3. Colonial Economy

The most perplexing issue in my mind is the fact that the land in Eastern Kentucky has some of the richest lands in the whole world, but yet the people living on these lands are some of the poorest in the nation (Eller 9). Some may wonder how that is even humanly possible? Those people have the richest soils, but literally have nothing to show for it. Most Eastern Kentuckians were (and still today) are considered to be lazy, non-educated hillbillies (Eller 25).

Coal companies invaded the region, at the turn of the twentieth century, and forced people to succumb to the coal companies needs (Eller 9-10). These poor people had to move off the lands that their ancestors once owned and many began to work for the coal company (Eller 9-10). These miners were not paid a lot of money, and if they owed the company any money it was taken directly from their paycheck. These poor men worked from sunrise to sundown and produced millions of tons of coal.

Once the coal has been extracted from the region, it is shipped to the factories up north (Eller 10; Williams 246). Here the coal is used to process many consumer goods for the whole United States; including Eastern Kentucky. The miners would purchase those goods with the little money they made, which just profited the coal company even more (Williams 229). It was a lose-lose situation and many people believe that it was the poor’s own fault for being so poverty stricken (Eller 63).

However, Robert Kennedy believed differently. He felt as if the poor were being taken advantage of by the coal companies. If the coal companies would give the coal miners decent wages they would have been better off in the world. More money means they would be able to feed their families without relying on food-stamps, afford decent medical services, better educational facilities and opportunities, and have a more economically prosperous region (Eller 154-5).  He believed that the federal government should be involved in helping these people out of poverty, but not in the way they usually did (. Usually, the federal government would give the local government officials X amount of money and then these local officials could spend the money as they pleased. Instead, Kennedy thought that the “community action” program would be extremely beneficial to the region (Schmitt, The Register 380-1, 386, 388, 397). In other words, let the poor themselves run antipoverty programs; they would decide how the federal antipoverty funding should be spent, and it would dramatically reduce the amount of corruption within the region (Eller 115). Therefore, this would be the structural change in which Eastern Kentucky desperately needed.

RFK visits retired miner (Appalachian Volunteers Records, Special Collections and Archives, Hutchins Library, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky)

This picture is my favorite picture of Kennedy in the region. The way he composes himself in this portrait is really heartfelt, it is as though he is truly disturbed by what he found in the region. He seems to be intently listening to the retired coal miner and his body language seems very slumped as if he feels the hurt that this miner has experienced. This again just shows his deep concern for the well being of the people in the region. I believe that the photographer wanted to capture this to show the concern that Kennedy carried on his face. The picture was taken in the coal miners house because this was the main occupation of the region and were being severely oppressed. So the photographer captured Kennedy with his concerned expression on his face and him thoroughly listening to the oppressive hardships the coal miner has had to endure.

RFK listens to miners in Neon, Ky. (Appalachian Volunteers Records, Special Collections and Archives, Hutchins Library, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky)

In this photograph, Kennedy seems very rigid, but attentive. The photo was taken at the Neon-Fleming school, where Kennedy held public hearings to discuss the living conditions and welfare of the residents. Kennedy has many papers placed before him, but its as if he has forgotten those things in order to listen to these people. His glasses also rest on the table, giving all attention to the miners speaking about their experiences living in Eastern Kentucky. He was very interested in their personal stories, hardships they had endured, and he was willing to listen to the people who have longed for this sort of attention for many years. These people were eager to talk and Kennedy was willing to listen. The photographer effectively captured Kennedy listening to the wants of the people of Eastern Kentucky. They capture him intensively listen to the stories, and looks as if he is eager to want to help these people; though Kennedy never promised that he could solve the problems of poverty, but he would try his damnedest to reduce it.

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