Last week, when we talked about 1960s environmental regulation, I pointed you to a 1965 issue of The Democrat which featured a full outline of LBJ’s domestic agenda titled “Heart of the Great Society.” Two areas that received attention in the agenda were “Appalachia” and “Cities.” Looking at this newspaper article, and Johnson’s 1964 speech introducing the ideas of the Great Society, we see language that is familiar even today, and it’s worth thinking about that language a little more closely as we consider the legacy of the Great Society and any fight to preserve its ideals.
The proposals for Appalachia listed in the Democratic newspaper include infrastructure, health care, job training, and environmental rehabilitation. The reason for much of this is unstated but clear – the decline of a once-vibrant coal mining industry. Right now, we’re hearing a lot about bringing back coal mining jobs, and you can be forgiven for thinking the decline of the coal industry was recent or at least accelerated recently. In truth, the decline in American coal mining began in the mid-20th century, and concerns about lack of infrastructure in Appalachia had an even longer history.
While Appalachia was framed as a place stuck in the past – or at least weighed down by its economic history – the approach to cities framed them as the future. When LBJ first articulated his Great Society plans in a commencement address at the University of Michigan in 1964, he spoke of an urban future for the country:
Many of you will live to see the day, perhaps 50 years from now, when there will be 400 million Americans, four-fifths of them in urban areas. In the remainder of this century urban population will double, city land will double, and we will have to build homes, and highways, and facilities equal to all those built since this country was first settled. So in the next 40 years we must rebuild the entire urban United States…
The catalog of ills is long, there is the decay of the centers and the despoiling of the suburbs. There is not enough housing for our people or transportation for our traffic. Open land is vanishing and old landmarks are violated.
Worst of all, expansion is eroding the precious and time honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference.
And our society will never be great until our cities are great. Today the frontier of imagination and innovation is inside those cities and not beyond their borders.
In addition to funding for public housing and transportation projects, and the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the “Cities” section in “Heart of the Great Society” promised a “blue-ribbon panel to suggest ways to combat crime and juvenile delinquency.” Again, this is language we’ve heard a lot of over the past year – American cities are riddled with crime.
At a moment in the 1960s when America was an increasingly suburban country, both Appalachia and urban America were framed as places of isolation, though these sources framed the causes and results of isolation differently. Appalachia’s poverty and isolation was blamed on the decline of a major industry that had despoiled the environment and left people without economic opportunity. Neither LBJ’s speech nor the newspaper outline focused on lack of economic opportunity in urban spaces, but instead focused on a purported decline of traditional values that was engendering criminal behavior.
This matters because of the ways that the poor in America have long been implicitly and explicitly thought of as “deserving” or “undeserving.” The deserving poor, victims of circumstances beyond their control, deserved aid. The undeserving poor, whose poverty stemmed from their own laziness or poor choices, should only receive scorn, reform, and imprisonment. People left behind by the collapse of the coal industry deserved economic aid, but criminals did not. This framing was reinforced by the popular yet incorrect depictions of Appalachia as white and cities as non-white, one place full of down-on-their-luck people who were just trying to get back on their feet, the other full of people who were to blame for their own circumstances because they had made bad choices.
It’s not hard to see these intersecting, overlapping ideas of rural/urban, white/non-white, industrious/lazy, and deserving/undeserving in our current political discourse. Rather than romanticizing the Great Society as its programs are under attack, it’s important to consider how its rhetoric and programs reinforced many of these ideas.