The Common Good

War on Poverty Anniversary Recalls Religion's Role in Appalachia

HOT SPRINGS, N.C. — The 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty, which falls today, reminds us how intractable that effort can be, despite the hope and determined idealism when the legislation was signed.

RNS photo by Don Rutledge
A mountain home with teenagers involved in work at the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board. RNS photo by Don Rutledge

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Appalachia was one of the targets for the newly established Office of Economic Opportunity, utilizing programs such as Head Start and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). The anniversary also recalls how religion has motivated, shaped and sustained this effort, in many ways prefiguring the campaign, in both its successes and failures.

For more than two centuries, these Southern mountains have been a magnet for missionaries, both religious and secular, all determined to wipe out poverty, hunger, and ignorance — whether the region’s benighted folk wanted them to or not. Their too-common failing, local people say, is that the erstwhile do-gooders have not respected the strong beliefs and culture that already existed.

With the best intentions, altruists and uninvited agents of uplift have come with their social gospel of “fixing” local people. That is to wean them from violence and the debilitating use of alcohol, while bringing their brand of faith, along with education, nutrition, and improved living standards. Invariably well-meaning, these efforts have typically ended in disappointment and failure in places such as Madison County, N.C.

Early in the 19th century, the British-born evangelist Francis Asbury was a familiar sight hereabouts on horseback. Yet people in Madison County, a poor, sparsely populated area hard by the Tennessee border, looked warily at the Methodist missionary when he began visiting the village of Hot Springs (then Warm Springs) in 1800.

Although Asbury made some progress bringing Christianity to Madison County over the following years, alas, frequent backsliding occurred. His last visit to Warm Springs, a year before his death, was on a Friday night in 1815, where he encountered well-lubricated merriment: “There was a dance — such fiddling and drinking!”

In the 1880s, it was the turn of the northern Presbyterians, who built dozens of small churches throughout western North Carolina. They and other denominations established boarding schools, hospitals, and medical clinics.

Unfortunately, along with their Bibles, some missionaries also brought offensive attitudes about the people they came to help. By the early 20th century, the missionaries had failed to leave a lasting imprint; their institutions were for the most part closed, abandoned or left in ruins.

During the Great Depression, the secular missionaries of the New Deal followed, setting up three Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Madison County and shipping in hundreds of young men. Most worked in a newly established national forest, maintaining roads, planting trees, stringing telephone lines, cutting fire trails and building observation towers. Federally funded Works Progress Administration projects employed local men to work on Madison County roads and public buildings. The new Social Security system at least infused some additional cash.

With the 1960s came the War on Poverty’s Office of Economic Opportunity. Late in that decade, a small group of community organizers from VISTA —  dubbed the domestic Peace Corps — came here, fired by humanistic values of the time. In June 1970, one of the volunteers, Nancy Dean Morgan, was killed. With her death, which was never solved, the VISTAs cleared out, defeated like all their predecessors, and thought never to return.

Even so, the altruistic impulse remains resilient. VISTA — today a part of AmeriCorps — has sent another young woman back to Madison County to continue the battle against poverty and its causes, in this case a literacy and enrichment program for adolescent girls.

One instructional text Morgan and the other VISTAs were not offered — but which would have benefited them — was Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, particularly the chapter entitled The Outlander and the Native. In it, Presbyterian minister Warren H. Wilson, known as the “Bishop of the Mountains,” advised any missionaries, secular or religious, with ambitions to uplift the Appalachian mountaineers to proceed with caution — and respect. A mountaineer, Wilson cautioned, would “refuse even what he sorely needs if he detects in the accents or the demeanor of the giver any indication of an air of superiority.”

For Nancy Morgan’s modern successors, the preacher’s words are still good advice.

Mark I. Pinsky is author of Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan. Via RNS.

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