Lectures show some Civil War issues still fresh as today’s headlines

February 28, 2015

abeEduardo Kobra’s Lexington mural of Abraham Lincoln. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

One great thing about living in this university city is that a lot of smart and interesting people come here to speak and you can hear them for free.

Two of my favorite annual events are the Kenan Lecture at Transylvania University and the Bale Boone Symposium, sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities.

Last month, the Bale Boone’s three speakers discussed the Civil War, which ended 150 years ago. Or did it?

Historian Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond in Virginia, gave a fascinating talk about the Civil War and how his school’s Digital Scholarship Lab is using technology to better illustrate and explain history.

Coleman Hutchison of the University of Texas talked about the history of the word and song Dixie, with all of their cultural symbolism and baggage.

The third talk was by David Blight, a Yale University history professor and acclaimed author, whose lecture title was a trick question: When Did the American Civil War End?

Blight’s answer was that it hasn’t. Sure, the shooting war stopped a century and a half ago. But the underlying issues — race, class, civil rights, social and economic justice, states’ rights and federalism — remain as fresh and raw as today’s headlines.

These lectures were not the familiar territory of Civil War buffs: armies, generals, battlefield maneuvers and what-might-have-beens. They explored how this epic conflict and its causes are still deeply embedded in our national psyche.

Consider, for example, states’ rights. Politicians in some states still try to “nullify” federal legislation, regulations and court rulings they don’t like. The Constitution’s intended balance between state and federal authority remains a source of dispute.

Now, as then, these disputes often boil down to whose rights are being served and whose are being ignored, Blight noted. At various times since the Civil War, the federal government has overruled state authority to protect civil rights, the environment and public health.

Liberty may be our most cherished freedom. But what does liberty mean? What happens when one person’s idea of liberty infringes upon the liberty of others?

For example, is government regulation of business an infringement on the liberty of business owners? Or is regulation necessary to keep some businesses from infringing on the liberty of other businesses, workers, citizens and communities?

The Federal Communications Commission’s decision last week on Internet regulation is a good example. Does “net neutrality” infringe on the liberty of Internet service providers, which often are monopolies, to maximize their investment? Or does it protect the liberty of consumers to access information and the liberty of other businesses to have a level playing field so they can compete in the marketplace?

Liberty’s double-edged sword is central to an issue many people think threatens the very survival of representative democracy in America since the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision in 2010.

Whose liberty should prevail? Is it the liberty of wealthy individuals and corporations to use unlimited funds to amplify their speech and buy influence? Or is it the liberty of everyone else to have a political process free of money’s corruption?

As the Civil War entered its final year, on April 18, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln discussed this philosophical question in a speech in Baltimore. He talked about liberty in the context of slavery, but his words speak eloquently to many of the political issues that bitterly divide us today.

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one,” Lincoln said. “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.

“With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.

“Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.”


How do you tell real war heroes from frauds? Listen for the silence

February 24, 2015

What is it about some successful men that they feel a need to be war heroes, too?

There is a long tradition of prominent men exaggerating their military service for no good reason. And there is an equally long tradition of journalists and veterans’ groups exposing them to public ridicule.

But it keeps on happening.

Robert McDonald, the secretary of veterans affairs, apologized this week after a TV news crew caught him telling a homeless man that he had served in special forces. McDonald graduated from West Point and Ranger school and served in the 82nd Airborne, but he wasn’t in special forces.

And then there are the TV stars who embellish their experiences as war correspondents.

This is a big deal because good journalism is about accuracy and the search for truth. Making up things destroys credibility, and without credibility, a journalist has nothing.

Brian Williams. AP Photo

Brian Williams. AP Photo

NBC News anchor Brian Williams was suspended earlier this month after he apologized for repeatedly telling how a helicopter in which he was riding while covering the Iraq War was hit by enemy fire. Actually, it was another helicopter in Williams’ group that was hit.

Williams said he “made a mistake in recalling” that key detail. NBC executives have reacted appropriately by suspending their top-rated anchor for six months. Many journalists think he should never return to that job.

Even more interesting is the case of Bill O’Reilly, the bombastic Fox News talk show host and commentator.

Mother Jones magazine last week called out O’Reilly for repeatedly stretching the truth about his experiences as a CBS correspondent in Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.

In his 2001 book “The No Spin Zone,” and on his show, O’Reilly has claimed to have “survived a combat situation” and reported from “active war zones.” In reality, O’Reilly and other non-British journalists were kept hundreds of miles away from the fighting in the Falkland Islands during Great Britain’s 74-day war with Argentina.

What O’Reilly was referring to was a demonstration he covered in Buenos Aires that turned violent. He claims to have seen Argentine troops shoot and kill civilians. And on his show in 2013, he told a guest, “My photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete.”

Bill O'Reilly. AP Photo

Bill O’Reilly. AP Photo

O’Reilly’s former CBS colleagues have refuted his claims. They don’t recall any of their photographers being injured, and they note that there were no reports of civilian deaths that day.

Rather than apologize, O’Reilly has doubled-down on his claims and hurled insults at his critics and former colleagues. He called David Corn, the Mother Jones bureau chief in Washington who co-authored the story, “a liar”, “a despicable guttersnipe” and “a left-wing assassin.”

O’Reilly told a New York Times reporter who interviewed him about the controversy this week that if he didn’t like the story, “I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take it as a threat.”

What O’Reilly has not done is offer any evidence to support his claims or refute the Mother Jones story. But rather than suspend him, Fox News executives so far have given O’Reilly their full support.

O’Reilly and Fox News may not be concerned about their journalistic credibility, since they don’t really have any beyond their loyal base of conservative viewers.

But they may be underestimating the military combat veterans in their audience who will be offended by O’Reilly’s manufactured heroism.

That’s because combat veterans and war correspondents who have performed bravely under fire don’t go around bragging about it. Even when asked, many would rather not discuss it.

I have seen this many, many times. But the one I will always remember involved the most famous hero of World War I, Sgt. Alvin York of Tennessee.

I interviewed York’s widow, Gracie, four months before she died in 1984. She told me her husband never wanted to talk about the deeds that earned him the Medal of Honor.

“He never would, not even to me or the kids,” she said. “I guess he didn’t want to think about how bad it was in the war.”


In fight over payday lending abuses, it’s churches vs. almighty dollar

February 22, 2015

I love free enterprise, but I believe there is a special place in hell for business people who exploit the poor and vulnerable and politicians who enable them.

A good example is the payday lending industry.

A diverse coalition of Kentuckians, including conservative and liberal religious leaders, plan to gather Tuesday at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass bipartisan legislation limiting the interest and fees on short-term payday loans to an annualized rate of 36 percent.

That is still high compared to normal borrowing costs. But it would be a big improvement over the 400 percent or more that payday lenders can now charge customers.

Photo illustration by Charles Bertram

Photo illustration by Charles Bertram

These two-week loans of $500 or less are designed to help working people cover expenses until their next paycheck. But studies show three-fourths of these loans are renewed or turned into new loans, sometimes trapping borrowers in an endless cycle of debt.

Payday lending emerged as an industry in the 1990s. With about 20,000 storefronts, plus online sites, payday lenders made $40.3 billion in loans and collected $7.4 billion in revenues in 2010, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

Kentucky is one of 32 states that allow triple-digit interest rates on payday loans. The state’s 781 payday lending stores in 2010 made $995.7 million in loans averaging $350 each, according to the Center for Responsible Lending.

Payday lenders collect at least $121 million a year in interest and fees from some of Kentucky’s poorest people, according to the Kentucky Coalition for Responsible Lending. Most profits go out of state — or farther. Advance America, one of Kentucky’s largest payday lenders, is owned by Mexico’s Grupo Elektra.

The Defense Department has limited the interest that can be charged to military personnel at 36 percent, as the Kentucky legislation seeks to do for everyone. Kentucky has put a few restrictions on payday lenders in recent years, but meaningful reform has always been blocked by legislators with lame excuses.

This year’s bill is sponsored by Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, a Lexington Republican, and co-sponsored by three Senate Democrats, Reginald Thomas of Lexington, Gerald Neal of Louisville and Dennis Parrett of Elizabethtown. Gov. Steve Beshear has supported the interest rate cap since 2009.

Tuesday’s rally is organized by the Kentucky Coalition for Responsible Lending, an impressive list of 89 organizations, including 33 faith groups. Members include statewide associations of Roman Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and Disciples of Christ.

Many of these faith groups disagree on other issues. But the Bible’s Old and New Testaments are clear about the sin of “usury” — charging excessive (or, according to some verses, any) interest on loans to people in need.

With this level of religious support, you would think the bill would be a cinch. But there is a higher power at work: the almighty dollar. Payday lenders spent more than $151,000 last year lobbying legislators and gave them tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

Legislators who have blocked this bill over the years have had many excuses: there is a demand for payday loans; people with bad credit have few alternatives; it’s free enterprise.

But the truth is there are alternatives, and poor people in the 18 states with double-digit interest caps have found them. Some credit unions, banks and community organizations have small loan programs for low-income people.

There could be more alternatives, too, if Congress would consider ideas such as allowing the Post Office to offer basic financial services, as is done in other countries, or giving poor people an advance on their earned income tax credit.

A bigger-picture solution, of course, would be to raise the minimum wage and rethink trickle-down economic policies that have decimated the middle class and widened the wealth gap to historic levels. But don’t hold your breath for that.

An additional excuse for legislative inaction this year is that Kentucky should wait to see what Congress and federal regulators do. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has begun a belated crackdown on payday lending practices.

