University of North Carolina at Asheville







The Hatfields and the McCoys Aren’t the Only Fight in Town:


The 1960s War on The War on Poverty


In Pike County, Kentucky









A Senior Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of the

Department of History in Candidacy for the

Degree of Bachelor of Arts in History










Timothy Nane Osment









Asheville, North Carolina

November 22, 2005


August 15, 1967

The fear in our country is increasing, as the national lies become more contradictory.  It is tempting to say, “What can I do?” and “drop out.”  But we say, “drop South” and bring some courage, love and light with you.  We need you, brothers and sisters …

                                                                        Yours for freedom,

                                                                        Alan McSurely

                                                                        Pike County Jail

                                                                        Pike County, Kentucky [1]    


During the last half of the 1960s, groups of federally-funded social workers were branching out into hundreds of locations across the country.  They were the frontline soldiers in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  Originally armed with a mandate to provide aid for the underprivileged, their fight soon evolved into an assortment of efforts to locate and correct the inequities they found within the social, economic, and political structures of targeted communities. 

Predictably, local and state reaction to these federal workers ranged from passive suspicion to violent conflict.  The few, wealthy citizens of the coal-rich counties of central Appalachia were especially sensitive to what they saw as uninvited and unwelcome subversive elements sent to invade their communities.  They believed that these outsiders had only one agenda -- to shift the decades-old power structure from the coal mine operators and their political allies to the hugely disproportionate number of citizens who lived in the severe poverty created by the economic and social dynamics of the region.  This elite minority was convinced the federal workers would attempt to accomplish their objectives by using whatever methods necessary and they were determined to stop them.

In the spring of 1967, Al and Margaret McSurely joined several other social workers who were already present in Pike County, Kentucky.  Al was employed by the Appalachian Volunteers (AVs) and Margaret was employed by the Southern Conference educational Fund (SCEF).  Both organizations were just two of many that were partially funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in Washington D.C.  Tensions in the region were already running high between federal anti-poverty workers and the local power structure.  Ultimately, the arrival of the McSurelys would mark the beginning of a long series of battles waged against the people working as a part of Johnson’s War on Poverty.  For almost two years, the federal social workers endured an onslaught of attacks that included slander, intimidation, criminal charges, arrests, and finally, dynamite attacks on their homes

For all practical purposes, the eventual outcome of the conflict in Pike County was decided in the period between the McSurelys’ April 1, 1967 arrival and their subsequent arrest on August 11, 1967.  During those four months, several specific developments occurred within the coal mining region of Eastern Kentucky that galvanized the opposition and made it impossible for the federal workers to continue their fight against poverty.  These events, against the backdrop of decreasing national support for the OEO programs, reinforced a hostile environment that ensured the eventual collapse and defeat of the War on Poverty in Pike County, Kentucky.

       The Dynamics of, and Opposition to, the Federal Government’s War on Poverty

Michael Harrington suggests in his landmark 1962 work, The Other America, “There is only one institution in [our] society capable of acting to abolish poverty.  That is the federal government.”[2]  He argues that local and state governments are rendered ineffective by being positioned too close to the challenge.  Furthermore, they are often a conscious or unconscious contributor to the problem, a characteristic created by shifting demographics, commercial interests, and unsteady tax revenues.  Private and charitable interests are useful, but cannot be solely relied on for stable and continuous support since frequently moral or fiscal shifts redirect their resources.  That the federal government is the only entity far enough removed from local dynamics, but still with a genuine interest, makes it the only logical and the most effective organization to assume the leading role in the fight to eliminate poverty. [3]

