Skip to Main Content
Reformers to Radicals

Reformers to Radicals: The Appalachian Volunteers and the War on Poverty

Thomas Kiffmeyer
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 320
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Reformers to Radicals
    Book Description:

    In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to do something for their country. Thousands of young people answered his call, launching an era of flourishing social activism that eclipsed any in U.S. history. Citizens rallied behind an endless variety of social justice organizations to change the country's social and political landscape. As these social movements gained momentum, the severe poverty of the Appalachian region attracted the attention of many spirited young Americans. In 1964, a group of them formed the Appalachian Volunteers, an organization intent on eradicating poverty in eastern Kentucky and the rest of the Southern mountains. In Reformers to Radicals: The Appalachian Volunteers and the War on Poverty, Thomas Kiffmeyer documents the history of this organization as their youthful enthusiasm led to radicalism and controversy. Known informally as the AVs, these reformers sought to improve the everyday lives of the Appalachian poor while also making strides toward lasting economic change in the region. Considering themselves "poverty warriors," the AVs helped residents by refurbishing schools and homes and by offering much-needed educational opportunities, including job training and remedial academic instruction. Their efforts brought temporary relief to the Appalachian poor, but controversy was soon to follow. Within two years of the group's formation, they faced nationwide accusations that they were "seditious" and "un-American." Kiffmeyer explains how these activists, who worked for a worthy cause, ignited a firestorm of public criticism that ultimately caused their mission to fail. Before the decade was over, the Volunteers had lost the support of the federal and state governments and of many Appalachian people -- an irreversible setback that caused the group to disband in 1970. The Appalachian Volunteers' failure was caused by multiple factors. They were overtly political, attracting divisive reactions from local and state governments. They were indecisive in defining the true nature of their cause, creating dissension within the group's ranks. They were engaged in a struggle to "integrate" the poor into mainstream American culture, which alienated the AVs from many of the very people they sought to help. They were also caught up in the unrest of the civil rights and anti--Vietnam War movements, which distracted them from their core mission. Reformers to Radicals chronicles a critical era in Appalachian history while also investigating the impact the 1960s' reform attitude had on one part of a broader movement in the United States. Kiffmeyer revisits an era in which idealistic young Americans, spurred on by President Kennedy's call to action, set out to remake America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7308-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction A Time for Change
    (pp. 1-16)

    Looking back on the 1960s, one activist recalled that he was “motivated by a desire to do … good works and to be involved in change that was going on all over the country.” “It was a time for doing things; was a time of social activism,” he declared, “and that was sanctioned and supported and our President had told us to do that—President Kennedy.” Inspired by the new president’s 1961 inauguration speech, “where he challenged the American youth to do something for the country,” this individual eventually did take action and, toward the middle of the decade, joined...

  5. 1 On the Brink of War The Council of the Southern Mountains and the Origins of the War on Poverty in Appalachia
    (pp. 17-44)

    The Oak Ridge, Tennessee, native George Brosi was probably atypical even for a college student, and in particular for a Southerner, in the early 1960s. In the summer of 1961, following his first year at Carlton College in Minnesota, Brosi “for the first time in [his] life … was exposed to Yankees that were appalled by the whole notion of anybody being from the [segregated] South or being from the hills.” “A lot of them … guilt-tripped” him about being from the “wrong part of the country.” “And it was true,” Brosi recalled. “I had been raised in segregation …...

  6. 2 The Shot Heard Round the World The Battle for Mill Creek, Kentucky, and the Culture of Poverty
    (pp. 45-68)

    Born in Floyd County, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Milton Ogle graduated from Berea College in 1955. Following a short tenure as a math teacher in McDowell County, North Carolina, Ogle returned to Berea to administer the college’s broom factory. He enjoyed his job, which allowed him to interact with people from all over the region. It helped him, moreover, appreciate the role that Berea College played in the Southern mountains. “Berea was really good,” he recalled in 1991, “at … taking in people that had been by-passed by the non-system of education that existed then in Appalachia and...

