The Mother Teresa of Mud Creek

The forgotten legacy of the War on Poverty

Feb 19, 2014 at 6:00 am
Eula (far right) in 1976
Eula (far right) in 1976 Photo by Earl Dotter

Lyndon Johnson grew up poor on a farm in a small Texas town, only to helicopter into Martin County, Ky., decades later as president and promise to end the poverty problem. His ambitious “War on Poverty,” declared 50 years ago, aimed a behemoth of government funding and innovation at stemming the tide for those hardest hit by the scourge of capitalist democracies — the poor underclass.

It was as revolutionary as it was foolhardy for him to believe he had the power to do what had never been done in the history of civilization. But with the initial push by JFK, and Johnson’s call to arms, the war was set in place. With some of the lowest economic and health indicators in the country, Appalachia, and eastern Kentucky in particular, proved to be an ideal warfront.

In the earliest days of the war, a pioneering group of eastern Kentuckians — including famed Congressman Carl D. Perkins — convinced Sargent Shriver of the Johnson administration’s Office of Economic Opportunity to allocate millions to Floyd County. First and foremost, they lobbied for a health program that could serve as a pilot for the nation. It was well known that eastern Kentuckians had trouble affording care, but the fact was that the vast majority had never even seen a primary care physician. The advocates argued their plan would improve access, affordability and outcomes of health services in a region with a dire need.

The Floyd County Comprehensive Health Services Program (FCCHSP) launched in 1965, but proved to be a miserable failure. In less than one year, corruption abounded, patients had to pay enormous sums of money for simple life cycle health needs, and health outcomes were showing no signs of improvement. The funds were swiftly pulled, the outsiders pushed out of town, and the general tenor toward enterprising activists turned nasty.

Luckily, one woman continued the fight. Medically uneducated and lacking any funds whatsoever, Eula Hall, born and raised in the hollers of eastern Kentucky, decided she couldn’t just sit by and let her friends and family live in “absolute rock-bottomness.” She would give health care to her people whether anyone helped or not.

Eula’s work on behalf of her community and the legacy of empowerment she represents is a testament to a war many call a failure. Her story of activism, born out of the tumultuous ’60s, touches on nearly every major issue that affected Appalachia in the 20th century — and answers some heavy questions from a war left unfinished.

• • •

Much has been written about the woes of Appalachia and eastern Kentucky. Few think there is hope for a better future, and critics claim the drug scourge and transfer economy will forever keep the eastern counties in dependency. Appalachia has always been a caricature of backwardness in the psyche of the nation at-large, but within, it holds some of the best American stories of grit and resilience.

Standing for some 225 million years and stretching from Maine to Alabama, these mountains have been a refuge for those worn by modernity, a timeless and enduring testament to the nation’s humble beginnings. Appalachians gave the country its first indigenous music and art; Appalachian woodsmen gave the nation timber to build its bustling cities and towns. Appalachian youth fought disproportionately in our overseas wars. And Appalachian coal miners trudged and labored throughout the past century to keep the lights on.

It’s that knowledge and history that has captivated so many to search for remedies to the awful poverty, and hopefully reintroduce Appalachia to the American mainstream. Local leaders continue to corral smart people together to come up with answers, but solving big issues of industry, equity and economics is simply hard, and answers are scarce. There is no panacea and few market levers left to pull.

The politics continue to skew corrupt, and the energy companies that once employed many are leaving and failing to keep capital local. We continue to watch as corporations run wild and unregulated — as we did recently with the West Virginia chemical spill — and yet very little changes. As one commenter suggested, the nation would have stopped at a standstill had a terrorist poisoned Appalachian waters the way Freedom Industries did. As a result, many folks nationwide and in the media have retrospectively asked: “Fifty years later, has the ‘War on Poverty’ accomplished anything in Appalachia worth noting?” — hearing crickets in response.

But many of them haven’t asked that question to Eula Hall.

“Oh, hell yes, it did, and I’m living proof of it!” Eula answers with her characteristic charm. Her story is just one of many that represent the best possible outcome of our poverty fighting, but Eula’s is better than any Horatio Alger story Hollywood could come up with.

Born into abject poverty in Greasy Creek, Ky., in 1927, Eula was born on the same cabin dirt floor as her five other siblings. At the age of 6, she witnessed her mother nearly die from a miscarriage as the midwife was unable to handle a complicated birth and the doctor from Pikeville was too expensive to bring out to the hollers. She watched helplessly through the years as family and neighbors passed away from dysentery, typhoid and a host of other thought-to-be-eradicated diseases.

She was one of the smartest in her class but was forced to quit school early out of a need to work. At age 14, she was swiftly robbed of her innocence and thrown into a job performing slave-like housework for well-to-do families. Eula worked to feed and clothe men working intermittent jobs in the mines, their transience an excuse to be aggressive and depraved toward the girls who looked after them.

She married young to escape that life, only to suffer severe abuse from an alcoholic husband. “I didn’t know there were people on this Earth so cruel,” she would later tell me as I wrote her biography. Years of torment and pain would ensue, but Eula’s spirit remained strong, and her desire to help others even less fortunate in her community of Mud Creek, Ky., billowed beneath the surface.

It wasn’t until the War on Poverty that she found her escape. Eula slowly got involved with community groups after witnessing too many of her friends be denied care at local hospitals. In fact, Eula herself never saw a doctor until the 1960s.