            In the early 1960s, Robert Kennedy developed the concept of a federal anti-poverty initiative and presented it to his brother.  President Kennedy supported what eventually became the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (EOA) and was planning its introduction when he was assassinated in 1963.  Upon assuming the presidency, Lyndon Johnson was inclined to maintain the direction of the anti-poverty program for three reasons: in memory of JFK, because of its viable political contributions, and simply because it was “the right thing to do.”  David Zarefsky writes, “Not only was the declaration of war [on poverty] responsive to the national mood after Dallas, but it was also personally and politically valuable to the new president.”[4]  The EOA created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which implemented Johnson’s declared War on Poverty.  The OEO was assigned to coordinate and fund localized, anti-poverty initiatives throughout the country from the federal level.  At the center of these initiatives were Community Action Agencies (CAAs) and Community Action Programs (CAPs).  These CAPs included now familiar names such as Headstart, Job Corps, Appalachian Volunteers (AVs) and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). [5] 

In many previous federal-aid programs, monies were distributed to various local service providers.  Subsequently, a large portion of the resources were exhausted as funds filtered through several layers of bureaucracy, eventually reducing the actual realized benefits.  Johnson’s War on Poverty adopted a different approach by eliminating the middlemen within the distribution process.  “The EOA was notable in administrative terms because Congress bypassed state and local governments to fund community groups directly.” [6]

Another important characteristic of the EOA was its doctrine of Maximum Feasible Participation.  This clause received little attention until local governments realized it required that the poor have an active involvement in planning and implementing their own community aid programs.  This emphasis on participation would give the disenfranchised “a real voice within their institutions.” [7]  It would also reduce the influence wielded by local officials.  Thus regional governments had lost two sources of their power: unrestricted federal money as well as much of their ability to internally manipulate the dynamics of local, poor communities. 

A third characteristic of the EOA, the influx of federal anti-poverty workers moving into communities across the country, provoked the most resistance from local officials and business leaders.  These federal workers, employed by local CAPs, were initially intended to create neighborhood health centers, provide for emergency services, offer drug and alcohol abuse counseling, assist with job training, and initiate other forms of direct aid.  Eventually, in addition to these responsibilities, leaders within the OEO realized local, disenfranchised people would need assistance organizing themselves to ensure they did not reenter the cycle of poverty.  An initiative that had originally been intended as social aid found itself shifting to social organizing and began to include activities such as voter registration, reorganizing ineffective labor unions, assisting welfare enrollment, and increasing civic participation.[8]  

The concept of Maximum Feasible Participation, paired with the arrival of the anti-poverty workers, created concerns among local and state officials.  The idealists at the helm of the OEO were described as possessing a “passionate commitment to change.” [9]  This commitment and passion within the national anti-poverty programs alarmed local, elected officials and business leaders who were not accustomed to feeling alienated or being challenged within their own sphere of influence.  Swift reaction from these groups was predictable and their responses varied from subtle to aggressive.  By the mid-term elections of 1966 it was apparent that the negative outcry in opposition to the dynamics of the CAPs, which was being generated by local and state entities, was becoming too great for politicians in Washington to ignore.  In addition, fiscal alarm over the budgetary pressure being generated by the Vietnam War was creating concern within the federal government.[10]  The War on Poverty was losing some of the support necessary to ensure its survival.  Talk in the nation’s capital indicated that one goal of the 90th Congress would be to dismantle the OEO. [11]

  Bowing to public opposition, the 1967 congressional passage of the Green Amendment marked the beginning of a crackdown on money distribution.  The amendment gave local, elected officials the power to assume control over privately run CAPs and required that public officials make up one third of CAP governing boards.[12]  This resulted in the concerns of the poor often being suppressed by the more articulate professionals with whom they now shared seats.[13]   CAPs could no longer use federal support to organize voter registration, for union activity, for anti-war demonstrations, or for various other civic responses.  Community action funds had to be approved by the city or county government.  Additionally, state governors now held final veto power over CAP funding.[14]  Frequently, the governments of the cities, counties, and states were designated as the actual CAP.[15]     

While the federal government was responding with legislation, local opposition to the War on Poverty assumed a more confrontational and personal tone.  In many locations anti-poverty workers had begun to refer to themselves as “freedom fighters.”  However, these federal employees felt more under siege than they did free.  City and county authorities questioned them about their activities.  Their movements were monitored and their homes were under surveillance.  Communities began to associate the term freedom fighter, not with aid and assistance, but with inflammatory terms like Communist Infiltration and Red Scare.  Consequently, local citizens were suspicious of the intentions and wary of contact with these alien, potentially subversive elements.[16]  This strained relationship that balanced indigenous power with outside influences was repeated in hundreds of locations throughout the nation.  Such a fragile coexistence was destined to break.    

