Q&A: 52 Years Later, There’s Still More to Learn from RFK’s East Kentucky Tour
A new book by Matthew Algeo examines the well known events of 1968 and tells the lesser known stories of the “American heroes” of Eastern Kentucky.
Book Excerpt: Berea’s Deadly Racial Shootout of 1968
Robert F. Kennedy’s visit to Eastern Kentucky in February 1968 – just a month before he announced his presidential bid and four months before his assassination – has been commemorated in books, documentaries, and public performances.
Is there really anything more to add?
Journalist Matthew Algeo says yes. And he provides ample evidence in his new book, All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia (Chicago Review Press).
Students of Appalachia and social-justice history of the 1960s will know a lot of the material in Algeo’s book. But even well versed readers will find new detail about the tour, the people involved, and surrounding events. (I learned something remarkable about my own hometown. See the excerpt, “Berea’s Deadly Racial Shootout of 1968.”)
Algeo said his interest in Kennedy’s Kentucky trip was piqued by the 2016 election, when President Donald Trump ran up large margins among voters in coal country. How did the region that rolled out the red carpet for liberal Democrat Kennedy 50 years earlier swing so strongly for Trump?
Instead of reinforcing the myth of a homogeneous heartland, Algeo finds a much richer set of stories by looking into the lives of people who organized, participated in, and witnessed the Kennedy tour.
For starters, there are the stories of Steve Cawood, the law student who rode with Kennedy on the trip; Nell Fields, who skipped school with the permission of her politically conservative father to attend one of the hearings; and Lawrence Baldridge, the school teacher who invited Kennedy to Eastern Kentucky.
“These people are like American heroes,” Algeo said.
My interview with Algeo has been edited for length and clarity.
Tim: What was it that attracted you to Robert Kennedy’s trip to Eastern Kentucky? What, if anything, did you know about it beforehand?
Matthew: I knew about Kennedy’s famous poverty tours. He went to Mississippi in ’67, and I had known about the trip to Kentucky in 1968, not much more than it happened. I grew up in a small town outside Philadelphia, so my knowledge of Appalachia was fairly limited.
Kennedy, he’s become a hero of the liberals. And this guy, a real liberal Democrat, could go into Kentucky and very credibly campaign. Then 50 years later Donald Trump goes into that same region and racks up huge numbers in winning the election. I just thought that was kind of an interesting dichotomy, and I began to look into it more and more. The thing I learned that I didn’t know was that the ’60s happened in Appalachia. I come from Philadelphia, and I was born in ’66, I have no memories of the ’60s, but to me the ’60s were Woodstock, Chicago. You don’t think of Kentucky when you think of the ’60s.
As I began researching the book, I began realizing for myself for the first time these incredible things that were going on in Kentucky, the racial problems in Berea, strip mining protests, Harry Caudill’s writings, the way grassroots movements came with the War on Poverty. There are really amazing stories that I was not familiar with, and that I assume a lot of people outside the region probably weren’t familiar with, so that’s what got me interested in it around 2016.
Tim: I expected you to take a “where-are-they-now” kind of approach to the book, and to update all of us on what happened to these various individuals who were involved in Kennedy’s visit to Eastern Kentucky. Certainly, you tell us some about what happens to folks, but the focus seems to be on filling in the context behind the characters and what happened in that time period.
Matthew: I didn’t want to really do just a bunch of names and then say, “Well, this is where they are now,” or, “This is what happened and this is when they died.” Obviously over 50 years, there weren’t a lot of people still alive.
I didn’t want to write a biography of Robert Kennedy; those have all been done. And I also didn’t want to just do, “This is Family A in 1968, and here’s where they are today.” I don’t think that gives you a lot of information or context, really. Besides which, what are you doing? “Hey, Bobby Kennedy visited your family in 1968 and you were really poor, so I was just wondering, are you still poor?” That’s not going to give you much.
I tried to build the stories out around a few central characters, and then use them to touch on some central issues, I guess you would say, over the past 50 years. You can’t write a book about Eastern Kentucky without talking about mining, specifically strip mining, and without looking at the War on Poverty. I think people who read the book will find a lot of interesting information there that they might not have known or hadn’t really contextualized.
Tim: Was it hard to find people who participated in Kennedy’s trip?