  7. 3 A Splendid Little War Helping People Help Themselves, 1964
    (pp. 69-92)

    By the time Roslea Johnson entered Berea College in 1961, her experiences had become quite familiar for many Appalachians. Born in Wisconsin in 1943, Johnson was the child of what the historian Chad Berry calls “northern exiles,” people from the Appalachian region who had relocated to Northern industrial centers in search of employment during World War II. She was just a year old when her father got a job in a munitions plant in Tennessee and the family returned to the South. Some time later, when she was still young, the family finally resettled in the city of Radford, Virginia—...

  8. 4 The War to End All Wars A National Quest to End Appalachian Poverty, 1965–1966
    (pp. 93-122)

    Jack Rivel and Flem Messer make an interesting pair, especially in the context of the War on Poverty in eastern Kentucky. Though both were Appalachian Volunteers (AVs) and were involved in some of the organization’s earliest projects, their experiences and backgrounds highlight a transformation that the AVs underwent by the summer of 1965. While the organization still held to its philosophy of local people helping each other, that ideal was, by late 1965, becoming increasingly untenable. With the involvement of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in the antipoverty effort in the region, the Appalachian Volunteers underwent, within a year...

  9. 5 The New Model Army The Appalachian Volunteers Splits from the Council of the Southern Mountains
    (pp. 123-146)

    By May 1966, Loyal Jones, the assistant director of the Council of the Southern Mountains (CSM), faced a serious conundrum. On the one hand, their accomplishments sparked in the Appalachian Volunteers (AVs) a desire to get closer to the heart of the mountains—by moving their headquarters to the city of Bristol, which straddled the Tennessee-Virginia border. From the organization’s founding, Jones admitted, the Council considered the idea of an independent Appalachian Volunteers. Moreover, recent experience had led some AV members to question the leadership of Ayer and the CSM. On the other hand, should the AVs leave, the CSM...

  10. 6 Operation Rolling Thunder The Political Education of Mountaineers and Appalachian Volunteers
    (pp. 147-178)

    The Louisville native and University of Kentucky student Joe Mulloy, much like his counterpart, George Brosi, was unusually attentive for a Southern college student in the early 1960s. Though he did not readily recall President Johnson’s declaration of a “war on poverty,” he was impressed by the civil rights movement, the Freedom Rides of 1963, and Freedom Summer in 1964. “That’s the kinda stuff,” he later recounted, “I was listening to or paying attention to.” Then, at one point in 1964, Mulloy heard the Appalachian Volunteers (AVs) field representative Jack Rivel speak on campus. Rivel “made a good case for...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. 7 Peace without Victory Three Strikes and a Red Scare in the Mountains
    (pp. 179-206)

    “Appalachia needed help. I can’t say that they needed the War on Poverty,” Louie Nunn remembered in 1993, “but I think they got too much help…. They got food, they got medicine, they got everything that they needed and they didn’t have to work for anything. Consequently they decided that they never would work.” Elected in 1967, Louie Nunn was the first Republican governor of Kentucky in twenty-four years. Running a campaign that stressed the social turmoil of the latter half of the decade, Nunn typified the desires of many who were, as theHazard Heraldstated, “tired of the...

  13. Conclusion Live to Fight Another Day
    (pp. 207-216)

    This attempt to integrate the Appalachian South into urban, mainstream America, in many ways an “unfinished revolution,” as Eric Foner described the situation in the South after 1877, was decidedly problematic. Nevertheless, this episode in Appalachian history provides insights into the nature of liberal reform, of change, of change agents, and of those in the coalfields who opposed them during the 1960s. These lessons would also apply to the struggles that characterized the War on Poverty in other regions of the United States. Ever since Appalachia’s first attempted “reconstruction,” which came at the hands of the local color writers, the...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 217-258)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 259-272)
  16. Index
    (pp. 273-284)