Eula read about Mother Jones and her fights alongside labor organizers, and she studied Harry Caudill’s epic tome “Night Comes to the Cumberlands.” She joined the East Kentucky Worker’s Rights Organization (EKWRO), which gave her not only a voice but also a community to fight the injustices she saw. She rallied parents to picket the school board for lunches to be provided to all children, not just the wealthy. She organized Mud Creek residents to petition the state government for clean water and potable wells in the hollers. And she ran her own version of a health navigator service, often helping women in Floyd County access prenatal and childbirth services.

Even through abusive marriages and raising five kids, she persevered and became a professional community activist joining the VISTA program and eventually the Appalachian Volunteers (a program styled as a domestic Peace Corps). She, like so many others, became a true foot-soldier in Johnson’s War on Poverty.

After the abrupt and unceremonious end to the FCCHSP, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Eula may have only graduated from the eighth grade, but she had an intuitive sense of right and wrong, crystallized over the course of the war.

Along with the help of a few enterprising young doctors, Eula built one of the first free community health centers in Appalachia — the Mud Creek Clinic. The clinic, started in her trailer park home, attracted a fascinating cast of supporting characters, such as Harvard-trained doctors, liberation theologists and Holocaust survivors. The clinic provided care to the indigent, the poor, miners and anyone who walked in the door. Today, the clinic still stands in Floyd County and serves as a testament to one strong woman’s will to stand up for her community when no one else would.

Eula’s life highlights the best outcome of the War on Poverty, one missing from the national narrative — local empowerment. As Eula’s activism grew, she became a well-known local figure deeply possessed by a commitment to helping the most marginalized.

“I don’t know if I would have done what I did if it wasn’t for the VISTA and Appalachian Volunteers. They showed me how to fight for what’s right,” she would later say.

• • •

When the War on Poverty was launched, it attempted a large-scale reinvention of not just how people lived their lives, but what they thought was possible of themselves. The legacy of the war isn’t government programs created, government dollars spent or the made-up poverty rate. The real legacy is one of empowerment — and it’s one to celebrate.

The war’s designers wanted to use the vast resources of the federal government to rip power away from local — and often corrupt — politicians and empower the poor citizens it was meant to help. A major piece of legislative language in the Economic Opportunity Act forced money to be deployed with the “maximum feasible participation” of local citizens, nonprofits and community organizations. It was revolutionary in its simplicity. For the longest time, social service dollars had been transferred to governors, mayors and county judges. For the first time, it was going straight to citizens.

Many big-city mayors, like Richard Daley in Chicago, claimed the federal government was subsidizing a “War on City Hall,” but to Eula and other empowered citizen activists, that wasn’t such a bad idea. “Our democracy needs a kick in the ass every now and then,” says Eula, and she and her friends were happy to be the ones to do it.

With that, a slew of pioneering activists found inspiration in the War on Poverty. John Rosenberg, a Holocaust survivor and civil rights litigator at the Department of Justice, relocated to Prestonsburg, Ky., after he and his wife decided that the next great civil rights battle was to pull Appalachia out of poverty. He started the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund (AppalRED), which served as the first free legal defense fund in the mountains. Joe Begley and his wife Gaynell from Blackey, Ky., used their general goods store as headquarters to organize against destructive strip mining and “broad-form deeds,” which gave coal operators free reign to mine without permission and keep all revenues from the owners. Dr. Donald Rasmussen became a driving force for new black lung legislation after discovering traditional x-rays didn’t capture the extent of damage to miners’ lungs.

Their stories are not unique. While Eula’s life is a remarkable story of a tough mountain woman who wouldn’t accept the status quo, the War on Poverty helped her understand that it didn’t have to be this way. That others in America had it better, and the whole of America was behind them in their struggle to pull themselves out of poverty. Her story is as grand as it is informative to a generation that has perhaps forgotten about Appalachian poverty.

Her story of becoming a citizen-activist is the legacy of the War on Poverty — and one that we should all be proud of.

Through all of Eula’s travails and accomplishments — the clinic, clean water, school lunches and workers’ rights — she has helped paint a picture of poverty alleviation seemingly missing from today’s discussions about the economy and individual responsibility. Poverty is omnipotent, spatial, violent and can attack from many angles. There is no panacea. There is no single market efficiency or lever government can pull. It requires many things — health, safety, jobs and, most importantly, an understanding of dignity — to overcome. Eula Hall found dignity in her work during the War on Poverty, and offered it to those around her who wanted to be part of the same struggle and invested in their community. If they’re lucky, like Eula, they can rise out of poverty self-sufficient, without handouts but with self-worth — and a community behind them.

• • •

President Barack Obama acknowledged early last year during a climate change speech that a changing energy industry would force us to “give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition.” A few mountain legislators have voiced similar concerns over the years, specifically that the eastern counties need to diversify their economy if they are to weather the transition to cheap natural gas and renewable energy.

Months later, during the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) summit held by Gov. Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers of Kentucky, speakers told stories of new economies not being helicoptered in, but rather being built from the “ground up.”

Like magic, President Obama announced “Promise Zones” to direct federal attention to needy areas across the country — including to southeast Kentucky. And Frankfort announced a $700 million proposal to extend the Mountain Parkway from Lexington to Pikeville to expand access into and out of the mountains.

This renewed focus on the region is important and will serve to build vital infrastructure for the region. But if the lessons of the War on Poverty teach us anything, it’s that we should also look to the individuals inside Appalachia for answers as well. If we take a closer look, we’ll see that in order to make lasting progress, we need more homegrown entrepreneurs and more mountain-bred activists like Eula Hall, who understand Appalachia better than anyone else.

Kiran Bhatraju is a writer and entrepreneur from Pikeville, Ky. He is the author of “Mud Creek Medicine: The Life of Eula Hall and the Fight for Appalachia,” available at local bookstores, and