      Pike County, Kentucky and The McSurelys

This explosive tension between federal anti-poverty workers and many local communities was perhaps worst in one of the poorest areas of the country, Appalachia.  In the 1960s, the primary industry in the region, coal mining, had declined such that the unemployment rate hovered near fifty percent.  Conditions during the same period in Eastern Kentucky were especially ugly.  The region contained ten of the nation’s twenty poorest counties.  Twenty-five percent of all adults over twenty-four could not read or write.  Forty percent of the one-room schoolhouses in the United States were found there.  Sixty percent of all families earned below the $3000 minimum, national poverty level.[17]  One factor signified future struggles ahead within the legal battles that would surround the federal War on Poverty; according to Al McSurely, Kentucky was ranked 50th in the nation in “Democratic Processes.” [18]  

 Located in the heart of Appalachia was Pike County, Kentucky, the largest county in the state.  Pike County had another distinction.  It was the leading coal-producing county in the nation, generating roughly $100 million annually during the 1960s.  Despite this wealth, Pike County was mired in a desperate social and economic condition.  Seventy percent of the wells in the county were contaminated by pollutants produced as a result of mining activity.  The median annual income was $2800 and the median education level completed was eighth grade.  Public school teachers were some of the lowest paid in the nation and went on strike almost every year. Without outside assistance from various sources the schools would have shut down completely.    

There was a huge gap in wealth between a select group of mine owners, their operators, and thousands of citizens.  That disparity was due primarily to two dynamics of the coal industry.  First, unions had lost much of their power, and more than half of all miners in Pike County (fortunate enough to have jobs) worked in low-paying, non-union mines.  Second, mine operators returned virtually no revenue to the region.  The only tax they paid in exchange for the millions of dollars of coal removed was an annual $100 license fee; and politicians were prohibited by law from raising that amount.[19]  Pike County possessed a tremendous amount of poverty positioned within a tremendous amount of wealth.  This was the milieu that greeted Al and Margaret McSurely when they arrived in Kentucky in 1967. 

The McSurelys met in Washington D.C. in the early 1960s.  Both had been involved in the civil rights movement before it grew to include in its mission the War on Poverty.  Al was nearing thirty and not long out of graduate school.  Trained as a psychologist, he applied his skills by offering assistance to the disenfranchised of suburban Washington.  He helped community groups form social organizations so they could qualify and apply for available federal resources earmarked for aid to the poor.  Margaret Lauren, also near thirty, had been working with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in Jackson before she moved to Washington to work for the northern support office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).[20]  Here she met McSurely and here their common social and political interests brought them together.  They became a couple just as the nation’s civil rights / anti-poverty activities began to adopt a new approach that would alter the methods employed by federal social programs, an approach that originally emerged within the Black Power movement.  This approach, the core premise of Black Power, suggested that it would be more effective to have blacks working to organize blacks and whites working to organize whites.  Another characteristic of Black Power was the reaction to “outside white people coming in and telling local blacks what to do [which] also had the effect of suffocating the development of leadership within the black community.” [21]  Embracing Black Power’s approach was an attempt to re-energize and improve the results within the civil rights movement’s War on Poverty. 