But only Congress can cap rates at the federal level, and there is little chance of that from the business-friendly Republican majority. Rep. Andy Barr, a Lexington Republican, has been a shameless ally of payday lenders and other financial services companies, which contributed more than $700,000 to his re-election campaign.

I wish the consumer protection advocates and religious leaders good luck Tuesday, but they will need to make many more trips to Frankfort. I just hope they follow the money and keep a good list of which politicians are helping payday lenders prey on Kentucky’s poor and vulnerable — a list they will share widely at election time.


50 years later, Berea alumni say Selma march changed their lives

February 15, 2015

150215Berea-Selma0008Berea College student Mike Clark took these photos as one of 58 students and faculty to join the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965.  The students carried a banner and signs with the college’s mottos. At left of the banner is freshman Ann Grundy, shown below in detail and today with her husband, Chester Grundy. Photos by Mike Clark and Tom Eblen

 

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put out a call in the spring of 1965 for people to come to Alabama and march for civil rights, college students across the country jumped at the chance. College presidents shuddered.

Alabama cops and racist thugs had beaten previous marchers, killing two. University administrators worried about the safety of students, the fears of parents and the anger of conservative donors and community members.

Officials at Berea College, the South’s oldest interracial school, had an additional complication as campus opinion split over the civil rights movement and its tactics.

“Berea’s motto is ‘God hath made of one blood all nations of men’,” recalled Ann Grundy, who was then a freshman and one of 35 blacks among Berea’s 1,400 students. “Why did they ever tell us that? It became our weapon. We hammered them across the head to let us go.”

Berea President Francis Hutchins refused to sanction the trip, even after students marched on his house. But his heart was with them.

“They realized that morally we were correct,” Grundy said. “They just had to find a way to do it.”

Clark031Hutchins quietly loaned them his car and helped rent a Greyhound bus so 58 students and teachers could join the triumphant final day of the march from Selma to Montgomery, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The 50th anniversary is attracting a lot of attention this year, in part because of Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed film, Selma, a contender for the best-picture Oscar at the Academy Awards on Sunday.

A two-month commemoration began last week in Selma. Among the participants March 7-8 will be a busload of Berea students, faculty and alumni that will include Grundy and 10 others who made the first trip. Of the original 58, 43 are still alive.

This time, Berea’s participation is official, organized by Alicestyne Turley, an African and African American studies professor who directs the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education.

Among other things, the group plans to attend festivities at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the first two of King’s three marches ended almost as soon as they began.

The first one, on March 7, 1965, became known as “Bloody Sunday” after police beat the peaceful marchers as they tried to cross the bridge. A second attempt two days later came to be called Turnaround Tuesday” because, when confronted by police, King led the marchers back to a church in Selma.

150202Grundys0005AKing then sought a federal court order to protect marchers on their journey to the state Capitol in Montgomery, as well as federal legislation protecting black people’s right to register and vote. On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Congress for that legislation in a nationally televised speech.

The third and final march began March 21 under the protection of 4,000 federalized troops and law-enforcement officers. Limited by the court order to 300 marchers on narrow parts of the road to Montgomery, the protest swelled to more than 25,000 as they reached the Capitol on March 25.

The Berea group spent all night driving through Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama to join that final day of marching. They carefully planned their route to include rest and refueling stops at places where it would be safe for blacks and whites to be seen traveling together.

“There were many white people at Berea who stepped outside their comfort zone to help us,” Grundy said. “Without their support, it would not have happened.”

She remembers an electric atmosphere, with students singing civil rights songs and talking about issues all night.

“On the bus we talked a lot about why we were doing it,” she said. “I remember being nervous, but when you’re 18 years old, what do you know about fear?”

Grundy led much of the singing. A piano major, her father had been pastor of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where, three years after his death, Klansmen placed a bomb that killed four girls attending Sunday school on Sept. 15, 1963.

When they arrived at a Catholic school complex outside Montgomery where thousands were waiting to join the marchers coming from Selma, the Bereans organized behind a banner painted with their school’s motto. They carried signs with another school motto, in Latin, which means “victory through suffering.”

“I felt sort of a oneness with all of the people there from all over the United States,” said John Fleming, another black Berea student who had participated in lunch counter sit-ins as a teenager in Morganton, N.C.

Fleming’s most vivid memories from that day are of watching people on the sidewalks as the march passed through Montgomery — the icy stares and slurs of whites and the joyful faces and cheers of blacks who had been warned not to join the protest.

“I wondered what they were all thinking,” he said. “And I realized that the only way change is going to happen is for individuals to make a decision that they are going to take a stand.”

150215Berea-Selma0002Berea student Mike Clark watched much of the day through the viewfinder of the school newspaper’s camera. He was the sports editor, but he learned to use the camera when the newspaper’s conservative photographer refused to make the trip.

“What I was looking at was pretty dramatic; all I needed to do was focus,” said Clark, who recently sent some of those old pictures to Berea.

Clark was a white boy from the North Carolina mountains. The first black people he ever met were chain-gang convicts who worked on the road outside his house. As a teenage restaurant cook, he worked for a black man he respected. Clark’s mother was a Christian who taught him that everyone deserved equal treatment.

He remembers running ahead of the march to take photographs as it approached the Capitol. There he encountered King and his lieutenants standing by the flatbed truck that would serve as the speakers’ platform for their rally.

“There was no security, so I just went up and chatted with them,” Clark recalled. “We were all just looking out at the crowd that stretched out in front of us for blocks. It was an inspiring moment. He had been a hero of mine for quite awhile, so to meet him personally was pretty cool.”

At the march’s dramatic conclusion, King and others spoke and Harry Belafonte and Peter, Paul and Mary sang. A line of police with billy clubs watched them from the Capitol steps.

“I can remember looking up at the state Capitol,” Grundy said, “and seeing (Gov.) George Wallace pulling back the curtain to peek and see what was going on.”

But Grundy’s most vivid memory was of a rest stop in Collinsville, Ala., on the way back that night. Zodia Belle Johnson Vaughn, the mother of black Berea freshman Robert Johnson, opened her home to the students and fed them delicious fried chicken, biscuits and collard greens.

“You know how they talk about Jesus and the miracle of the loaves and fishes? Well, he didn’t have anything on Mrs. Vaughan and her friends and neighbors,” Grundy said. “That to me was the highlight of the trip, because it demonstrated the many ways that people can support a struggle.”

After their return to campus, black students felt especially energized, and they focused that energy on Berea College.

Abolitionist John G. Fee founded the school in 1855 to educate freed blacks in an atmosphere of equality among the races and sexes. But in 1904, Kentucky legislators outlawed interracial education, and Berea refocused its mission on educating Appalachian white students of modest means.

Black students were once again admitted after the segregation law was repealed in 1950, but there were few of them — and no black faculty.

“Coming back from that trip we were definitely fired up,” Grundy said. “We really kicked in with the organization of the Black Student Union and started pressing Berea for black faculty, black staff, more students, more black course work.

Today, Berea’s student body of nearly 1,600 is 19 percent black, 4 percent Latino, 4 percent other minorities and 10 percent international. But the faculty remains 86 percent white — a sore point with some black alumni.

The Selma-to-Montgomery marches marked an historic watershed for the nation, and it shaped many of those Berea students for the rest of their lives.

“It perhaps set the tone for what I was going to do in the future, said Fleming, who would earn a doctorate at Howard University and become the founding director of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center and director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Clark became a journalist, working for fearless publishers Tom and Pat Gish at the Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg. But he soon left journalism for a career in social justice and environmental activism, leading such organizations as Greenpeace and Tennessee’s legendary Highlander Research and Education Center.

Grundy and her husband, Chester, became lifelong civil rights activists who for more than four decades have organized the annual Martin Luther King Day festivities in Lexington that have included such speakers as Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“I think most of us look back on the march with a great deal of honor and pride,” Grundy said. “I could almost feel myself growing up. I sometimes say I never got over it.”

 

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

 


Plans for East Kentucky future must include repairing coal’s damage

February 10, 2015

130214MountainRally0378 copyHundreds will march to the state Capitol  Thursday for the 10th annual I Love Mountains Day protest of destructive strip-mining, as they did in this 2013 photo. Below, Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers attend the first SOAR summit, Dec. 9, 2013. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Two large public gatherings are planned in the next week by groups trying to create a brighter future for Eastern Kentucky.

They come from different sides of the “war on coal” debate that has polarized discussion of these issues, but they have more in common than you might think.

The first event, Thursday in Frankfort, is the 10th annual I Love Mountains Day, organized by the citizens’ group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. (Information and registration: Kftc.org.)

In what has become an annual rite, hundreds of people will march to the Capitol steps and urge the governor and General Assembly to stop the coal industry’s most destructive surface-mining practices. And they will be ignored.

Few legislators will come out to hear them. Neither will the governor, nor any candidate for governor who has any chance of being elected. Most politicians think they must be unequivocal “friends of coal” to get elected, regardless of the toll on Kentucky’s land, air, water and public health.

131209SOAR-TE0093 copyThe other event, Monday in Pikeville, is the second summit meeting of Shaping Our Appalachian Region. SOAR is a bipartisan effort to improve life in Eastern Kentucky that was launched in 2013 by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers. (Information and registration: Soar-ky.org.)

Eastern Kentucky’s coal industry has been eliminating jobs for decades as mines were mechanized, coal reserves depleted and deep mining replaced by “mountaintop removal” and other forms of surface mining.

But the job losses have mounted in recent years because of cheap natural gas, cheaper coal from elsewhere and the Obama administration’s better-late-than-never actions to fight pollution and climate change.

Politicians and business leaders have had to admit that most of Eastern Kentucky’s coal jobs are never coming back, and that new strategies are needed to diversify the economy.

