lucky to get work in a murderous doghole for a few dollars a day, a few days a month.
But there is more to these photographs than simple documentation, powerful as it is. Like the very best of the Farm Security Administration photographs from the 1930s, there is nothing patronizing about Stern’s images. They are stunning in the obvious respect he has for his subjects. He meets them at eye level and gives them the gift of mortality.
A personal note: This was the Eastern Kentucky that I encountered when I first arrived in 1963 and began reporting for Tom and Pat Gish at The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, embarking on an editorial relationship that continues to this day. Andrew Stern saw the destitution and the hope, the desperation and the grit, the exhaustion and the beauty — the entire fabric — and captured it better, I think, than anyone else.