Black Power advocate and SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael points out that, “no matter how liberal a white person might be, he cannot ultimately escape the overpowering influence, on himself and on black people, of his whiteness in a racist society.” [22]  Carmichael described it to McSurely this way, “Al, when I sit down and talk to a white person they can’t get over the fact that I am black.  It takes them 15 minutes to stop thinking, ‘What’s this black guy doing talking to me?’” [23]  It was becoming apparent that the black community felt it important to create their own conditions, their own new image – not merely receive another white directive.[24]        

This approach incorporating the Black Power movement spread to the OEO.  In addition, this new dynamic provided the encouragement and motivation behind the McSurelys’ acceptance of anti-poverty assignments in Eastern Kentucky.  They moved to Pike County in the spring of 1967.  The county had a minority population of no more than 500, representing less than one-half of one percent of the approximately 60,000 citizens.  Here Al first got involved with the Appalachian Volunteers (AVs), a War on Poverty project involved with social and political reform and Margaret began her employment with the Southern Conference educational Fund (SCEF).  SCEF, founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and Frank Porter Graham, battled all forms of social and economic discrimination.[25]  As discussed earlier, though industries in Pike County generated tremendous revenues, most of its citizenry lived within a cycle of extreme, rural poverty.  Pike County’s proximity to wealth combined with its social, economic, and racial demographics to create what seemed a perfect environment for the McSurelys to make a real and positive impact on thousands of disenfranchised lives.  They had no way to know that the next four months would set the stage for a long battle that would include harassment, arrest, and eventually, explosive violence.

      The War Heats Up: the Events of April – August, 1967

The McSurelys arrived in Pikeville, Kentucky on April 1, 1967.  Even with their addition, there were still less than ten federal social workers living in Pike County.  Acknowledging the trend signaled by the passage of the Green Amendment, the workers realized the money and support of the federal government were not going to last much longer.[26]  They needed to find a way to continue the initiatives based within the national War on Poverty after federal resources were no longer available.  The logical solution was to encourage the local poor to become participants in their own social dynamics, the very dynamics that currently kept them disenfranchised within their own communities.  Michael Harrington described being poor in America: “Poverty should be defined psychologically in terms of those whose place in society is such that they are internal exiles … who are therefore excluded from taking advantage of new opportunities.” [27]  It was the goal of the federal social workers in Pike County to position the poor so they could, and would, no longer be excluded from capitalizing on available civic and economic opportunities.  This meant enabling them to create and then to maintain their own community action programs long after federal intervention and support completed its inevitable and anticipated withdrawal.  This meant organization. 

            The McSurely’s assignment to Pike County was not random.  The CAPs in and around Washington were effectively organized and highly functional.  Al had been instrumental in the creation and forward momentum of many of these programs as they moved from grass-root organizations into long-term examples of success in providing aid to the poor.  About this time, he penned a guide called The Organizer’s Handbook.  As for Margaret, ex-SNCC people were noted within the War on Poverty as good organizers and she was no exception.[28]  She also benefited from her experience with civil rights activities in the rural South in the early 1960s.  The McSurelys’ arrival in Pike County was intended to move community awareness up a notch, to find ways to supply independent funding, and to quote one of Al’s favorite rallying cries, “Get organized and demand services!” [29]  Nationwide, this approach was emerging as appropriate, desirable and effective.  An advisory council on urban opportunity in Chicago issued a letter recognizing a need for the “replacement of social service handouts by projects which deal with the root causes of poverty [and assist] the victims of poverty to organize, cooperate, and climb out of the pit.” [30] 

The people of Pike County were already familiar with union organizing and this new proposed method of forming small neighborhood associations was similar.  Where one unified voice had been previously calling for higher pay and better working conditions, new unification was now to be focused on fair utility access, new schools, and paved roads.  The paradigm was switching from workplace organization to community organization.” [31]

Before the McSurelys arrived in Pike County there was already a degree of suspicion and resistance directed toward federal social workers.  The AVs, in particular, had caused some alarm within the community as they drove around [like federal agents] in government vehicles assuring the locals that the trek to a better life lay down the path provided by the federal government – and that the AVs were there to be their personal guides.  One AV couple, Joe and Karen Mulloy, were already living in Pikeville and they were to experience many of the same challenges faced by the McSurelys during the coming months.    

