50 Years After the War on Poverty We Look Back at Early VISTAs in Appalachia During the 1960s

Jul 16, 2015

Rewind to the 1960s: Many young, middle and upper class Americans of the 1960s yearned to do something more with their lives after college. They didn't want to settle for a prosperous, suburban lifestyle, so instead, many of them signed up to serve in a new anti-poverty program called VISTA, or Volunteers in Service to American. VISTA is a national service program that launched in December, 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

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Many of the first rural VISTAs came to Appalachia

When VISTAs arrived in 1966, some of them talked with residents in Pine Knob, West Virginia who were concerned that their property was being damaged by strip mining above their home. However, there was not a system to hold mining companies accountable for land reclamation once they had stripped the mountain for coal. One of the companies had drilled into an old mine site, and old water from inside that mine began pouring down the mountain.

Boulders from the explosions at the strip mines had also shot into the air near homes. One boulder crashed into the local community center in Pine Knob.

But perhaps most tragic was in neighboring Boone County, where a boy was killed when a boulder from a strip mine landed through a windshield.

An Academy Award nominated film, called Before the Mountain was Moved, was based on the true story of the VISTAs who came to work along Coal River in 1966-1967.

Early VISTAs were doing a number of projects across southern West Virginia, but some of these early VISTAs encouraged native West Virginians to ask their state legislators to pass a law that would put tougher regulations against strip mining companies to restore land that they had damaged.

Virginia Bonds, resident of Pine Knob, portraying herself in a scene in the 1969 docu-drama, Before the Mountain was Moved
Credit Robert Sharpe, Before the Mountain was Moved

Virginia Bonds lives in Pine Knob. She remembers that she didn’t know what was going on when VISTAs began showing up in her holler in 1966. "When I saw the VISTAs coming, I thought 'Lord have mercy what are they coming here for?' Took a little bit of talking for me to get into it and once I did it was alright.”

1969 film depicts Ellis Bailey in this scene, speaking to the state Legislature in Charleston, W.Va.
Credit Robert Sharpe, Before the Mountain was Moved

When the VISTAs arrived, Bonds and her neighbors in Pine Knob were deeply concerned about the unregulated strip mining that was going on above their homes. Bonds remembers that nobody was listening to their concerns, even when boulders blasted through the air right in front of her mother's house.

“And down below where my mother lived a rock came down...another one came down and bounced into her garden. It just tore everything up. I was sitting on my porch and I said I hear water running. They had drilled into a deep mine here. I could see the trees moving," Bonds recalled.

So along came the VISTAs. One of their supervisors was Gibbs Kinderman, a recent graduate of Harvard. In 1963, Kinderman saw Martin Luther King give his famous “I have a dream” speech. So he skipped out on his plans for grad school and instead got in a car with some friends and headed down to Mississippi to help register black voters.

Then he was recruited by Milton Ogle to come to Appalachia and work for the Council of the Southern Mountains. He was one of the ones who helped create a new program called the Appalachian Volunteers. So he moved to Eastern Kentucky, and then to West Virginia. When Kinderman first came to West Virginia in January, 1966, he met Charleston Gazette Reporter, Don Marsh. Kinderman recalls that Marsh told him, "if you want to do any good, go to Pine Knob, those people are really being done bad by the strip miners."

Raleigh County Resident Ellis Bailey was concerned by the damage strip mining had done to his farm.
Credit Robert Sharpe, Before the Mountain was Moved

Listen to the episode to hear what happened when Kinderman sent two young law students turned VISTA volunteers, David Biesemeyer and Naomi Cohen, to help the people of Pine Knob form one of the state's first citizen's lobby groups. Learn how their work led to a Surface Mining Reclamation and Safety Act in West Virginia in 1967.

Jay: A Rockefeller's Journey

In 1964, Jay Rockefeller came to West Virginia as a young volunteer with the Action for Appalachian Youth. The AYY was one of several pilot programs that led to the launch of VISTA, in December 1964. Our team here at West Virginia Public Broadcasting has been producing a new film about Rockefeller's 50-year public service career, called Jay: A  Rockefeller's Journey:

How Has the VISTA Program Changed Since the 1960s?

Today things have changed for the VISTA program, although some things remain the same. Perhaps the most significant difference is that native West Virginians themselves now make up a much larger percentage of volunteers serving communities in need. West Virginia has the 5th largest number of people in the country who are signing up to join AmeriCorps. Bill Basl, Director of AmeriCorps, says he thinks one of the reasons so many West Virginians are signing up for his program is because many of them grow up volunteering in their local communities.

Another way the VISTA program is different today than it was in the 1960s is that VISTAs no longer stay with families in the communities where they serve. Today, VISTA volunteers aren't allowed to participate in any type of political action or political campaign. And they certainly aren't supposed to help organize any political action or political opposition.

Special thanks to Gibbs Kinderman for his help with this episode. A lot of the voices and sound material in this episode were first produced as a radio documentary called "Voices From the 60s", produced by Gibbs Kinderman in 1988. Music in today’s show was provided by Billy Ed Wheeler with "Coal Tattoo" and "They Can't Put it Back", Montana Skies with "The Edge of Night", Little Sparrow, and Michael Kline. Our What’s in a Name theme music is by Marteka and William with “Johnson Ridge Special”.