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