"Not Just Whites in Appalachia": The Black Appalachian Commission, Regional Black Power Politics, and the War on Poverty, 1965-1975
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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Arts and Sciences
Dr. Anastasia Curwood
During the Black Power era of the late 1960s and 1970s, Black activists in Appalachia used the opening of the War on Poverty to wage a regional war against institutional and environmental racism. Through the Black Appalachian Commission, a grassroots organization created in 1969, Black activists worked to expose racism in local and federal policy as the root cause of poverty for Black Appalachians, who they argued were the poorest in the region. Their outward self-definition as Black and Appalachian was a political strategy to garner power over resources earmarked for Appalachians. The term “Black Appalachian'' was more than a simple way of identifying African Americans in a region. It represents an historical moment in which the Black Power movement, part of the larger Black Freedom Struggle, coalesced with Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty in the Appalachian South. Created out of the Black campus movement at Berea College and the multiracial anti-poverty movement regionally, the BAC sought to raise a regional Black consciousness to unite Black Appalachians from thirteen states into a mass movement. They began by making the existence of Black people in Appalachia visible in order to build a basis for claims to structural changes. The BAC partnered with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to conduct the first statistical study on Black Appalachians, challenged regional policy at the federal level by demanding that the new Appalachian Regional Commission mandate affirmative action policies, organized Black communities on the ground against environmental racism after a climate disaster, uplifted Black Appalachian women as the key to building Black Appalachian power, and created the first regional publication to advance a Black Appalachian perspective. Although ultimately limited by the unwillingness of federal agencies to adopt their demands, the BAC harnessed the openings of the War on Poverty to challenge racism in the Appalachian region. Their radical vision of anti-poverty was to address it through anti-racism. Through grassroots organizing and institution building, local people challenged the federal government to address the needs of all Appalachians.
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This study was supported by a 2020-2022 Pre-Doctoral Fellowship from the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, a 2019 Professional Development Grant from the University of Kentucky Center for Graduate and Professional Diversity Initiatives, the 2018 University of Kentucky Appalachian Center Eller & Billings Student Research Award, a 2018 West Virginia University Research & Regional History Center Research Grant, a 2018 Ithaca College Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival Diversity Fellowship, a 2018 University of Kentucky, Department of History Fellowship, a 2017-2019 University of Kentucky Lyman T. Johnson Fellowship, and a 2017-2022 UK Department of History Robert S. Lipman Graduate Fellowship.
McCommons, Jillean, ""Not Just Whites in Appalachia": The Black Appalachian Commission, Regional Black Power Politics, and the War on Poverty, 1965-1975" (2022). Theses and Dissertations--History. 73.