Saturday, February 25, 2017

"If they don't like you, they'll cut off your project"- Huey Perry and how the government conspired to stop his anti-poverty community empowerment initiatives in West Virginia


In the aftermath of the 1960s ‘War on Poverty’ campaign by President Lyndon Johnson, and his 'Poverty Tour’ referred to in this recent post, a young man in Mingo County, West Virginia (a county which was particularly Scotch-Irish in composition and outlook) called Huey Perry, pictured above just last year, decided to get involved in helping his local community. (West Virginia is often said to be the most Scotch-Irish of all of the states. Here are some recent posts on the subject - on Governor William Alexander MacCorkle and also this general article).

The context of the initiative was described by Huey in this 1992 interview:

There was total political control over everything and it was a pattern that evolved and developed over a number of years where the local politicians felt that they had to control every aspect of the community and every aspect of people's lives. And, of course, this was an easy system for them 'cause it perpetuated them into office and kept them into office and so, even the welfare recipients, first would go to the county politicians to get themselves placed on the welfare roles. So, they felt that they had to do that first, although they qualified for the welfare system. They would use that passageway into it, and, of course, this pleased the politicians because they knew they had a voter. As long as they could control this person and make them think that they controlled them, then they were subservient to that system.

Well, Huey got organised but was a bit too successful. And so the government, threatened by the community empowerment he had achieved, and how people had become self-sufficient, pulled his program. During his project he uncovered cronyism, electoral fraud, the siphoning of public funds to buy influence and patronage, and colossal abuses of power by those in authority. And so in 1972 Huey published the whole episode in his book They'll Cut Off Your Project: A Mingo County Chronicle, recently republished by West Virginia University Press.

The picture above is a still of Huey just last year explaining the story of the project (the video can't be embedded here so you’ll have to go to YouTube to watch it). 

Here is the intro to Chapter One:

Standing on the streets of Williamson, West Virginia in the winter of 1966, Huey Perry dazzled a New York Times reporter with the achievements of his native Mingo County’s thirty community action programs. Roads into the back hollows had been repaired; schoolhouses had been renovated. Carpenters assisted by men on relief had torn down abandoned shacks and built and painted new homes. Swimming pools had been fixed; a park overlooking the dramatic valleys had been built. As director of the county’s antipoverty program, Perry swelled with his pride in his work. “This must be the most beautiful community action group in the nation,” Perry told the Times. Thanks to Perry’s tour, the reporter noted that six-hundred children now attended Head Start classes, three-hundred teenagers took part in self-help employment projects, and medical checkups had become routine.The crowning achievement, which had garnered the headlines for the story, rested with the new grocery store: “Poor in West Virginia Town, Worried About the High Price of Food, Open Own Grocery.” Perry called it, “poor power.” By taking over an abandoned store and selling shares at ten dollars a shot, unemployed residents in the area had refashioned the shelves into a community grocery store, which ultimately had triggered a sharp reduction in food prices.

For the thirty-year-old Perry, described as “a tall, rangy young man,” by the Times reporter, it was “important for the poor to mobilize their resources collectively.” The story takes a turn here: the reporter did not buy completely into the storybook idealism unfolding on the back streets of Williamson and in the tiny settlements of Big Branch and Cinderella. She had been sent to Mingo County to chronicle the controversy as much as the accomplishments. “Grocers are angry,” the reporter noted. “Other businessmen are uneasy. Old line politicians are upset.” The local state senator and members of the Chamber of Commerce had already gone to Washington, charging that the Mingo County antipoverty program “was attempting to create a political machine by mobilizing the poor.” Federal investigators had already arrived. A local businessman told the Times: “It’s all a Communist plot.”

This community-level grassroots politics is just as much part of the Scotch-Irish story as are the Presidents in the grandeur of the White House. Even in that context, starting with Andrew Jackson, ‘our’ Presidents were men of the people, not from the aristocratic class. I would argue that ours is a 'bottom-up' culture, with genuine 'people-power' as the driver. You can see this in the Scottish Reformation of the early 1500s just as much as in the hills of West Virginia in the 1960s, never mind here in Ulster over successive centuries.

• Here is a recent and thought-provoking post by Elizabeth Catte, linking and contrasting Huey Perry's work and experiences with the JD Vance Hillbilly Elegy view.

• Her article – There is no neutral there: Appalachia as a mythic “Trump Country” – is essential reading.