Cumberland Mountains, scarred by strip mining, January 1, 1967. Photograph from Bob Gomel/The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images.
Congressman Abernethy’s response, however, indicated both an aversion to redistributive fiscal policy and a consensus understanding of Appalachia. “There was not a dime in this bill for Northeast Mississippi,” Abernethy fumed in a letter to Webb, continuing:
Yet you are called upon to pay high taxes to help another region of the country—Appalachia—which actually is much better off than Mississippi. I cannot imagine Pittsburgh . . . being in such a state of poverty. Nor do I see much poverty as I drive through the great and beautiful country of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. . . . True, the coal mining area is poor. John Lewis priced coal out of the market, so of course, his coal workers lost their jobs.
Mississippi, Abernethy insisted, was not Appalachia. Appalachia was mountain, valley, coal, and organized labor. And yet, less than two years later, Abernethy introduced legislation that imagined Mississippi as just that.12
* * *
Elected officials deserve little credit for Mississippi joining the Appalachian Regional Commission. That feat was the lifework of George Thompson Pound, who drove too fast, carried large debts, and lived to develop North Mississippi. Pound was one of many anonymous white politicos who fought for influence within the state’s ruling Democratic Party. Ambitious, he had the misfortune of being born in rural Pontotoc County, a far cry from Mississippi’s rich Delta aristocracy and its oligarchic inner circle. A longtime teacher and administrator at segregated white public schools, Pound earned an exemption from World War II and retired from education in the 1950s.13
Pound’s great success in Appalachian economic development began in failure. In 1965, he dreamed up the Pontotoc Recreational & Tourist Attraction Development Project. This mammoth scheme, supported by Governor Paul B. Johnson Jr., proposed the conversion of three thousand acres of farm and timberland into a “living history park.” There, Pound argued, the county might employ former farmers, part-time farmers, and “many older people who can no longer do the heavy farm work,” to work as docents and historical reenactors. Educating visitors from across the country, tour guides would focus on “the life of the early white settlers . . . and the tales of the Chickasaw Indians as was told to them by their forefathers.” Others might take on the personae of historical figures, such as the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, an unnamed “Chickasaw chieftain,” Indian War general Andrew Jackson, and French fur traders.14
Pound’s history erased a century and a half of the region’s African American life: slavery, cotton plantations, sharecrop-ping, and Black farm ownership. In his formal application to the War on Poverty’s Office of Economic Opportunity, Pound estimated that the park could bring $1.3 million and 250 jobs to Pontotoc County annually. Federal officials disagreed; War on Poverty funding was not forthcoming.15
Pound’s interest in the Appalachian Regional Commission grew directly from the OEO’s snub. He first learned of the ARC in February 1966 through neighboring conservationists from Alabama and soon after attended a meeting with ARC officials in Washington. There, he and administrators developed a six-point plan for Mississippi’s inclusion in Appalachia, which he shared with Governor Paul Johnson on March 11, 1966. By August, Pound submitted a lengthy report to the governor making the case for Appalachian Mississippi.16
Paul Johnson appreciated the implication of Appalachian Mississippi, even if he failed to envision a straightforward path to joining the ARC. He understood that other southern governors had found a vehicle for states’ rights in the new world of federal poverty programs. “We recognize,” Johnson wrote the governor of Maryland, “that one of the meritorious aspects of the Appalachian Program is that it originated within the states themselves.” Indeed, segregationist governors like Alabama’s George C. Wallace, Georgia’s Earnest Vandiver, and South Carolina’s Earnest Frederick “Fritz” Hollings had convened the Conference of Appalachian Governors during periods of their own massive resistance to desegregation. They might have been talking about hillbilly poverty, but the Appalachian governors theorized their unique form of split governance at a moment when Wallace physically obstructed the schoolhouse door to the University of Alabama’s first African American students and sanctioned a cavalry charge of state troopers against peaceful black protesters at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.17
Appalachian governors welcomed Mississippi to the fold, but Lyndon Johnson was an unknown. By March 1966, the group resolved to test the president’s commitment to including the Magnolia State. While at the White House for the annual Governors’ Conference, Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania assembled the other Appalachian governors and approached the president in the Rose Garden. First, Scranton proposed, Congress could include counties in west Alabama and Tennessee—counties originally excluded for lack of mountainous terrain—in order to extend Appalachia to the Mississippi state line. Then, in a quid pro quo, fourteen counties of Western and Central New York would join Appalachia alongside twenty counties from North Mississippi. Lyndon Johnson approved. He left the particulars to the Conference of Appalachian Governors, who met at the Greenbrier resort on December 16, 1966. There, surrounded by ridges of West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, the governors welcomed mountainless Mississippi to Appalachia.18