Pike County was run by what Al McSurely referred to as “The Courthouse Gang.”  He didn’t coin the term, but that didn’t matter.  When he began talking of “busting it up” after just a few weeks in Kentucky, his rhetoric and activities got the attention of a lot of people, primarily a select group of powerful, business leaders and county officials, i.e. “The Courthouse Gang.” [32]  This group included, most notably, Thomas Ratliff, who was a Pike County coal mine owner, president of the National Independent Coal Owners Association (NICOA), the commonwealth attorney, and a candidate for state lieutenant governor.  Also aware of McSurely’s arrival were additional Gang members including Sheriff Perry Justice, Chamber of Commerce President and Ratliff Corporation Treasurer Robert Holcomb, and local FBI field-agent John Burke.  Ratliff described to The Nashville Banner his concerns about the possibility of communist infiltration within the programs operated by federal anti-poverty workers.  Furthermore, he was not impressed with their appearance, “They run around here, the girls in miniskirts, the boys in overalls with frayed bottoms, unshaven, without shoes.” [33]  

            Al and Margaret rented a large house on a hill several miles outside of Pikeville.  Al had been hired to be the training director for the AVs and was thrilled to find a home large enough to double as a location that could be utilized for staff and organizational meetings.  However, Al was fired from his AV position within several weeks of arriving in the region.  His termination was not related to any events in Pike County, but rather a result of being accused of participating in a plan to incite a Memphis riot during a SNCC rally in that city several months earlier.  After the riots, OEO officials in Washington were pressured by influential political forces to rein in the subversive activism within their organization and McSurely became a casualty of that fallout.  Almost immediately Al was hired by SCEF in Pike County.  His role as a federally-funded social organizer of the poor was virtually unchanged; now he merely operated as an employee of a different organization.  The Mulloys remained with the AVs and continued to work daily with the McSurelys throughout Pike County. [34]     

            Notwithstanding Al’s firing, the AVs still needed a place to conduct meetings.  The McSurleys arranged to “swap” homes with the Mulloys throughout the summer to make the big house on the hill available for its originally intended purpose.  There the AVs would organize meetings, hold rallies, and have parties in support of their anti-poverty activities.  One local merchant described seeing about sixty-five youths arriving by bus at the McSurelys’ residence.  He said they seemed to be between the ages of fifteen and eighteen and was especially alarmed that there were “about four Negro youths in the group.” [35]  On several occasions, Joe Mulloy invited local officials to attend the functions.  McSurely thought it improper, ironic in the least, that these individuals were present at meetings conducted in order to find solutions to the social disparities for which he felt them responsible.  As a result of the invitations, local officials like Ratliff, Holcomb, and Justice met, and were exposed to the activities of, the federal employees who were determined to initiate the momentum to create an equitable economic balance within the region.  This exposure confirmed their suspicions.  They were becoming aware that something would need to be done soon to stop the anti-poverty campaign in Pike County before it could begin dismantling the local, power structure. [36]      

            Excluding the police raids that were to occur later, the single most galvanizing event of the summer was the struggle between landowner Jink Ray and the Puritan Coal Company.  Puritan held a broad-form deed, giving it complete mining rights over Ray’s property.  Broad-form deeds were holdovers from the 1920s.  They were commonly bought from property owners giving the coal companies “broad” access to the mineral rights of a designated parcel of land.  The cost of these deeds seldom exceeded one hundred dollars and conveyed to future heirs or purchasers of the land.  The purchased rights covered any method required to extract coal from the ground, including strip-mining.  Strip-mining was extremely destructive to the environment.  It rendered the area mined unlivable, polluted nearby water tables, and created landslide potential that endangered surrounding areas.  The legal permission to strip-mine was an indicative example of the unchecked power coal companies held in the region.  Before the Jink Ray incident, most people appeared helpless, thus unwilling to challenge, the existing parasitic relationship the coal industry had with land owners.

