Central Appalachians have woe enough with poverty, hunger, joblessness and a federal government that says too bad, tough it out. Now the media are nosing around. It is time for the 20-year update stories, this being the anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's creating the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965. This is the agency that has dispensed more than $5 billion to 20 million citizens in a 13-state area from southern New York to northern Mississippi.
What's to show for it, the media are asking. After all that money and a mountain range of good intentions, much of Appalachia is still hellish. Like a wide vein of coal, statistics are easily mined: More than 500,000 jobs have been lost since 1980. Nearly two of three adults have not finished high school. Citizens are below the poverty line in a rate almost double the national average. Approximately 6,300 miles of streams are contaminated with acid runoff from coal mines. Strip mining has made rivers fishless and mountains gameless. In many hollows, unemployment is as high as 80 percent.
Many citizens in Clairfield were enraged last week by articles in The Knoxville News-Sentinel. With the words "Hungering For Help" spread across the Sunday perspective page, the subhead read: "Families near Clairfield struggle with shortages of food, jobs and hope." The title for an accompanying story read: "Jobless spend days fighting boredom."
I have been visiting families in Clairfield since 1967. The tucked-away mountain community is located in the Cumberlands near the Kentucky border about two hours north of Knoxville. Its few hundred citizens -- gracious, hardy and intelligent mountain folk -- have been a treasure of stories every one of the 10 or so times I have come.
I understand the resentment over the recent stories. For local people, the message is again being sent out that this is the land of the shiftless dole-seekers: They were porch-setting 20 years ago saying gimmee and here they are, $5 billion later, "hungry for help" once more. The stories in The Knoxville News-Sentinel, an afternoon paper suddenly come alive under a new editor and aggressive competition from the morning Journal, were well crafted and not quick hits against the people of Clairfield. But they seemed that way to the citizens, and that's part of the anguish of Appalachia.
Its people have been laid low so often by powerful forces -- rapacious coal and timber companies, absentee landholders, corrupt or niggardly politicians -- that the media represent one more hit squad pummeling the weak. They pop in, take a snapshot of the poverty and go. The next year, a new reporter shows up for his snapshot. The larger picture somehow remains untaken. Everyone from the outside looks at Appalachia but few see it. The difference is between eyesight and insight.
The current strength of the region is the ability of its own native observers to perceive exactly what is happening. Appalachian writers like Harry Caudill and Tom Gish and such politicians as West Virginia Secretary of State Ken Hechler and Rep. Bob Wise (D-W.Va.) have been unflagging in working to end the waste of life and land in the mountains.
A new voice is Ronald Eller, the director of the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky. He spoke last week at a conference in Knoxville organized by In Our Own Way, a national coalition of community-based rural women: "We must have more than moral outrage, more than the heartfelt sympathy that has so often characterized the mainstream American response to Appalachia. We must go beyond efforts at relief, beyond the boxes of secondhand clothes, worn-out shoes, and staple food that periodically pour into mountain hollows and coves -- and address the issues of economic justice that limit the opportunities for independence, dignity and self-sufficiency among the poor."
Borrowing from Mother Jones, Martin Luther King and Amos, Eller told the Appalachian women: "Charity is something that the rich hand down to the poor and requires no fundamental change in attitude or economy. Justice is the cry of the poor to the rich and requires a realignment of attitudes, assumptions and structures."
Twenty years ago, charity came to Appalachia. This time around, it should be justice.