Jesse Jackson spoke to 4,000 people in the Hazard high school gym in his 1988 presidential campaign.
Photo: Mimi Pickering

In 1988, the Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Appalachia and it changed his life.

Jackson was running for president and he brought his campaign to Hazard, Kentucky, a small town deep in the state’s mountain coalfields. When he ate cornbread at Bailey’s, like every place he went in Eastern Kentucky, Jackson attracted a crowd. One young woman there at the roadside eatery pushed her newborn into Rev Jackson’s arms. The child’s grandmother blurted, “Don’t nobody dare tell him what this baby’s named,” and then gave up the secret. The child’s name was Reagan.

Jackson promptly put his palm on the youngster’s forehead and commanded, “Heal!” His old time preacher style “drew whoops from the restaurant regulars in this Eastern Kentucky hardscrabble hill country,” the Washington Post reported.

More than whoops, however, Jesse Jackson drew respect and a following. A reported 4,000 people crammed the high school gym in Hazard to listen to Rev. Jackson speak.

Sen. Barack Obama might have been able to pull 4,000 people to the Hazard high school gym in 2008, but he never came to Eastern Kentucky. He held rallies in Louisville, Kentucky, and Charleston, West Virginia, the two largest cities in the states. But he never ventured into the coalfields. He never ate cornbread at Baileys and never went to Hazard.

It’s assumed these days that Sen. Barack Obama has an “Appalachian problem” because he won only 38 percent of the vote in mountain counties. There was a quick answer for these results. The exit polls showed that two out of ten voters in West Virginia said race was an “important” factor in their decision and these voters voted overwhelmingly for Sen. Clinton. This led to the assumption that Appalachian voters were unique in using race as a guide to their vote. Columnist Leonard Pitts said he felt “sorry” for West Virginia because of the “bigotry in Appalachia so vividly in display.” Funny, but two out of ten voters in New York said race was important in their decision — split between Clinton and Obama — but nobody felt “sorry” for them.

It turns out that West Virginians were entirely average in the percentage of voters who considered race an important consideration in their vote. In Alabama and Mississippi, three out of ten voters said race was important, and 62 percent of those voted for Obama. Two out of ten voters in Georgia said race was important, and 72 percent of those folks voted for Sen. Obama. In Illinois, 23 percent of the Democratic voters said race was important — a higher percentage than West Virginia — and 73 percent of those voted for Obama. In America, there’s a lot of sorry to go around.

Surely there is “bigotry in Appalachia,” but then what are we to make of reporter Scot Lehigh’s description of Jesse Jackson’s visit to Hazard in 1988:

Inside the dimly lit high-school gymnasium, a capacity crowd of 1000, dotted with only an occasional black face, erupts into cheers as Jackson enters. “Jesse, Jesse, Jesse,” comes the familiar chant. “Jesse, Jesse, Jesse.” Jackson strides to a small restraining wall that separates the basketball court from the bleachers, and the crowd surges forward. Kids vault the wall, and surround him, and soon the grownups, too, are spilling out onto the musty canvas that covers the basketball floor. Jackson moves along the wall, pressing the flesh, hoisting and hugging kids, a presidential pied piper leading a mesmerized line of children. But this crowd is not content to follow; they want to touch. As he moves by, the group behind him splits like a drop of quicksilver and rolls around him to reach out again. “Jesse, Jesse, Jesse.”

Jackson didn’t win Perry County in that year’s primary. Al Gore, then the young senator from nearby Tennessee, easily carried Hazard and the state. But Jackson got as many votes in Perry County as the eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis. Jackson showed up and in an election that featured Gore, Dukakis, Gary Hart, Sen. Paul Simon, Rep. Dick Gephart and Bruce Babbitt — all respected national leaders of the Democratic Party — the black preacher from Chicago got 16 percent of the Perry County vote. Barack Obama ran against only Hillary Clinton twenty years later and won 8 percent.

I think his trip to Hazard changed Jackson’s life because he kept showing up in Appalachia. He was there on the 30th anniversary of the Farmington mine disaster in West Virginia. He brought Rev. Jerry Falwell to southeastern Ohio for a march aimed at attracting attention and investment to Appalachian communities. In 1998 he proposed a test for presidential candidates: “Do you matter to Mud Creek, Kentucky? Do you have anything to say that is relevant to the people of Eastern Kentucky and central West Virginia and Appalachian Ohio?”

Late in 1998 I drove to Nelsonville, Ohio, where Jackson was holding a conference on the Appalachian economy. He had opened an office in the little town in the rumpled landscape of southeastern Ohio. He told the meeting that “when the (presidential) inauguration takes place in 2001, somebody is going to be discussing Appalachia.”

A month later, Jackson brought President Bill Clinton to a gathering of CEOs from Bell Atlantic, Frito Lay, TCI, Citigroup and the New York Stock Exchange to talk about poverty in the mountains. Jackson told the business elite that this was the time to make a commitment to Appalachia. It would take work to invigorate the region’s economy, he said, and the job would be messy. Then he turned to Clinton and reminded him that those who wore “clean uniforms” never got in the game. “Those who play have stains on their uniforms,” Jackson said.

If you eat an early breakfast in the mountains, there’s a good chance you’ll sit next to some miners fresh off the hoot owl shift. Their uniforms and their faces will be smudged from their jobs underground. They showed up for work and they expect their politicians to show up, too. John Kennedy showed up in West Virginia in 1960 and Jesse Jackson got his clothes dirty in 1988. Lyndon Johnson came to Eastern Kentucky to announce a War on Poverty more than 40 years ago and John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and John McCain came this season to say they remembered.

And Barack Obama? Does his candidacy matter to Mud Creek? It’s hard to tell because his uniform is still clean.

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