That led to the creation of SOAR, whose 12 working committees have spent the past year conducting more than 100 “listening sessions” throughout the region to hear public comments, gather ideas, assess needs and set priorities.

Strategy Summit attendees will review the committees’ findings and discuss next steps. How those discussions play out could determine whether SOAR can build enough public credibility to make change.

An early criticism of SOAR was that its leadership was drawn almost exclusively from Eastern Kentucky’s power elite. There was little or no representation from coal industry critics or grassroots groups such as KFTC.

The question hanging over SOAR is whether leaders who have done well in Eastern Kentucky’s status quo can be expected to change it. We should get some indication of that Monday, when there will be at least a couple of elephants in the room.

Eastern Kentucky is one of America’s least-healthy places, with high rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and drug abuse. Smoking, obesity, poverty, poor eating habits and lack of exercise are to blame for much of it. But not all of it.

One of the biggest concerns citizens expressed in the health committee’s listening sessions was the health effects of surface mining. Scientific studies have increasingly found high rates of cancer, birth defects and other problems in mining areas that can’t be dismissed by other factors. Will SOAR explore that issue, or ignore it?

Another elephant in the room will be President Barack Obama’s Feb. 1 proposal to release $1 billion in abandoned mine land funds to create jobs on environmental cleanup projects.

The long-overdue action could be a huge boost for Eastern Kentucky. But many politicians have reacted cautiously, since it comes from a president they love to hate. This proposal should be a big topic of discussion at the summit. But will it be?

Eastern Kentucky needs many things to have a brighter future: better schools, better infrastructure, less-corrupt politics, more inclusive leadership and a move diverse economy. And, as much as anything, it needs a healthier population and a cleaner environment.

Coal mining has done some good things for Eastern Kentucky over the past century. Although its role will continue to diminish, coal will be an important part of the economy for years to come. But the coal industry’s damage must be reckoned with. The best way to start cleaning up a mess is to stop making it bigger.


Alice Dunnigan’s amazing story, from Ky. segregation to Capitol Hill

February 7, 2015

150208Dunnigan002President John F. Kennedy reaches down to speak with Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist.   Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker

 

Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up on a red-clay hill in Logan County, the daughter of a poor sharecropper and a washerwoman.

She, too, would wash clothes and clean houses for white people before working her way through Kentucky State University to realize her first big dream, becoming a school teacher.

But Dunnigan is remembered today for climbing another hill — Capitol Hill — where in the late 1940s she became the first black woman journalist accredited to Congress, the White House and other major assignments in Washington, D.C.

Dunnigan died in 1983 at age 77, but Carol McCabe Booker, a former journalist and lawyer, remembers meeting her once at a party. Dunnigan was a friend of Booker’s husband, Simeon, 96, another pioneering black journalist.

But it wasn’t until two years ago, when the National Association of Black Journalists inducted both Dunnigan and Simeon Booker into its hall of fame, that Booker learned more about this woman’s amazing life story.

She tracked down a rare copy of Dunnigan’s 1974 self-published autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. It inspired her to edit a new edition of the book, which the University of Georgia Press will publish Feb. 15 as Alone atop the Hill ($26.95).

150208Dunnigan003Booker will be in Kentucky next week to talk about Dunnigan and sign books. She speaks Feb. 17 at the Kentucky Historical Society‘s monthly Food for Thought lunch in Frankfort ($25, or $20 for members; reservations due Feb. 13. Call (502) 564-1792, ext. 4414, or email julia.curry@ky.gov).

The next day, Booker speaks to KSU students. And on Feb. 19, she goes to Dunnigan’s hometown for a free, public event at 2 p.m. in Russellville’s African American Heritage Center, 252 South Morgan Street, sponsored by the Kentucky Human Rights Commission.

Dunnigan tells her compelling story in the clear, direct style that made her an influential voice in black newspapers nationwide when she was Washington bureau chief for the Associated Negro Press news service.

“I thought she deserved the right to tell her story in her own words, in her own voice,” Booker said when we talked by phone last week. “I wanted Alice to have a chance in this new era.”

Dunnigan’s writing needed little editing, Booker said. But she did make one big change: she cut the 670-page autobiography by more than half, leaving out the last chapters that covered her years in government service after she left her poverty-wage journalism job in 1960. The final chapters were not nearly as interesting as the rest of the story, Booker said.

The new book is a fascinating read, filled with anecdotes that show how pervasive discrimination limited possibilities for both blacks and women at the time. Dunnigan always thought her gender was as much of a hindrance as her race.

“That’s why I think the story has wide appeal,” Booker said. “A young woman of any race reading that story can glean some inspiration from it.”

Dunnigan’s motto was, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” She decided at age 13 to become both a teacher and a journalist to “tell people how to improve their lives.” But her parents and husbands from two failed marriages offered little encouragement.

Even after Dunnigan “made it” in Washington, she was barred from some venues, or had to sit with servants at events instead of with other reporters. She endured openly racist congressmen and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to answer her tough news conference questions about discrimination and civil rights.

Dunnigan, the first black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club, got access to power because she demanded it. She won respect and dozens of journalism awards for her accuracy, fairness and persistence.

But she never made much money in journalism. Dunnigan often had to pay her own travel expenses to cover stories, and she writes of pawning her watch each Saturday so she would have enough money to eat until her paycheck arrived on Monday.

A year before her death, Dunnigan published her second book, The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition. It is a collection of sketches she wrote in the 1930s to inspire students in the segregated schools where she taught.

“You could say that Alice had one fantastic career as a communicator in three venues — teaching, journalism and government,” Booker said. “It was being a teacher on a broader level.”

150208Dunnigan001Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist, greets A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the former Kentucky governor, senator and U.S. baseball commissioner.  Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker


Wendell Berry: Is anyone listening to Kentucky writers’ warnings?

January 31, 2015

150128KyWriters0027After being the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, Wendell Berry, right, talked with Julie Wrinn, director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. At left is writer Jason Howard,  editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly. Behind them, writer Bianca Spriggs. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Elizabeth Hardwick was the eighth of 11 children born to a Lexington plumbing contractor and his wife. She grew up in a modest home on Rand Avenue and graduated from Henry Clay High School and the University of Kentucky.

From this ordinary Kentucky childhood, she went on to become a leading East Coast intellectual: an award-winning critic, essayist, novelist and founder of The New York Review of Books.

Hardwick earned a lengthy obituary in The New York Times when she died in 2007 at age 91. But if you stopped people on the street in Lexington today, I’ll bet at least nine out of 10 would never have heard of her.

That’s one reason the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning created the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame three years ago.

“This state has so many negative stereotypes that we have to battle every day,” Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen said in remarks at the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony Wednesday. “But the truth is, we have one of the finest and richest literary heritage traditions in the nation.”

Hardwick was one of six inductees at the ceremony, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd that included several acclaimed Kentucky writers likely to be chosen for the Hall of Fame someday.

Four other deceased writers inducted this year were: Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) of Louisville, who created “gonzo” journalism; Guy Davenport (1927-2005) of Lexington, a UK professor and MacArthur “genius” grant winner; Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), a black poet from Pike County whose work filled three books and was published in Harper’s Weekly magazine; and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996), who taught at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.

They joined 13 other writers of the past inducted during the Hall of Fame’s first two years, including Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Merton, Jesse Stuart and James Still.

Most of the crowd Wednesday was there to honor Wendell Berry, the first living inductee. Berry, 80, of Henry County, has written more than 50 books of poetry, fiction and polemics. In the process, he has become an international icon in the land conservation and sustainable agriculture movements.

Luallen, who was appointed lieutenant governor two months ago after Jerry Abramson took a White House job, was probably a better representative of state government at this ceremony than Gov. Steve Beshear would have been.

Berry joined protesters who camped outside Beshear’s office in 2011 to protest state government collusion in the coal industry’s destruction of Kentucky’s mountains and streams. (Not that Beshear is unique; Kentucky’s governor and General Assembly have long been wholly owned subsidiaries of the coal industry.)

Luallen’s comments echoed the sentiments of many Kentuckians.

“When there are moments of darkness felt by those of us who cherish this land, a light has shown through that darkness, and the light has been the words of Wendell Berry,” she said. “Inspiring us, rekindling our spirit and reminding us of what we have lost as a people and what, without careful judgment and good reason, we have yet to lose.”

But in his acceptance speech, Berry gave a glum assessment of Kentucky writers’ consequence.

The state is “gravely and lastingly fragmented by divisions that are economic, social, cultural and institutional,” he said. “These divisions have given us a burdening history of abuse — of land abuse but also and inevitably of the abuse of people, for people and land cannot be destroyed or conserved except together.”

Berry complained that many good books by Kentucky writers critiquing the state’s problems have not received the media attention or sparked the public debate and policy changes he thinks they should have.

“This public silence ought to be a worry, especially to writers,” he said. “What is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues — ‘Night Comes to the Cumberlands’ or ‘Lost Mountain’ or ‘Missing Mountains’ or ‘The Embattled Wilderness’?”

Afterward, Luallen said she thinks Berry underestimates those books’ impact. Without them, she said, things would be worse.

Berry’s speech gave a healthy edge to the evening’s celebrations. That was good, because another of the Carnegie Center’s goals for the Hall of Fame is to elevate the visibility and influence of writers in Kentucky’s public life.

Wendell Berry and his fellow writers are the conscience of Kentucky, not beholden to money or power. If we refuse to listen to them, we do so at our peril.


