When Bobby Kennedy came to Kentucky

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By Randy Patrick

“I’ve seen proud men in the hills of Appalachia who wish only to work in dignity, but they cannot, for the mines have closed, and their jobs are gone, and no one … has cared enough to help.”
— Robert F. Kennedy, 1968

Monell Patton sat on her front porch mending a faded yellow bed skirt as she and her husband, James, watched the strangers park their cars on the shoulder and walk up the road to where the old Vortex School once stood.

They had seen something like it 36 years before, when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York came to the mountains to hold hearings on the effectiveness of the War on Poverty in eastern Kentucky.

Back then, Monell was a young woman who watched the senator and his entourage through a window because she was too bashful to to meet him. Still, he made a lasting impression on her.

“I thought an awful lot of him,” Monell told me. “Just thinking about him caring enough to visit this little place … it brings back a lot of memories. It makes you want to cry.”

Forty-five years ago this week, Bobby Kennedy, a man of wealth and power, was mortally wounded by an assassin while reaching for the hand of a poor Mexican-American kitchen worker at a hotel in Los Angeles, soon after learning that he had won the crucial California Democratic presidential primary.

Four months earlier, the senator had been in Kentucky conducting field hearings on unemployment, poverty and hunger, accompanied by Congressman Carl D. Perkins, D-Ky.

Many politicians have come to Appalachia to discover poverty, but a few mountain people believe Kennedy was different from the publicity seekers and might have made a difference if he had lived.

Phyllis Buckner is one who believes that. She was a cast member of John Malpede’s “RFK in EKY,” a 2004 re-enactment of Kennedy’s 200-mile tour of the region in February 1968. Buckner played her mother, Betty Terrill, and repeated Terrill’s words of testimony before Kennedy’s committee at the Vortex schoolhouse.

When Kennedy asked Terrill what worried her the most, she answered: “Next year, I’ll have two in high school, and I won’t be able to afford books for them, so they’ll have to quit.” If the children quit, she told the senator, they would have to move away to find jobs because there were none in Wolfe County.

That hadn’t changed much, Buckner said in my interview. Her husband, a trucker, was gone most of the time. Books and school lunches were now free, but too many people were still on welfare, and welfare barely provided enough for a family to survive.

Among those I met while covering the re-enactment as a reporter was Peter Edelman, who had been one of Kennedy’s Senate aides and later served in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He resigned over the 1996 welfare reform law, which didn’t give people the help they needed to make the transition from public assistance to self-sufficiency.

That was a concern of Kennedy’s, who saw the welfare system as deeply flawed.

“You couldn’t really get out of poverty with welfare or a combination of welfare and food assistance,” Edelman said. “It was made available grudgingly. And most importantly, it was unconnected to helping people find work, and to get away from depending on cash help.”

That’s still true almost half a century later.

These days, we hear almost nothing from political candidates about the poor. It’s almost as if they don’t exist. But I think Kennedy sincerely cared about the disadvantaged and wanted to help them help themselves, not just keep them on the dole.

I believe that because of what I read and conversations I’ve had with people who knew him, like Edelman and John Lewis, the congressman and former civil rights leader, who told me RFK was the real deal, not some phony poverty pimp.

As a former congressional investigator and attorney general who fought union corruption, organized crime and racial discrimination, Kennedy had no illusions about the moral failings of politicians. Yet he also believed that public service could be a force for good — or, as he called it, a “noble profession.”

“Government belongs where evil needs an adversary, and there are people in distress who cannot help themselves,” he once said.

If more politicians took those words as their credo and honestly lived by them, there might be less cyncism toward the idea of public service in our time.