 On June 29, 1967, the bulldozers and augers of the Puritan Coal Company approached Jink Ray’s property.  Ray, surrounded by friends and neighbors, stood in the way, blocking the machinery’s path.  The local citizens were prepared to use violence to protect Ray’s property. [37]  Eager for a compromise, Kentucky Governor Edward Breathitt visited the site and asked Puritan to cease its operation until the case could be resolved in court.  Subsequently, with the aid of the AVs, Ray and other landowners formed the “Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People”, an organization determined to check coal company abuses.  Though the movement was primarily supported by local citizens, the coal interests saw clear evidence of the influence of “outside agitators.” [38]   When a county judge upheld Puritan’s right to mine, the bulldozers once more moved onto Ray’s property.  Two protestors were nearly killed when they came close to being struck by a huge boulder disturbed by earthmoving equipment.  Once again the governor intervened and the operation was suspended pending an inquiry by the state Division of Strip Mining and Reclamation.  Ray and other landowners were not optimistic.  The Division received all of its revenues from coal operators.  The head of the Appalachian Group remarked, “This makes as much sense as having the FAA paid by the airlines to regulate them.” [39]  Before the Division could rule, Governor Breathitt, to avoid bloodshed and “recognizing the strength of the movement,” suspended Puritan’s operating permit on the site.[40]  His actions emphasized and widened the adversarial divisions developing between two interests, with local landowners and federal social workers on one side and the coal-mine owners’ courthouse gangs on the other.         

Meanwhile, throughout the summer, employees of SCEF and the AVs were busy throughout Pike County working to empower the disenfranchised poor to join the decision making processes that affected their lives.  “Activist” initiatives like voter registration drives, welfare enrollment, and union labor demands served to increase the social and civic unrest that was growing in the county.  In addition to fighting the War on Poverty, McSurely and others suggested locals organize in protest of the Vietnam War and they assisted transport of several citizens to Canada to avoid the draft.  With these activities the federal employees were beginning to attract a lot of attention.  It was common for them to receive late night harassing phone calls.  One July evening Sheriff Justice, Robert Holcomb, and a representative of the Small Business Administration visited the homes of the McSurelys and the Mulloys.  The anti-poverty workers were questioned about their daily schedules, their future intentions, and their feelings toward the coal mining industry.  The visits were civil but a clear message was conveyed; the safety of the workers could not be guaranteed.[41]   The Mulloys were warned that “someone” might blow up their car if they continued to organize against strip-mining.[42]  Later that night, after visiting Mulloy and McSurely, Chamber of Commerce President Robert Holcomb requested a federal investigation into OEO workers in Pike County.[43]

Al and Margaret McSurely were asked to leave their rented house in late July.  The owner, James Madison Compton, implied that his daughter might have to move back to Pike County and would need somewhere to live.  The McSurelys felt the reason suspect but had no choice but to comply.  The owner of the house was named after James Madison, author of the Fourth Amendment - that made unlawful search and seizure illegal.  This interesting trivia became strange irony soon after the pending midnight raids that were only weeks away.[44]  Actually, the McSurelys and the AVs no longer needed the large house outside of town.  The frequency of the organizational meetings had declined as tensions increased throughout the region.  Furthermore, according to author Bruce Jackson, the excessive attention focused on the Pike County AVs and the other social workers during the summer months was causing them to become pariahs within their organizations.  It was becoming apparent that their effectiveness in fighting poverty was being compromised by their increasing need to apply their resources to maintaining internal support - as well as fighting the Courthouse Gang.[45] 

When Kentucky Governor Breathitt intervened on behalf of Jink Ray against the strip-miners, his actions were unprecedented.  “It was the first time in its history that the state government has so boldly challenged the divine right of mine operators.” [46]  On August 1st, several weeks after the temporary suspension, Breathitt made it permanent by revoking Puritan Coal Company’s permit to mine in Pike County.  By now the citizens group that had formed out of that conflict had grown to 1000 members.  The Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People threatened to fill the jails with protestors if significant taxes on coal profits were not introduced and enacted.  They called for the abolition of strip-mining and monetary damages to be paid to affected landowners.[47]  Unrest within the county was increasing.  The relationship between the local power structure and those representing the federal government’s War on Poverty was becoming untenable.  The Courthouse Gang decided “it was time to show everyone involved who was boss.” [48]       