With Lexington’s downtown on the rise, time to plan for more

January 27, 2015

jeffstHuge crowds came to the Jefferson Street Soiree last fall, underscoring the popularity of a downtown restaurant district that barely existed in 2007. Photo by Matt Goins

 

What a difference a decade makes, and it has barely been eight years.

The Downtown Development Authority has started seeking public comment for a 10-year update of Lexington’s 2007 Downtown Master Plan, which seeks to influence a wider urban area than just the central business district.

Jeff Fugate, who took over the DDA three years ago after Harold Tate retired, started the process Monday by bringing together more than a dozen members of the last report’s steering committee, or their successors.

Fugate’s presentation offered a striking reminder of how much has changed since 2007 — specifically, what a more vibrant, interesting and desirable place downtown Lexington has become. Not that it doesn’t have a long way to go.

Perhaps the biggest difference is public attitudes. Why? For one thing, Fugate said, nightly concerts and events during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games made people start thinking of downtown as a place to gather and have fun.

That was reinforced by a city ordinance allowing sidewalk dining, which made downtown restaurants more popular and profitable. There are now 112 restaurants and bars downtown. That includes the Jefferson Street and Short Street restaurant districts, which barely existed in 2007.

Cheapside has blossomed as a gathering space since the plaza was rebuilt to include Fifth Third Pavilion. That also created a better home for the Lexington Farmers Market, which has grown significantly.

The University of Kentucky, Bluegrass Community and Technical College and Transylvania University have all launched major expansions in and around downtown.

And much of Lexington’s growing high-tech business sector is located downtown, one of many indications of demographic shifts that favor urban over suburban areas.

Several of the 2007 plan’s recommendations have started happening, such as denser land use (Euclid Avenue Kroger), more attractive entrance corridors (Isaac Murphy Art Garden, South Limestone streetscape), and having the Lexington Parking Authority take over and improve city-owned garages.

A total of 93 acres has been rezoned for mixed-use development, opening the way for projects such as the Bread Box, National Avenue and the Distillery District.

Another master plan recommendation called for more housing downtown. That has been slow because of the 2008 economic crisis, but the recovery has sparked several proposals, including Thistle Station on Newtown Pike and residential units in mixed-use buildings planned along Midland Avenue. Plus, UK and Transylvania are building a lot of new student housing.

Sidewalk and intersection improvements have made things better for pedestrians, and many bicycle lanes have been added. The Legacy Trail and the expansion of Town Branch Trail should be completed this year.

The Town Branch Commons proposal would create more green space and address recommendations for improving Vine Street and the Rupp Arena area, which has benefitted from the redesign of Triangle Park and renovations to the Hilton and The (Victorian) Square.

In December, the $41 million 21C Museum Hotel is to open in the old First National Building, a great adaptive reuse of an historic building.

“But there needs to be more about historic preservation,” steering committee member Bill Johnston said. “We didn’t have enough in the last (plan) and we lost some important buildings.”

He was referring to the CentrePointe project, which wiped out a block of buildings dating as far back as 1826. They have been replaced by a hole where a parking garage is supposed to be and two huge cranes, which were erected six weeks ago but have yet to do any work.

CentrePointe showed how little legal protection there was — or still is — for downtown’s iconic old buildings.

The 2007 plan recommended form-based building guidelines. A lengthy task force process has developed downtown design guidelines, but the Urban County Council has yet to debate and adopt them. Like the 2007 plan’s recommendation for returning one-way streets to two-way traffic, design guidelines are politically sensitive.

Steering committee members highlighted several things a master plan update should cover. In addition to historic preservation, they included affordable housing, better garbage solutions than rows of “herbies,” better parking policies, more bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure and more street trees.

If you have ideas, send them to the Downtown Development Authority at info@lexingtondda.com or 101 East Vine St., Suite 100, Lexington, KY 40507.


Development holds promise for downtown Lexington’s eastern edge

January 26, 2015

MidlandPart of the proposed development area along Midland Avenue. Photo by Charles Bertram. 

 

Plans for about $50 million of mixed-use development along Midland Avenue from East Third Street to south of Main Street could reshape downtown’s eastern edge, a strip of land that has long been searching for a new purpose.

Until the 1960s, what is now Midland Avenue carried trains instead of cars. It was a major collection of railroad tracks, flanked by freight depots, industrial buildings, auto repair shops and lumber yards.

The Herald-Leader building replaced a century-old lumber yard on the east side of the tracks, and the Triangle Foundation created Thoroughbred Park to clean up the west side. Still, much of the surrounding land remained vacant or under-utilized.

mapLast month, four property owners got together and won unanimous Urban County Council approval to create a tax-increment financing district that could provide $17 million in taxpayer support for new public infrastructure in the area.

The proposed TIF district is now pending before the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority. If approved, some of that infrastructure money also could eventually benefit three public parks in the district: Thoroughbred, Charles Young and the new Isaac Murphy Art Garden.

The plans also would include a pedestrian and bicycle trail along Midland Avenue that would help form the eastern end of the proposed Town Branch Commons.

The Commons would be a string of small parks along the historic path of long-buried Town Branch, a creek that flows beneath downtown from a spring under the Jif peanut butter plant on Winchester Road to Rupp Arena, where it resurfaces.

Developer Phil Holoubek owns the south end of the TIF district, a triangular plot where Main and Vine streets meet that has been an eyesore since a former bank building was demolished. Plans to build a suburban-style drugstore there were wisely abandoned.

Holoubek

Developer Phil Holoubek

Holoubek thinks he has finally found a way to build an attractive, urban-style development on the difficult lot, which sits atop the Town Branch culvert and a major utility junction. His building would have 54 apartments on three floors above 17,000 square feet of street-level retail space.

“It’s like a giant Tetris game,” he said. “But we’re getting it figured out.”

The Lexington Parking Authority has agreed to invest $2.8 million for a three-story, 160-space garage on the site, providing much-needed public parking for the east side of downtown. Holoubek is donating the very point of the lot to the city for Town Branch Commons.

Land north of Thoroughbred Park is owned by former vice mayor Mike Scanlon and his ex-wife, Missy Scanlon. Plans call for it to become offices, retail space and townhouses or apartments overlooking Thoroughbred Park.

The most sensitive part of the plan is the northern section, which adjoins the East End neighborhood along East Third Street. It is mostly owned by Community Ventures Corp., a non-profit that works to improve low-income communities.

Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp.

Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp.

After extensive meetings with East End residents, Community Ventures has proposed a mixed-use development on 2.75 acres at the corner of Midland and East Third, where it already has one building. The development would include pedestrian-friendly retail space at reduced rents for local businesses, with apartments above.

The property is adjacent to the Charles Young Center and park, which the city recently spent $500,000 improving. TIF district land west of the park is being eyed for affordable housing development.

Holoubek said the entire project is a good mix of commercial development and job-creating community improvement, which has been conceived with a lot of input from neighborhood residents.

Some of those residents remain wary. “It’s just a plan to help promote gentrification and make the colonization of the East End easier,” Corey Dunn said.

But Billie Mallory, an East End activist, said most people in the area are cautiously optimistic the development will benefit the East End, which lost half its population and much of its prosperity as society integrated and families moved to the suburbs.

The East End has been on the upswing since the Lyric Theatre, at East Third Street and Elm Tree Lane, was restored, the Isaac Murphy Art Garden project began and the Lexington Market, a former convenience store at East Third and Race streets, was improved to include much-needed fresh food for the area.

“Third street is our main street,” Mallory said. “I would like to see whatever goes along Third Street benefit the residents.”

Mallory said Community Ventures has always been a good partner for the neighborhood, “so we’ll just have to see. We can’t do anything but trust them.”

Click here to read Tom Martin’s Q&A with developer Phil Holoubeck and Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp. about their proposed Midland Avenue project.


Lexington starting to see the benefits of urban redevelopment

January 25, 2015

krogerThe new Euclid Avenue Kroger. Photo by Mark Cornelison

 

It was a great week for “infill and redevelopment,” the popular Lexington catchphrase that is easier to say than do.

First, The New York Times made my little neighborhood look positively hip.

A Travel section story told how Walker Properties and other entrepreneurs are transforming National Avenue, a once-seedy collection of industrial buildings, into “the kind of walkable, shoppable district that is not common in a Southern city of this size.”

The Times made special note of National Provisions, a sophisticated food and drink complex that Lexington native Andrea Sims and her French husband, Krim Boughalem, created in a vacant soft-drink bottling plant.

Lexington often gets press for basketball, horses and bourbon. (And donuts; last year, the Times featured another of my neighborhood’s culinary treasures, Spalding’s Bakery.) But seeing the national media hold up this city as a model for urban revitalization may be a first.

The news got even better Thursday, when Kroger opened its new Euclid Avenue store. It is the best-looking Kroger I have ever seen, and a departure from the suburban big-box model that dominates the grocery industry.

Tailored to its increasingly urban setting, the building welcomes pedestrians and cyclists as well as people arriving in cars. With limited space for a parking lot, Kroger hid more parking on the roof, easily accessible via escalators and elevators.

Although it is almost three times larger than the suburban-style box it replaced, the building minimizes its mass and respects the street. There is a lot of glass, chrome and natural light. The walls have murals by local artists. The extensive grocery selection includes two locally owned restaurant food carts, another first for Kroger.

Neither National Avenue nor the new Kroger happened by accident. They were the result of good planning, hard work, community engagement and leadership by city officials and businesspeople.

Much like the owners of the Bread Box on West Sixth Street, developer Greg Walker has a community-focused vision for National Avenue, and he has found local business and non-profit tenants who share that vision.

Walker worked with city planners on mixed-use zoning that emulates the way cities used to be. You know, before mid-20th century planning philosophies sucked the life out of cities, making them better places for cars than people.

