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If We Forget Appalachia's Radical History, We Will Misunderstand Its Future

In her new book, Jessica Wilkerson tells the stories of the radical mountain women who fought against bosses and laid the groundwork for ensuing generations of Appalachian resistance.
The woods of Pulaski, Virginia.

The woods of Pulaski, Virginia.

Following the 2016 presidential election, the hills and hollers of Appalachia became ground zero for explorers in a world still referred to as "Trump Country." Coastal journalists parachuted in to take photos of poor people and investigate why these strange hill folk insisted on "voting against their own interests." Author and staunch conservative J.D. Vance was fêted as a sort of redneck whisperer, his up-by-your-bootstraps memoir Hillbilly Elegy touted as the key to understanding our new political dilemma. Despite the economic realities of President Donald Trump's true voting base (who were primarily affluent Republicans), the white working class was blamed squarely for the rise of Trump, and Appalachia was held up as a prime example of the conditions that had made his rise possible.

Scapegoating the region for its imagined character deficiencies made it easy for the pundit class to avoid engaging in meaningful discussions about the ingrained racism and economic inequality that ultimately had a far greater impact on the 2016 election results. Instead, that convenient narrative was condensed, and condensed further, until, ultimately, an entire region with a diverse population and rich political history was reduced to a chyron.

"People have short memories, and I think [the 2016] election has really created a moment where people want simple narratives," Elizabeth Catte, historian and author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, told The Creative Independent in an interview last year. The sort of willful ignorance that Catte laments is especially egregious when one considers just how deep the spirit of dissent runs in Appalachia's rocky soil. "There's so much more that [Americans] should know," Catte said. "They should know about the history of exploitation in the region, they should know about the way that capitalism works in the region, they should know the function that Appalachia has had historically in relation to the rest of the country."

The region's brutal coal wars and bloody labor struggles are well documented, yet they're often glossed over quickly within the context of the region's broader political leanings, which national commentators so often assume to be bright Republican red. Jessica Wilkerson explores one part of that rebellious history in her new book, To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice.

Appalachia is red, for sure, but some of that is because its history is colored by the blood of radicals and rebels, beginning with the indigenous peoples who resisted colonization in the 19th century and continuing with the modern anti-fascists combating the Ku Klux Klan in Stone Mountain, and the incarcerated people across the South protesting prison slavery via annual prison strikes. As the Holler Network, a de-centralized group of Appalachians working to resist the spread of white nationalism in Appalachia, noted on Twitter recently, "Appalachia has an inspiring history of class struggle and fighting white supremacy. We can be proud of our roots and where we are from without celebrating genocide and slavery."

To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice.

To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice.

Those are the roots Wilkerson exposes in To Live Here, You Have to Fight. Wilkerson is an assistant professor of history and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi, and her book focuses on the wave of women-led grassroots organizing that sprang up around 1964, at the start of the War on Poverty, and which continued through the aftermath of anti-poverty programs in the tumultuous 1970s. She draws on extensive oral histories to animate the stories of the radical mountain women who fought against capitalist bosses for social and racial justice—and who laid the groundwork for ensuing generations of Appalachian resistance. The book paints a comprehensive picture of what it really looked like to organize the hollers in an age of great social unrest, and of the many barriers that these women faced along the way.

Wilkerson's argument examines Appalachian women's roles as caregivers, and shows how these activists learned to draw on or subvert their expected social duties, which were predicated on subordination to their men. The tropes of coal miner's wife, mother, or daughter loomed large, but the skills and strength of these women extended far beyond the confines of hearth and home, and grassroots organizing became a crucial component of their overall caregiving labor. These women nursed the broken bodies of injured miners, raised children, and endured the hostile environment that unregulated capital unleashed in the coalfields, but they also connected the ongoing struggle of their own existence with the need to fight for expanded health-care networks, educational resources, racial justice, welfare, and workers' and women's rights—all in a time and place where survival itself was a triumph.