Sometime before midnight on August 11, 1967 a knock sounded on the door of Al and Margaret McSurelys’ home.  Margaret, now four months pregnant, moved to answer the door.  Before she could get there, a dozen armed men led by Commonwealth Attorney Thomas Ratliff and Sheriff Perry Justice stormed in.  They had a warrant to arrest the McSurelys and to confiscate any inflammatory material.  The warrant was suspect from the beginning.  It had been signed by an individual who had never been in the home, but that claimed he had seen “allegedly seditious literature on the premises.” [49]  The McSurelys were charged with sedition - the planned, violent overthrow of an existing government.[50]  Seized were a truckload of books, papers, photos and personal writings including the works of Mao and Lenin, some Russian poetry, an account of the Berkeley Student Movement, and a copy of Catch 22.  Ratliff described their house as a “Communistic library out of this world.” [51]   He failed to mention the collection also included two Bibles, works of Thomas Merton, Carl Sandburg, and Robert Frost, and books by William Buckley and Barry Goldwater.[52]  Authorities later referred to a portrait over the fireplace of Che Guevara as a picture of Nikita Khrushchev.[53]  After arresting the McSurelys, the same officials raided the home of Joe and Karen Mulloy.  They were arrested under the same charge.  SCEF Executive Director Carl Braden and his wife, Anne, came from Nashville to post bail for the McSurelys and the Mulloys.  It was their first visit to Pike County, Kentucky.  Upon their arrival, they too were arrested for sedition. [54]

       The Final Collapse of the War on Poverty in Pike County

After the August 11th arrests, the War on Poverty quickly unraveled in Pike County.  For all practical purposes, the federal anti-poverty workers were under siege, virtually unable to help themselves, much less anyone else.  Unknowingly, the Mulloys, and especially the McSurelys, were starting an arduous trek that would begin in a rural Kentucky jail and culminate in the committee rooms of the U.S. Senate and the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court.  One thing was certain; the dynamics had changed.  War had been declared on the War on Poverty.

            On August 18, 1967, seemingly in response to the sedition allegations in Eastern Kentucky, the OEO cut off all AV funds to the region.  However, later it was revealed the funds had been previously scheduled to end.[55]  Things were growing desperate for the federal workers assigned to the region who were now beginning to lose their financial as well as public support.

In September 1967 the legal process began.  A grand jury was convened in Pike County.  After several weeks their decision was returned, “… a well-organized and well-financed effort is being made to promote and spread the communistic theory of violent and forceful overthrow of the government of Pike County [and] communist organizers have attempted, without success thus far, to promote their beliefs among our school children by infiltrating our schools [and are] planning to infiltrate local churches and labor unions in order to cause dissension and to promote their purposes.” [56]  The indictment, praised by the presiding judge, devoted considerable attention to “Communism in Pike County.”  Pages of recommendations were issued regarding the “so-called anti-poverty workers and programs in Pike County.”  In conclusion, the statement commended the actions of the men involved with the raids on the federal workers’ homes. [57]  

It is accurate and important to recognize that the galvanizing effect the claim of “communism in our midst” had was not unique to Pike County.  A similar dynamic was common in various degrees at various levels in communities throughout the nation.  Author Howard Zinn suggests, “No country in the world has less cause to worry about communism, or more paranoiac fear of it, than the United States.” [58]  Often, as in Pike County, this fear was used as a tool by elected officials to influence public support for divisive issues.   

Four days after his arrest, Al McSurely penned his “Letter from the Pike County Jail.”  In it he agreed he had at one time been guilty of sedition – for earlier in life he had been silent, for earlier in life he had turned his head and looked the other way, and “to be silent in the South was to be seditious.” [59]   Later, in retrospect, McSurely found it odd that, though being charged with sedition, an attempted violent government overthrow, he was probably one of the few people in Eastern Kentucky who didn’t own a gun. [60] 