National Avenue’s success also has been made possible by renewal of the nearby Mentelle, Kenwick and Bell Court neighborhoods. They had fallen out of fashion and into decline after Lexington’s suburban building boom began in the 1950s.

Recently, though, these neighborhoods have become hot properties. They’re likely to get hotter, especially since Niche.com, a national online ranking company, last week named Ashland Elementary as the best public primary school in Kentucky.

People once again appreciate these neighborhoods’ walkability and close proximity to downtown, the style and craftsmanship of their old houses and the sociability of front porches, small parks and neighborhood stores and restaurants.

The new Kroger responds well to its neighborhood, which has been getting denser both because of the popularity of in-town living and growth of the nearby University of Kentucky campus.

But without good leadership and community engagement, the new store wouldn’t have turned out nearly as well.

When the grocer first announced plans to replace the Euclid Avenue store, nearby residents pushed back against a “Fort Kroger” big box. Mayor Jim Gray made it clear that a well-designed, urban-style store would be required. As Kroger spokesman Tim McGurk put it, “Mayor Gray gave us good advice throughout the process.”

Gray put Kroger in touch with Lexington architect Graham Pohl, who worked with the company to significantly improve the new store’s design. The effort has paid off, both for the city and for Kroger.

“Based on customer reaction, I can see us repeating” such things as the murals and food carts at other Kroger stores, McGurk said. “It really puts a sense of the local community in the store.”

Lexington leaders like to talk about infill and redevelopment because they see it as the best way to preserve precious farmland. But it is more than that.

Yes, infill and redevelopment can be harder, more complicated and more expensive than green-field suburban development. It often requires creative zoning and financing. It takes leadership and risk. It demands a commitment to excellence, as well as communication with existing neighborhood residents who may fear increasing population density, traffic or simply change.

But these two examples, and others in places such as North Limestone Street, Davis Bottom and Alexandria Drive, show that infill and redevelopment is not just the right thing to do. It can be the best thing to do.


Gray is right to focus on Town Branch Commons, old courthouse

January 20, 2015

141231Downtown0070Finding a way to renovate the old Fayette County Courthouse, which has been shuttered since 2012, is one of Mayor Jim Gray’s priorities for 2015. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

Mayor Jim Gray set the right tone in the first State of the City Address of his second term. After four years of getting Lexington’s fiscal house in order, he said, it is time to make critical investments for the future.

Gray’s strength as mayor has been his ability to tackle previously ignored problems while at the same time articulating an ambitious but sensible vision for Lexington’s future.

The mayor began by ticking off accomplishments, including public safety investments and tens of millions of dollars in cost-savings from restructuring city employee health care and pensions and “value engineering” sewer improvements.

But the heart of his speech was a call to action on two downtown projects that should be high on Lexington’s priority list. He also hinted at a third project, politically sensitive but long overdue.

The first project Gray highlighted is restoring and repurposing the old Fayette County Courthouse, a 115-year-old limestone landmark in the city’s historic center.

When the courts moved to new buildings down the street a dozen years ago, the abused and neglected old courthouse became home to the Lexington History Museum. It was shuttered in 2012 because of lead paint contamination, then officials discovered structural problems.

It is an embarrassment to Lexington to have its most iconic public building uninhabitable. Demolition would be a tragedy. It needs to be restored, but for what?

“The courthouse needs to be imaginative, innovative and functional … a gravitational pull that will attract citizens and visitors,” Gray said.

The mayor wasn’t more specific, but he said an assessment report would be released soon and public meetings would be scheduled in February and March. Gray said he would include funding for the project’s first phase in the budget he submits to the Urban County Council in April.

The best idea I have heard for the old courthouse is to make it Lexington’s version of Chicago’s Water Tower or Boston’s Faneuil Hall — a gathering place for locals and the spot where tourists start their visit to Lexington.

Such a plan could bring back a smaller history museum, as well as rotating exhibits to entice people to visit attractions such as the UK Art Museum and the Headley-Whitney Museum. Distillery and horse farm tours could leave from there, bringing visitors back to the bars and restaurants around Cheapside.

The second project Gray touted — and promised initial funding for in his budget — is Town Branch Commons. It is a brilliant plan to create a linear chain of small parks downtown along the historic path of Town Branch Creek.

Since the creek was buried nearly a century ago, and the railroad tracks beside it pulled up in the 1960s, much of the spine of downtown between Main and Vine streets has been a concrete jungle of parking lots and wasted space.

Turning some of that space into small parks should make downtown more inviting and attract valuable commercial development. The plan will require private as well as public money. It would be built in phases, likely starting with the city-owned parking lot behind the Kentucky Theatre.

“We also need to make plans for the Government Center, a historic building that is costing us far too much to operate and repairs,” Gray said.

The late Foster Pettit, the first mayor of Lexington’s merged city-county government, once told me that moving city offices into the old Lafayette Hotel in the 1970s was always viewed as a temporary solution.

For at least a decade, officials have mused about selling the old hotel to a developer who could restore its beautiful first and second floors and turn the floors above them into apartments or condos.

Such a deal would create more downtown residents, as well as help pay for more cost-efficient city offices elsewhere. One possibility for those offices would be a new building atop the city-owned Transit Center garage.

The biggest misstep of Gray’s first term was his aborted renovation of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center. It failed largely because University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto had other priorities, and Gray ignored the obvious signals.

Gray didn’t mention Rupp in Tuesday’s speech, but he went out of his way to offer an olive branch to Capilouto. He sat beside him at lunch, mentioned him twice in his speech and praised UK as “our cultural, intellectual and economic anchor and engine.”

In his first term, Gray set an ambitious course for a better Lexington. The test of the next four years will be his ability to bring people together to make it happen.


Ark park fiasco a wakeup call to aim higher with taxpayer incentives

January 11, 2015

ark3

 

The dispute over tax breaks for a proposed Noah’s Ark theme park is ridiculous on many levels, but it offers a good economic development lesson for Kentucky politicians and taxpayers.

In case you haven’t been following the story, the nonprofit organization Answers in Genesis, which opened the Creation Museum in Boone County in 2007, is trying to build the Ark Encounter attraction in nearby Grant County.

AIG believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible’s creation story that is contrary to both scientific evidence and the views of most Christians. Among other things, AIG’s followers believe the world is only 6,000 years old, and that humans and dinosaurs once lived side-by-side, just as in The Flintstones cartoons.

The Creation Museum drew a lot of tourists — believers and scoffers alike — so AIG announced plans in 2010 to build a big theme park around a 500-foot-long, seven-story-high version of Noah’s Ark.

This time, though, AIG wanted taxpayer subsidies. And it got a lot. But it wants more, even as the project has been scaled back because of fundraising shortfalls.

The city of Williamstown agreed to a 75 percent break on property taxes for 30 years and a $62 million bond issue. The Grant County Industrial Development Authority gave the park $200,000 plus 100 acres of land at a reduced price. The state has promised $11 million in road improvements for the park’s benefit.

The state also agreed to provide $18 million in tourism tax credits, but it withdrew the offer after it became clear that Ark Encounter jobs would go only to people who pass the group’s religious litmus test. You would think state officials could have seen that coming.

Kentucky politicians should never have agreed to these incentives in the first place. And you have to wonder: Would they have done the same for a Wiccan World theme park? Buddha Land? Six Flags over Islam?

AIG has threatened to sue, and it has rented billboards around Kentucky and in New York’s Times Square to wage a holy war of words against what founder Ken Ham calls “secularists” and “intolerant liberal friends” who object to his ministry feeding at the public trough.

The sad thing is, AIG might have a case. It doesn’t help that in 2013, the General Assembly foolishly passed a conservative feel-good law that protects religious groups from vague “burdens” imposed by state government.

So don’t be surprised if AIG — a tax-exempt group with more than $19 million in annual revenue and enough extra cash to rent a billboard in Times Square — argues in court that it is “burdened” by being denied millions more in taxpayer subsidies.

The ark park mess is a symptom of a bigger problem with Kentucky’s economic development strategy. Despite recent reforms, officials aim too low too often. Rather than focusing on high-paying jobs that will move Kentucky forward, they are often happy to subsidize jobs that don’t even pay a living wage.

It is an unfortunate reality that state and local governments must sometimes throw money at corporations to bring jobs to their areas. It has become quite a racket, as companies play cities and states off one another, demanding more and more concessions that shift the burden of public services to everybody else.

Sometimes, such as with the Toyota plant in Georgetown, incentives are good investments. But Kentucky has shelled out money for far more clunkers.

The ark park is a great example of a clunker. It would create mostly low-wage service jobs while reinforcing the stereotype of Kentucky as a state of ignorant people hostile to science.

Think about it this way: For every low-wage job the ark park would create, how many high-wage jobs would be lost because science and technology companies simply write off Kentucky?

But economic development incentives are only part of the problem. Kentucky’s antiquated tax code no longer grows with the economy, and it is riddled with special-interest loopholes that leave far too little public money to meet today’s needs, much less make smart investments for the future.

The ark park fiasco should be a wake-up call for Kentucky politicians to raise their standards.

This state will never become prosperous by spending public money to create low-wage jobs and reinforce negative stereotypes. Prosperity will come only through strategic, long-term investments in high-wage jobs, education, infrastructure, a healthy population, a cleaner environment and a better quality of life.

Everybody say amen.


Wendell Berry first living inductee in Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame

January 10, 2015

111218WendellBerryTE0032AWendell Berry at home, December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning announced plans in July to select the first living member of its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, I wrote that the process should be a search for Wendell Berry.

