This year marks the 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty” declared by the federal government under the leadership of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The following editorial appeared in the February 6, 1964 edition of The Mountain Eagle as nation’s reporters and photographers started turning their pens, microphones and cameras toward eastern Kentucky and other impoverished areas of Central Appalachia.
Recent publicity focusing on Letcher County as an example of the poverty against which the federal government will conduct an “all-out war” has brought forth many reactions, most of them varying only in the intensity of their condemnation.
The Whitesburg Chamber of Commerce, which ought to welcome any attempt by anybody to better the conditions and as a result increase the spending power of the people of Letcher County upon whom merchants depend for their living, refers in a letter to the “terrible write-up in Life” magazine and proposes to buy an extra supply of a brochure being prepared by the state to send to businesses which might be interested in locating here.
The Chamber is overlooking a few facts of industrial life: No manufacturer or industry ever located anywhere without first sending to look the area over first hand, and all the pretty pictures in the world are not going to convince any site-location representative that what he sees with his own eyes is not true. The things that count when factories are being located are schools, recreational facilities, etc. Improvement of facilities which are here and addition of what is not should be one of the results of the “war on poverty.”
The end aim of all the publicity which Letcher County has received is to convince Congress and those who live in other, more prosperous parts of the country that the “war on poverty” is needed. Instead of turning our wrath on the outsiders who come in to see for themselves, we should welcome them, for the fact is that they are turning national attention, and we hope federal money, on Letcher County. It was such attention by national magazines and newspapers that produced the Tennessee Valley Authority, which has done so much for eastern Tennessee, and that results in our spending billions of dollars overseas every year to help the “less fortunate.”
Other local residents have accused national newspapers and magazines of “making fun” of Letcher County. This, we are positive, is not true. We have seen hardened reporters and photographers, those who have seen conditions all over the world, with tears in their eyes as they told us of some of the living conditions they had seen In Letcher County. Without exception, the ones to whom we have talked have been fired with desire to do something to help. And they do the thing they know how to do best — they show in words and pictures the disgraceful and heartbreaking way many Letcher County residents have to live. This they do in an effort to convince other Americans who live in far better circumstances that their duty is to see that things are bettered here.
Instead of condemning the outsiders who come here to report our troubles, we should instead take advantage of their presence to point out to them how past and present federal and state programs have failed and to explain where these programs have gone wrong.
The reaction against outsiders with notepads and cameras reached a climax today when two county offi cials threatened to put a group of British television reporters and photographers in jail if they took pictures of Letcher County residents standing in the rain to receive their monthly allotment of commodities.
Such an incident is disgraceful in a free country which prides itself on a free press, and of course the TV people were doing nothing illegal in the first place. As County Judge James M. Caudill said later, “if we are doing something that has to be hidden, then we ought to stop it.”
We believe that any foreign country has a right to inquire into the reasons that such conditions as exist here are allowed to exist in America and indeed to question the advice the United States hands out on the rebuilding of countries elsewhere when we have so obviously failed in this area here at home.
Still there are those who call the pictures lies, the interviews false and the need non-existent.
There is a current popular song, written in the folksong manner by a composer named Bob Dylan, which asks some questions that fit the situation:
“How many times can a man turn his head,
and pretend that he just doesn’t see?
How many times must a man look up
before he can see the sky?
How many ears must one man have
before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take till he knows
that too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
the answer is blowin’ in the wind.”