In Wilkerson’s estimation, this expanded perspective informed every organizing decision these women made. Before lifelong activist Florence Reece took the stage to sing her now-iconic labor anthems, she sat at the kitchen table writing those songs from the perspective as a mother and wife—and as a union agitator. "Unofficial social worker" Edith Easterling leveraged her local knowledge, and the federal resources she gained access to as a staffer for the anti-poverty program known as Appalachian Volunteers, to launch her own personal war on poverty at home in Pike County, Kentucky, with the Marrowbone Folk School—and saw her daughter Sue Ella follow her footsteps straight into the civil rights movement via multiracial youth organizing efforts. When Appalachian health activist Eula Hall opened the Mud Creek Clinic and Dr. Elinor Graham taught mountain women how to self-administer breast and pelvic exams and provided information on birth control, they were enabling poor women to take control of their own bodies and make their own childbearing decisions.

At the War on Poverty's post-mortem "hunger hearings" in 1968, Mary Rice Farris confronted Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Congressman Carl D. Perkins. She accused them of not doing enough to support poor people in Kentucky, asking:

[Why are we] spending $70 million a day in Vietnam, plus loss of life, when [there] are millions of people in our area hungry, without homes and decent housing, or without clothing. And we would also like to know why the Negro is having to fight too for a decent place in society as a rightful citizen? Why we, as American Negroes, are having to fight and speak out for a right to take decent responsibility in this great nation?

As the only working-class black woman to testify at the hearings, Farris was defying the social constraints that regularly silenced black working women, so that she could highlight the roles that racism and capitalism were playing in her region's crushing systemic poverty. During Harlan County's grueling 1973 Brookside strike, 70-year-old Minnie Lunsford was able to connect the union men's battle against their bosses with the labor struggles of the 1930s when speaking to younger workers; her rhetoric heartened the striking miners and broke down gender barriers to encourage more women to go out and publicly support the strike instead of staying home, as they had in the past.

Jessica Wilkerson.

Jessica Wilkerson.

The women who come to life in Wilkerson's book each faced social pressure and personal setbacks while working to reform a grinding federal bureaucracy; as the author illustrates throughout the book, the most difficult roadblock they encountered on their path to justice was the system itself. Women miners' efforts to combat gender discrimination at work and secure parental leave challenged prevailing views on family and work, and were met with continual resistance from the political establishment and legal system. If they were unlucky, they could end up like Edith Easterling, who was implicated for her alleged role in a "communist plot" invented by a conservative governor with a grudge, and was thereafter shunned by members of the community to which she'd dedicated her life's work.

During the 1960s and '70s, the welfare rights movement became a flashpoint between different worker factions of the right and the left. Most of the new groups organizing under that banner were connected to community action agencies created during the War on Poverty, and many of them were interracial. The latter fact complicated a prevailing government narrative that pitted white Appalachian families against black single mothers, and while intersectional collective organizing gave rise to groups like the Poor People’s Coalition, it was also dealt a body blow by the ascent of conservative, welfare-averse President Richard Nixon, whose dog-whistle politics sent resentful white Southerners fleeing from the Democratic Party well into the 1970s.

The intersectional bent of much of the grassroots organizing undertaken in Appalachia during this period was often quashed or challenged by racist outside forces, or else succumbed to its own failures; for example, as Wilkerson demonstrates, the Appalachian feminist movement in the 1970s failed to include black women, stymying the interracial solidarity that the anti-poverty and welfare rights movements had fostered, and its specific emphasis on class inequality clashed with the class-blind platform of liberal white feminist organizations outside the region.

As the Marxist feminist academic Silvia Federici wrote in her seminal treatise Wages Against Housework, "By denying housework a wage and transforming it into an act of love, capital has killed many birds with one stone." Caregiving and women's labor as a whole has been exploited since the dawn of humanity, but these Appalachian activists found ways to channel their acts of love into resistance against the ills that plagued their communities. Given the overlapping complexities of their lives in coal country, these women were never solely devoted miners' wives, or solely activists and liberationists—because for the women Wilkerson describes, the politics of class were intrinsically linked with the politics of care, and they felt called upon to fight for both. Wilkerson's research into their lives and work is a crucial piece of the history of social justice in America, placing the true history of Appalachian women's radical, blood-red roots on vibrant display.