Kentucky has many fine writers working today, but none can match the range, craftsmanship and international acclaim of Berry, 80, who writes and farms in Henry County, where his family has lived for five generations.

So the Carnegie Center’s announcement this week should come as no surprise. Berry will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 along with five deceased writers, who will be identified that night.

The ceremony at the Carnegie Center, 251 West Second Street, is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Kentucky Educational Television plans to live-stream the event on Ket.org.

“To be recognized in that way at home is a very pleasing thing,” Berry said when I talked with him by phone last week. “And a relieving thing, actually.”

The Carnegie Center, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy education, reading and writing, created the Hall of Fame three years ago to draw attention to Kentucky’s rich literary legacy.

In its first two years, 13 deceased writers were honored: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

hall-of-fame-logo-final-300x165Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center, said about 200 members of the public nominated more than 75 writers for the honor this year, including about 25 living writers. A short list was sent to a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council, which made the selections along with the Carnegie Center staff.

“Everybody pretty much said, ‘It’s going to be Wendell, right?'” Chethik said. “His command of all three major areas of writing — fiction, non-fiction and poetry — and his influence statewide and internationally brought us to him.”

Chethik said future classes of inductees may include a living writer, but not always. The criteria for all nominations is that a writer must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a strong tie to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

All of which makes Berry a natural for the honor. The former University of Kentucky English professor has written more than 60 volumes: novels, poetry, short-story collections and essays. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he received the National Humanities Medal in 2010 and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The major theme of Berry’s work is that people should live and work in harmony with the land and their community. “He is so rooted in Kentucky,” Chethik said. “He speaks for a lot of Kentuckians.”

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Berry’s 1971 book, The Unforeseen Wilderness helped rally public opposition to a plan to flood Red River Gorge. His 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, is a bible of the international movements for sustainable agriculture and locally produced food.

Over the years, Berry has participated in protests against nuclear power and coal strip-mining. He was among a group of environmental activists who camped in Gov. Steve Beshear’s outer office in 2011 to protest state government support for the coal industry’s destruction of Eastern Kentucky mountains.

A year earlier, Berry cut his ties to UK and withdrew his papers to protest the university’s renaming of the basketball team residence hall Wildcat Coal Lodge in exchange for $7 million in donations from coal executives.

“The actual influence of writers in Kentucky is in doubt,” Berry said when I asked about his activism, and whether he thought it would ever sway public policy.

“As far as the future is concerned, I don’t sit around and think about the future in regard to what I’ve done,” he said. “It seems to me to be a distraction from the things I ought to be doing.”

Berry said he has been busy writing poetry and working on several long-term projects. He also is writing a short speech for his Hall of Fame ceremony about “Kentucky writing and what it means to be a Kentucky writer.”

“Kentucky writers over the years have given us a kind of record of life in this state, what it has been like to live in it,” he said. “Sometimes they have given us very important testimony about things that were wrong.

“They have been an extremely diverse set of people, and I think the quality of their work has been remarkable,” he added. “I don’t think there’s any worry about it continuing.”


Urban-rural divide will challenge Kentucky economy in 2015

January 5, 2015

141231Downtown0113b21C Museum Hotel is expected to open in late 2015 after renovation is completed on the century-old First National Building, right. But the old Fayette County Courthouse, left, will be one of Lexington’s biggest redevelopment challenges. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

As a recent economic study notes, Kentucky’s economy is really nine very different regional economies that reflect a national trend: urban areas are doing well, but rural areas are struggling.

Lexington and Louisville together accounted for 45 percent of the state’s job growth over the past five years, according to a study by economist Paul Coomes for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

That means Central Kentucky this year should continue to capitalize on several sources of momentum, including manufacturing growth, entrepreneurship and urban redevelopment, as well as Lexington’s growing reputation as a good place to live, work and visit.

The biggest manufacturing news this year is likely to be Toyota’s new Lexus assembly line. When the $531 million Georgetown plant expansion is finished late this year, 600 additional workers will make 50,000 Lexus 350 ES cars a year, in addition to the current Camrys, Avalons and Venzas.

But as manufacturing becomes more automated, the demand for higher-skilled workers increases. “Having a skilled work force is going to be a huge factor” in future growth, said Bob Quick, president of Commerce Lexington.

Central Kentucky continues to see an influx of workers and professionals from elsewhere. That is helping to fuel not only manufacturing, but business and professional services and entrepreneurial efforts, Quick said.

That also is good news for Lexington’s urban redevelopment initiatives, which finally seem to be hitting their stride. While the public’s attention was focused in recent years on the long-stalled CentrePointe project, a lot of good things were happening.

Victorian Square was renovated and rebranded as The Square, breathing new life into the downtown retail-restaurant development. This year will be a test of whether that concept can succeed.

A lot of small-scale urban redevelopment has been happening in places such as the Jefferson Street restaurant corridor, whose latest addition is the Apiary; the East End; National Avenue; South Limestone and North Limestone areas.

This could be a big year for the Newtown Pike corridor between downtown and the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus. Developers of Thistle Station, a proposed 16-story apartment building, hope to begin construction this year and open in fall 2016.

While the Rupp Arena and convention center reconstruction have been put on hold, city officials continue to move forward on Town Branch Commons, an innovative plan to create a linear park downtown that could attract new development.

“You’re seeing a deeper bench for the strategy of downtown,” Quick said. “Even when the Rupp piece didn’t work, we didn’t lose our downtown vision.”

Late this year, the 21C Museum Hotel should open after an extensive renovation of Lexington’s first skyscraper, the century-old First National Building.

But 21C is across the street from downtown’s biggest redevelopment challenge: the old Fayette County Courthouse. It was shuttered in 2012 because of lead contamination and structural problems from years of neglect. Officials this year need to come up with a plan for renovating and reusing this landmark.

The Breeder’s Cup at Keeneland Oct. 30-31 could pump $50 million into the local economy. It also should provide an incentive to finish a variety of projects, just as the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games did in 2010.

Kentucky’s biggest trouble spot is Eastern Kentucky, where the coal industry is in permanent decline. Will the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative this year create jobs in Eastern Kentucky, or just more talk?

Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said everyone also will be watching to see how Ft. Knox and Ft. Campbell fare as the military downsizes after long, costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Adkisson thinks Kentucky exports will remain strong. One of the fastest-growing exports is likely to continue to be bourbon whiskey, which is enjoying global popularity.

But international trade has been both a blessing and curse. The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy estimates that 41,100 jobs have been lost in the state since 2001 because of America’s growing trade deficit with China.

Will Congress and the president finally address China’s currency manipulation and other unfair trade practices? Or will new global export agreements now in the works simply ship more Kentucky jobs overseas?

One of the biggest issues facing every Kentucky region is the lack of real wage and per-capita income growth, which is below the national average and a drag on the economy. House Democrats have talked about raising the state’s minimum wage this year, but business groups and Republicans oppose it.


The fascinating story of Henry Clay’s ‘mad artist’ younger brother

December 27, 2014

Gigi LacerPorter Clay is thought to have made this games table in his Lexington shop in the early 1800s.  Henry Clay’s younger brother made excellent furniture, and charged high prices for it. Photo by Bill Roughen from the book, Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860.

 

Henry Clay has been famous for two centuries, but almost nobody remembers his younger brother, Porter, whom the statesman once described as “the greatest man I ever knew.”

Porter Clay, born two years after Henry in 1779, was a Baptist preacher and lawyer who served as Kentucky’s state auditor and Woodford County attorney. He also was a mercurial man who lacked the people skills that made his brother the “great compromiser” — and he paid dearly for it.

But his greatest achievement came in his first career, as one of early Kentucky’s best cabinetmakers. Several pieces of furniture he is thought to have made still survive, and they are attracting new attention from scholars and collectors.

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., has just published a biographical essay about Porter Clay in its online journal (Mesdajournal.org). It includes new research by the author, James Birchfield of Lexington, retired curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky Library’s Special Collections.

Birchfield will give a free lecture about him at the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual Antiques & Garden Show March 6-8 at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena.

And in 2016, the MESDA Journal will publish a companion article about his furniture by Mack Cox, a Madison County geologist who has become a leading scholar and collector of early Kentucky decorative arts.

PorterClay“I think he was very bright, a mad-artist kind of a guy,” Birchfield said of Porter Clay. “He was a superior craftsman, but he was always breaking up with everybody.”

Like his older brothers Henry and John, Porter was born in Hanover County, Va., to the Rev. John Clay, a Baptist minister jailed for preaching contrary to the colonial Church of England, and his wife, Elizabeth. He died in 1781, and Elizabeth remarried Henry Watkins. They moved to Kentucky in 1791 and ran a tavern in Versailles.

Henry stayed in Virginia to study law before moving to Kentucky in 1797. By that time, Porter was apprenticed to Lexington cabinetmaker Thomas Whitley. But a year before his seven-year indenture was finished, he ran away to New York, where he worked as a journeyman amid America’s best furniture craftsmen, who included Duncan Phyfe.

Porter Clay returned to Lexington a year later — his brother having negotiated a financial settlement with Whitley — and set up shop making furniture. Henry was one of his brother’s clients, and records show that not only was he charging prices higher than Phyfe was in New York, but he apparently didn’t give a family discount.

Porter Clay, like most Kentucky cabinetmakers then, did not sign his work, so identification of pieces has been based on style, provenance and available records. Henry loved to drink and gamble, and the furniture he ordered from his brother in 1803 included a pair of games tables, now thought to be in a private collection.

Porter’s first shop was in a house that still stands at the corner of Mill and Church streets. Three years later, in 1806, he built a new house and shop behind a bank on Main Street, beside what will soon become the 21C Museum Hotel.

