The War on Poverty began with President Lyndon Johnson’s visit to Tom Fletcher’s front porch in Martin County, Kentucky, in April 1964. Walter Bennett’s photo for Time Magazine has become an icon of the ’60s.
By HOMER MARCUM
John Edwards is making news this week by focusing on “poverty.” The subject’s being treated by the media hoard who follow him as if poverty is a disease or, worse, a self-indulgent habit like smoking, waiting for someone like John Edwards to announce a cure.
Forgive my cynicism, but I’ve heard this tune before. Let’s give the candidate credit. His “poverty tour” through rural western Virginia and far Eastern Kentucky is doing what the third-running Democratic candidate wants it to do: It’s getting media attention and that’s good for his campaign, and is a convenient way to put a “face” on poverty.
That’s why we who are from far Eastern Kentucky raise an eyebrow when we hear that reporters are coming. Much like grandma might have done when she heard that shady characters were coming to visit by hiding the good silverware, many residents of Eastern Kentucky will head the other way when the media tour comes through. They don’t want to be the next poster face of poverty; they’re tired of being media props.
During the week LBJ came to Kentucky, Time reported the new president “made nearly two dozen speeches, traveled 2,983 miles, held three press conferences, appeared on national television three times, was seen in person by almost a quarter of a million people, shook so many hands that by week’s end his right hand was puffed and bleeding.”
My first fascination with the machinations of journalism occurred on April 24, 1964, when President Lyndon Baines Johnson became the first and only president to ever visit Martin County, Kentucky. I was a junior in high school, and every student in the county was bussed to the site where the president’s helicopter flock was to land on the outskirts of Inez, the county seat, population 600. On this day, the population was several thousand, and I was among them.
No one told us why LBJ was coming, only that he was. We didn’t know that a “War on Poverty” would be declared right there before our very eyes. First off, we didn’t know we were poor. Everyone we knew looked and acted pretty much the same. But we did know who owned the only Cadillac in Lovely (three miles from Beauty) and we thought they were uppity. We didn’t care that it was a used Cadillac. We only knew that it was a symbol of wealth, and that set them apart.
LBJ’s several helicopters did land in the little creek bottom that is now filled with homes, and, wonder of all wonders, remembering the tragic death of President Kennedy only months before, he set out on foot into the adoring crowd of Republicans who, the next presidential election, voted Democratic. I shook his hand twice, and even took photos with my Brownie Hawkeye (lost to a flood caused by a coal strip mine years later).
Just before the president literally dropped in, busloads of reporters arrived in big diesel buses. We’d never seen any bus except school and church ones, so we knew this was a big deal. Aboard those buses were reporters, who fanned out in the crowd to take pictures. But they were there to record the president’s speech and his visit to the home of Tom Fletcher, the poor family who graced the cover of news magazines the next week.
Despite the president’s promise on the front porch of Tom’s tarpaper house to whip poverty, Tom was never able to win that war. He remained poor all through his days.
That initial invasion of reporters led to a flood of media coverage, all depicting Eastern Kentucky as the poorest of all poor places in America, which we were. Reputed to be the poorest all-white county in America, Martin County’s largest employer was the school system.
My mother was a first-grade teacher, and a reporter had interviewed Thelma, her teacher’s aide, and promised to send her a copy of the article if she would agree to answer a few questions. Accommodatingly, she did, and when the magazine article arrived in the mail, she asked my mother to read it to her. I was there. I saw her cry when she heard what the reporter had said about her and the condition of her home and the struggles her family endured to survive.
Thelma, this hard-working mother, was hurt and embarrassed to know that the world had been told her story in such a way.
Years later, when I was editor of my own weekly newspaper in Martin County, another weekly editor from Minnesota called and said he was on a family vacation and would like to come to town and have me show him around. I did. He spent about an hour in town, never taking notes. He later sent me the article he wrote. Its dateline was from INEZVILLE. I had never heard of the place, but I had taken him on a tour of Inez, the county seat.
The week he was in town, the front page of The Martin Countian contained a story about a woman who shot and killed her husband. It was the first murder in years in the county. She told police that she got tired of having to tell him to quit smoking, so she shot him. She didn’t mean for him to die. The INEZVILLE story made it seem like that was an everyday thing in Inez.
LBJ on Tom Fletcher’s front porch, announcing a War on Poverty.
My mother was one of those very poor Eastern Kentuckians when she was younger. But she drove 50 miles, each way, along winding, mountainous roads to take college classes, and after several years graduated with a teacher’s degree. All of her children, taking her example, have worked hard and succeeded.
The lesson of the War on Poverty is not that government jobs and welfare programs are what people need. They need what my mother got: an education. Candidate Edwards knows that story all too well. He’s the son of Carolina mill workers. He used education to better his lot in life.
I hope Candidate Edwards heard what the real fix for poverty is while he was on his tour: education and the opportunity to get it. Make education accessible and affordable, and required if a family expects government help.
And keep the reporters on the bus.