Matthew: Most of the people that testified at the hearings have passed away. There was also a problem because everybody’s got the same last name, it’s like finding a Fugate would be in a day of phone calls and emails, “Are you related to Swango Fugate?” A lot of my time was spent just trying to make sure I was tracking down relatives, the right people.
It was so cool to meet some of these people, like Nell Fields, who was at the gym for the hearing at Neon. These people are like American heroes, people who have really worked to improve their community. Like Lawrence Baldridge and Steve Cawood, who was the law student who finagled a ride in Kennedy’s car. These are people who really have stayed in the community and dedicated their lives to making the community better. I thought it was more important to highlight that as well.
Tim: Would an event like this even attract a blip of news coverage now, or would it even happen given the difference in the media environment now?
Matthew: One thing that really blew me away is that a trip now like this would probably be planned months in advance, there would be all kinds of stage management, and they’d have advance teams. [Kennedy staffer] Peter Edelman flew down there the week before and drove around and talked to local Democrats to line up people to attend the hearings and everything, and it all came together so quickly. That was one of the things where you think this would never happen today. There was almost no security. They had a state trooper drive them around. Kennedy’s brother had been assassinated five years earlier, and there was absolutely no security for him.
As far as the media attention now, I don’t know. The cynicism level today is just off the charts. The partisan takes would be pretty easy to figure out, what the conservatives would say if a liberal went down there, and what liberals would say if a conservative went down there. It was definitely – even listening to Kennedy’s question and answer session with the Alice Lloyd College students – it’s fascinating how boring it is. It’s very dry and very serious, and Kennedy often asked the student to make sure he understands the question or asked students their opinions.
Tim: One person you write about is Mary Rice Farris, from Berea, Kentucky, who testified at one of Kennedy hearings. You follow up on her racial-justice work in Berea, where after she testified there was a fatal gun battle between white supremacists and blacks. I moved to Berea in 1974. I had never heard this story before.
Matthew: That’s interesting. They had a real shooting gun battle between klansmen and African-American counter-protesters, and I had never heard of it, and I’m, “That’s pretty serious.” That’s a pretty big deal, and I was like, “Wow, I don’t think anybody knew about this.”
It wasn’t until I got in touch with her [Mary Rice Farris’] grandchildren, she has three granddaughters who I found on Facebook, and they sent me the speech that she had given in, I guess it was October of 1968, after the killings in Berea had occurred. Then I just started looking at archived newspapers and stuff, and there’s also a book that goes into it a little bit. Yeah, that’s how I found out, was through the family of Mary Rice Farris, and just kind of blew me away.
Tim: Was there another story that especially surprised you or stood out among the many that you looked at?
Matthew: I guess I would go back to my original point, about me not really knowing how radical things were, I think how eventful things were in Appalachia in the ’60s. I guess I also didn’t appreciate how radical the labor history, you really have a lot of intense union activity in labor history, really violent, the Battle of Evarts. I think a lot of these stories, they didn’t reach my world, and I know people that live there and study the region know all about it. It really surprised me how radical the history of Appalachia, especially Eastern Kentucky, is.
Tim: Let me jump to the end of the book. You don’t tie things up with a neat little ribbon about how to interpret this and what it means to us today. What are you hoping people take away from it then?
Matthew: I really think there are a lot of parallels between what was happening in the country and in Eastern Kentucky in 1968 and what’s happening today. I think we’re still dealing with underemployment and unemployment and poverty and environmental issues, I think we’re still dealing with race issues, and I think it can help in some ways, maybe help people understand a little bit what’s going on today when you look at what was going on in ’68. Maybe not, I don’t know.
I think in the end, I hope I was able to tell some stories that are important and introduce some people that were important and did great work. I guess I leave it up to the readers to decide whether it’s important or whether it is a guide in any way for the way we are today.
I would say if you look back in 1968, things were pretty crazy, things were pretty messed up. In Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky, and here we are 52 years later, and we made it. We’re still functioning, more or less. Even though many of the problems still exist, I think in a way, it offers hope. Hopefully, we’ll make it another 52 years, and in 52 years it’ll be up to the people then to try to make it keep working for another 50 years.
It was really bad but we got through it, and maybe it’s really bad now, but hopefully we’ll get through it now.