In 1804, Porter married Sophia Grosh, a ward of the Hart family, Henry’s in-laws. Her sister married John Wesley Hunt, Kentucky’s first millionaire who built what we now know as the Hunt-Morgan House museum.

With his craftsmanship and social connections, Porter should have been a successful businessman. He took on a partner, Robert Wilson, in 1807. But a year later, they split and Porter left cabinetmaking to become an entrepreneur.

He partnered with William Smith in 1808 in an ironworks and boat-building business. But they split up within three years, and Porter moved to Richmond, Va., to follow his brother’s path and study law. He returned two years later and practiced law in Nicholasville, Versailles and Lexington and served as Woodford County Attorney. Then Porter Clay got religion.

At the time of his conversion, he later wrote, “I determined to throw myself under the protection of my Heavenly Father and wait His good providence rather than make my thousands in an unholy calling.”

Porter Clay apparently reconciled the conflict, because in 1820 the governor (perhaps through his brother’s influence) appointed him state auditor at the then-handsome salary of $3,000.

But being both a state official and preacher brought him nothing but grief. When he audited a legislator who belonged to his church, they became embroiled in a bitter dispute. Porter Clay was excommunicated from his church in 1827. His people skills, Birchfield writes, were apparently “less polished than his sideboards and tea tables.”

In 1829, tragedy struck: death claimed Porter Clay’s wife, daughter, mother, step-father and eldest brother, John. He remarried six months after his wife’s death, but his new wife came with debts and a son who didn’t like him. Porter resigned as state auditor in 1834, and the family moved to Illinois.

Within five years, Birchfield writes, Porter Clay had become an outcast in his own home and he left for Missouri to stay with a relative. His brother then got him a job with the American Colonization Society, which urged masters to free their slaves and send them back to Africa, to a colony in Liberia.

By the 1840s, Porter was an itinerate Baptist preacher in Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. He refused further help from his brother. Stricken by fever in Camden, Ark., he died Feb. 16, 1850 at age 71. He was buried in a grave unmarked for 60 years.

Porter “has gone, poor fellow,” Henry wrote his wife, Lucretia, when he heard the news. “He had but little to attach him to this life.”


Want to improve the economy? Narrow the growing wealth gap

December 21, 2014

Many politicians and business executives like to complain about the slowness and fragility of the economic recovery. Then they push policies to keep it that way — or make it worse.

What they don’t seem to understand is that the best way to improve the economy is to put more money in the pockets of average people who will spend it.

Instead, these politicians and executives oppose raising the minimum wage, which has been $7.25 an hour since 2009 and losing ground to inflation for decades. A low minimum wage keeps wages just above it depressed, too.

Then there are the perversely misnamed “right to work” laws. Their real purpose is to weaken what is left of labor unions so that big business, which already seems to have bought control of government with campaign contributions, has nobody to challenge its power.

Add to that efforts to repeal Kentucky’s “prevailing wage” law, which would cut the pay of working men and women who build public construction projects.

The biggest drag on the economy — and perhaps the biggest threat to America’s long-term prosperity — is the widening wealth gap between the haves and have-nots. Narrowing the gap is in everyone’s best interest, whether they realize it or not.

The prevailing-wage law became a flashpoint last week at a state legislative meeting. The law is designed so that public construction projects pay wages that reflect those in the local community. But as so much of the construction industry has become non-union, critics argue that the law puts too much emphasis on higher union wages.

The Legislative Research Commission compiled a report showing that construction workers on state projects earned $8 an hour more than those on private projects. Workers on 12 school district projects earned $11.37 an hour more.

But critics objected to the analysis, saying it looked only at labor costs, not total project costs. Might more skilled, better-paid workers complete projects faster and better? Besides, higher wages help strengthen local communities.

The irony is that most of the legislators who think construction workers are overpaid have little to say about the sometimes obscene compensation policies at state government’s highest levels.

Kentucky’s public pension systems are among the most under-funded and least transparent in the nation, yet they provide rich benefits for part-time legislators and other high-ranking officials smart enough to game the system.

And then there is the case of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System president, long the nation’s highest-paid community college leader. He recently retired with a $300,000 handshake.

Warren County’s Fiscal Court last week approved Kentucky’s first county “right to work” ordinance, although it is unclear if it is legal under state law.

Republican legislators and chambers of commerce would like to make Kentucky a “right to work” state. That would make Kentucky more “friendly” to companies that want to come here and pay low wages. Studies show right-to-work states often do have faster job growth — as well as lower overall wages and higher poverty rates.

Since Congressional Democrats failed to overcome Republican opposition to raising the federal minimum wage, a statewide minimum-wage increase has been proposed by Democrats in the Kentucky General Assembly. Last Thursday, Louisville’s City Council raised the local minimum wage to $9 by 2017 on a 16-9 party-line vote.

Predictably, business groups and right-wing activists argue that would cause huge job losses — even though it has never happened with previous minimum-wage increases.

Since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, economic policies and trends have largely been based on “trickle-down” economic theory — the notion that if the rich get richer, everyone else will prosper, too. Trouble is, it hasn’t worked that way.

Wealth inequality in the United States is now higher than at any point since the 1920s. The vast majority of all income growth is going to the rich. Corporate profits and the stock market are at record highs. But average workers are losing ground, and the overall economy remains sluggish.

This is a global problem, too, prompting Pope Francis to take up the issue last year in a papal statement worthy of a few amens.

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” the Roman Catholic Church’s leader wrote. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”


Election showed Lexington voters the best and worst of politics

November 8, 2014

grayMayor Jim Gray gave his acceptance speech on election night Tuesday. Gray and his opponent, Anthany Beatty, ran gentlemanly races and campaigned on real issues. Photo by Pablo Alcala

 

Voters in Lexington have seen the best and worst of American politics over the past few months.

The worst was the U.S. Senate race between 30-year incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Their campaign was one TV attack ad after another, funded by huge sums of special-interest money. McConnell and Grimes were both zinged by fact-checkers for lies and half-truths.

The main narrative of this campaign was the phony “war on coal” — the myth that Eastern Kentucky coal-mining jobs, which have been disappearing for three decades because of mechanization and market forces, will be saved if only the industry is allowed to inflict more pollution and environmental damage on this state.

The candidates agreed to only one debate, and even then rarely strayed from their talking points. Grimes wouldn’t admit she voted for President Barack Obama, her party’s nominee, and McConnell wouldn’t acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate change. It was an absurd spectacle.

The race for Lexington mayor was a much different story. Mayor Jim Gray and his challenger, former Police Chief Anthany Beatty, behaved like gentlemen and, more importantly, campaigned on real issues grounded in fact.

They also appeared together in so many debates and public forums that voters had plenty of opportunities to assess them and their positions.

For the most part, Urban County Council candidates also ran issues-oriented campaigns and behaved responsibly.

Why the contrast between local and national politics? The biggest factor, I think, is that races in Lexington’s merged city-council government are non-partisan. That prevents every person and idea from having to be labeled and put at odds.

Since the 1980s, America’s two-party system has become increasingly nasty and counterproductive. We have devolved into a culture of winner-take-all politics where big money, ideology and partisan gamesmanship often trump common sense and the common good.

Of course, Lexington government isn’t completely free of those influences. But the more voters and elected leaders can keep them at bay, the more progress this city will continue to make.

I think Gray was re-elected by a wide margin because most voters could not fault his performance. His administration has combined progressive leadership with good management and fiscal responsibility. And the mayor is the first one to admit that having a good re-election challenger kept him on his toes.

But the race also showed that Beatty is someone who would bring a lot of skill, experience and wisdom to public service should he seek elected office again.

Lexington lost a lot with the retirement of Vice Mayor Linda Gorton, a talented legislator who has a gift for bringing people to consensus. Fortunately, Gorton will be succeeded by someone with similar skills. Steve Kay, the new vice mayor and only returning at-large council member, is a professional facilitator with a reputation for integrity and fairness. Like Gray, he also is not afraid to tackle tough issues others have avoided.

As for the other council members who won races Tuesday, there are no obvious weak links. Kevin Stinnett moved up from a district to an at-large post, while Richard Moloney and Fred Brown returned to council after previous service.

Jake Gibbs is new to public office, but his background and demeanor could make him a model for a constituent-focused district council member. Another newcomer, Susan Lamb, was formerly the council’s clerk. She brings to her new job valuable knowledge of how city government really works.

I hated to see Harry Clarke lose re-election, because the retired University of Kentucky music professor did a great job in his one term. But Amanda Mays Bledsoe has a background in government policy that could make her an able successor.

The same is true for state lawyer Angela Evans, who was elected to the district seat Stinnett left. Jennifer Mossotti, Shevawn Akers and Jennifer Scutchfield are good district council members who deserved re-election.

Urban County Council members come from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, party affiliations and political beliefs. But because Lexington’s government is non-partisan, citizens hold them to a higher standard. People expect them to work together, reach consensus and move the city forward.

As in the past, Lexington’s mayor and council members have the opportunity to show politicians in Frankfort and Washington how to rise above petty politics and get things done for the greater good.


Uniquely Kentucky: Closing essay from Friday’s special section

September 30, 2014

abeEduardo Kobra’s mural of Abraham Lincoln in downtown Lexington, with the moon over his shoulder. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Kentucky has always been at a crossroads. Buffalo came looking for food and water. Native Americans came looking for buffalo. Pioneers and settlers came looking for land and opportunity.

Originally the Western frontier, Kentucky has been more or less at the center of the country geographically since the 1830s. Culturally, though, it remains a place unto itself. Many places, actually.

Early settlers came to the Bluegrass for fertile land and pure water to produce hemp, tobacco, strong-boned horses and good whiskey. Eastern Kentucky developed a rich, complex Appalachian culture as newer immigrants joined Anglo-Saxon settlers when railroads opened the mountains for timber and coal harvesting.

Communities along the Ohio River, long nourished by commerce, have created personalities all their own, as have those amid the farms of Southern Kentucky. Western Kentucky rolls out like a rumpled green carpet to the Jackson Purchase, encompassing many unique local cultures.

Ask someone in China what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply, “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” I went to church once with friends in a small Australian town and was introduced to the minister afterward. He immediately said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

The recent popularity of bourbon has given Kentucky another international claim to fame. Jimmy Russell, the master distiller at Wild Turkey, told me that when he travels to Asia, Europe and Australia he is treated like a rock star. As he should be.

Kentuckians know how to eat well. Nothing is better than Western Kentucky barbecue in the summer or spicy burgoo in the winter. Any morning that begins with country ham and biscuits is a good morning.

Louisville has the calorie-packed Hot Brown sandwich, otherwise known as “heart attack on a plate.” Want something lighter? Try benedictine, a cucumber spread long popular with Louisville ladies who lunch.

Immigration continues to enrich Kentucky’s culture and palate: Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and African. The newest menu item at the 134-year-old Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County is barbecue nachos.

Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, as was his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. America’s greatest sports car, the Corvette, is made in Bowling Green. The stoplight was invented Garrett Morris, a black man from Paris.

Country music owes much of its sound to old-time Kentucky fiddlers and the hard-charging mandolin of Kentuckian Bill Monroe. And don’t forget Loretta Lynn, Jean Ritchie, Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush.

Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has started calling Kentucky the “literary capital of mid-America.”  Sure, it’s a big boast. But consider the evidence: Robert Penn Warren, James Still, Wendell Berry, Harriette Arnow, Bobbie Ann Mason, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Grafton, Jesse Stuart, Silas House, William Wells Brown, Hunter S. Thompson, C.E. Morgan and too many more to mention. Outsiders may still joke that Kentuckians don’t wear shoes, but we sure can write.

That’s the good news. Now for some bad news: Kentucky lags most other states in many measures of health, education, social welfare and economic innovation.

Kentuckians tend to cling to what worked in the past rather than leveraging their unique assets, heritage, culture, location and know-how for a brighter future. We carelessly spoil beautiful landscape with strip mines and strip malls. We focus on fears instead of possibilities.

Remember what I said about Kentucky being at a crossroads?  It has never been more true than today.


Lessons for Appalachia in Wales’ recovery from coal’s collapse

September 29, 2014

SouthWalesThe Tower Colliery near the village of Hirwaun, in Glamorgan, South Wales, in 2009. Tower Colliery was the oldest continuously worked deep-coal mine in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world. Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press. 

 

People in the remote hills and valleys were subsistence farmers before the mining industry came. For generations afterward, King Coal provided most of the decent jobs and dominated almost every aspect of life.

But mechanization gradually eliminated tens of thousands of mining jobs. When economic and political conditions suddenly changed, most of the coal industry shut down. Communities were left with high unemployment, a ravaged landscape and an uncertain future.

This is the story of Eastern Kentucky. It also is the story of South Wales.

These two regions separated by the Atlantic Ocean share many traits and experiences. Community leaders working to create a post-coal economy in Central Appalachia think there are lessons to be learned from Wales, which has been dealing with many of the same challenges for three decades.

Two longtime coal community leaders from Wales will be in Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 7 to speak about their experiences. The 7 p.m. program at Appalshop Theatre, 91 Madison Avenue in Whitesburg, is free and open to the public.

Hywel Francis and his wife, Mair, are no strangers to Kentucky. They have been coming here for years as part of a community exchange program started in the 1970s by Helen Matthews Lewis, a well-known Appalachian scholar and activist.

“The interest between these two areas has been there for a long time, but it has really picked up as we’ve seen the sudden decline of mining jobs here,” said Mimi Pickering of Appalshop. “We think this is an exciting opportunity for folks to talk with people from another place who have been though this.”

Francis is a member of the British Parliament, a college professor and labor historian. His wife is a founder of Dulais Opportunity for Voluntary Enterprise, known as the DOVE workshop, a women’s education and job-training organization.

South Wales was a few decades ahead of Central Appalachia, both in the development and collapse of its coal economy.

Beginning in the early 1800s, coal mines in South Wales fueled Britain’s industrial revolution and, in many ways, the British empire. At the industry’s peak just before World War I, more than 250,000 men labored in nearly 500 Welsh deep mines and open pits.

As in Appalachia, mechanization steadily reduced mine employment. After World War II, British mines were nationalized. In the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed unprofitable mines, sparking a bitter miners’ strike. The industry all but collapsed and 85,000 miners lost their jobs. Only a few hundred miners still dig coal in South Wales.

Tom Hansell, a filmmaker and professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., is finishing After Coal, a documentary comparing the experiences of coal communities in South Wales and Central Appalachia. He said it will be shown on Kentucky Educational Television next year or in 2016.

Hansell also helped organize a program in Elkhorn City two weeks ago about what Eastern Kentucky could learn from Wales’ tourism industry, which now employs 30,000 people.

A third forum will be at 6 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the Harlan campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College. Richard Davies of College Merthyr Tydfil in Wales will lead a conversation about the role of youth and the arts in preserving vibrant coalfield communities.

While working on his film, Hansell said he made three trips to Wales. He noted that some of its circumstances are different than in Central Appalachia.

Because Welsh mines were owned by the government, laid-off miners got good severance payments to help them start businesses or train for new jobs. Britain also has a stronger social safety net than the United States, including a public health care system.

But Hansell said there is one smart thing Britain did that the United States could emulate: the government invested heavily in environmental reclamation, cleaning up the mess from generations of coal mining.

“There were jobs created with that, but more importantly it provided a foundation for future economic development,” he said.

Another good strategy: community funds have been created around major industrial investments, such as a wind turbine farm built by a Swedish company. The funds are similar in some ways to Kentucky’s coal severance tax, but transparently managed by local community boards rather than state and local politicians.

Wales has a focus on entrepreneurship and small-business development, which organizations such as Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. have done here. Everyone realizes that the future is lots of small employers rather than a few big ones, Hansell said.

“It would be misleading to say that Wales has solved all their economic problems,” he said, noting that unemployment remains high and many people in former mining communities commute to jobs in coastal cities. “But towns have found ways to survive and find creative ways to re-invent themselves.”


Concerns about militarized police ignore bigger, underlying issues

September 27, 2014

Should Andy Taylor and Barney Fife be equipped like Rambo?

That has been a much-debated topic since police in Ferguson, Mo., responded with paramilitary aggressiveness to protesters after one of their white officers shot and killed a black teenager.

The situation focused public attention on the U.S. Defense Department’s 1033 program, which has given away hundreds of millions of dollars worth of “surplus” military equipment to state and local police forces, whether they need it or not.

Kentucky’s House Local Government Committee held a hearing last week on this issue. The 1033 program has furnished 33,000 military weapons and supplies, valued at more than $44 million, to Kentucky police agencies over the past decade.

That includes the Lexington Police Department’s two helicopters, hundreds of automatic rifles for the Kentucky State Police and a $689,000 mine-resistant vehicle for the Owensboro Police Department. And you know who is paying to buy, operate and take care of all these goodies. You are.

This trend raises many issues, but I haven’t seen some of the biggest ones discussed.

Access to this kind of firepower only increases the chances for abuse of power and tragedy among badly managed police forces. But problems such as those in Ferguson have more to do with what is in officers’ hearts than what is in their hands. Bull Connor’s Birmingham cops needed only fire hoses to show their moral bankruptcy in the 1960s.

Besides, I understand why police officers want and sometimes need military-style weapons. Thanks to the NRA and other gun-rights radicals, any Tom, Dick or lunatic now has easy access to military-style weapons, and many think they have a constitutional right to flaunt them in public.

It is no wonder the FBI reported last week that the number of mass shootings has increased dramatically in recent years. Authorities studied 160 shootings that killed or wounded 1,000 people, many of which occurred in schools or businesses. In one-fourth of those cases, the shooter committed suicide before police arrived.

Do we really have more crazy people than in the past? Or is it simply that society’s gun lust has made it easier for them to inflict maximum carnage? Until the United States is mature enough to enact common-sense gun control measures, police will sometimes need serious firepower to keep themselves and the public safe.

But the issues go much deeper. When I read about the Defense Department doling out all of this “surplus” equipment, I wonder why they have it all to give away.

As Dwight Eisenhower was leaving the presidency in 1961, he gave a famous farewell speech that warned about the corrupting influence he saw in the rise of America’s “military industrial complex.”

Eisenhower, a Republican and the greatest general of World War II, was no wild-eyed pacifist. But he clearly saw what was happening.

“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” Eisenhower warned. “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Eisenhower’s fears have been realized, and the 1033 program is just a small example.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies in 2012 estimated U.S. military spending at $645 billion, more than half the government’s discretionary spending. It was 40 percent of the world’s total military spending — more than six times China’s $102 billion and 10 times Russia’s $59 billion.

Stories of wasteful, unnecessary and even fraudulent military spending are legion. In an unholy alliance with corporate “defense” contractors, Congress continues to appropriate billions for high-tech planes, ships, weapons systems and equipment the military doesn’t need and may never use.

In another speech, in 1952, Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

So the next time your congressman tells you we can’t afford better health care, better schools and better infrastructure, you will know why. That $689,000 mine-resistant vehicle in Owensboro is only the tip of the iceberg.