After being released on bond, the workers found Southern Bell had disconnected their phones.  Their auto insurance through a local agency had been canceled and other agencies would not write them new policies.[61]    However, all the news was not bad.  The Rutgers’ Law Center for Constitutional Rights took their case.  In mid-September, 1967, CCR attorney William Kunstler presented their argument before a special three-judge federal court.  Acting swiftly, the court declared the Kentucky sedition statute the group had been accused of violating unconstitutional, effectively wiping out all charges.[62]  The statute was described as “overboard, vague, and sweeping.” [63]  Presiding Judge Bert Combs added, “The conclusion is inescapable that the criminal prosecutions were instituted, at least in part, in order to stop organizing activities in Pike County.” [64]  Relieved, the federal anti-poverty workers felt sure the end of their ordeal was near.  They were ready to get back to business – to redirect their energies away from personal defense and reestablish the momentum they had previously realized in their fight against poverty.  However, their optimism was short-lived.  Washington was about to get involved.

In October 1967, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations subpoenaed the McSurelys and requested their seized records, which were still being held by Pike County officials.  The old Joe McCarthy committee, now chaired by Arkansas Senator John McClellan, was looking for a connection between the April 1967 urban riots in Nashville and a speech given by Stokely Carmichael to SCEF volunteers in that city the previous night.  McClellan learned the McSurelys had been in Nashville at the time and he was also aware of their recent activities.[65]  That October subpoena began what would become a fifteen year court battle between two 30-year old social workers and some of the most powerful men in the United States government.    

In spite of the additional challenges the McClellan Committee in Washington represented, the battles in Kentucky were far from over.  With the war in Vietnam escalating, Joe Mulloy had applied for conscientious objector status.  Nonetheless, the Louisville draft board classified him I-A and refused to reopen his case, effectively denying his appeal.  Questioning Mulloy, the same board that refused to defer Muhammad Ali seemed to be more interested in his views on poverty and strip-mining than on war.  Mulloy refused induction.  “I stand before you today for refusing to be killed,” was his statement to the presiding judge, just before he was convicted for not submitting to the draft. [66]  Citing negative publicity surrounding the proceedings, the AVs promptly fired Mulloy, explaining that his anti-Vietnam activities were not part of the federal anti-poverty mission and served to undermine their entire initiative in Eastern Kentucky.[67]  In addition to fighting poverty, local opposition, and the legal system, the social workers continued to encounter increasing disapproval from past supporters, namely the OEO and other various foundations.[68]  Seemingly to complete the cycle of persecution, Mulloy and his wife were evicted from their house in October 1967, due to anonymous threats received by their landlord.      

The winter passed in Pike County as it often does, coldly and quietly.  In March 1968, it was apparent the spring thaw did not apply to the war on the War on Poverty.  Not willing to accept defeat by the federal reversal of their sedition statute, the returning Kentucky Legislature formed the Kentucky Un-American Activities Committee (KUAC).  The Committee was instructed to investigate the potentially subversive positions and activities of SCEF, the AVs, SNCC, Vietnam Summer, and other organizations.  Gene Mason of the University of Kentucky noted that, upon its inception, newly-elected governor Louis Nunn provided more funding for KUAC than all other state legislature committees combined.  With little objectivity, hearings with obvious agendas were held in Frankfurt and other locations throughout the state.  Wherever KUAC convened they ensured local community power structures received the lion’s share of their attention, while virtually ignoring the pleas for equal time requested by the very groups and individuals being investigated. [69]    

Even as KUAC spent 1968 crisscrossing the state, the war on the War on Poverty in Pike County remained active.  Though representing a negligible percentage of the population, African-Americans suffered personal injury as five of their churches were firebombed, providing an ominous hint of the explosive events soon to occur.  Out-of-state cars arriving in the county reported being followed by the police.  Pikeville College launched internal investigations into courses and instructors suspected of being “too liberal.”  Shots were fired into a school organized by the AVs.[70]  One fact is apparent.  Since the arrests of the McSurelys and Mulloys on August 11, 1967, little time had been spent fighting poverty in Pike County.  Instead, the resources of the federal anti-poverty workers had been focused on responding to the various assortment of attacks levied in their direction.  The War on Poverty seemed to have been put on hold.             

Meanwhile, the legal battle between the McSurelys and McClellan’s U.S. Senate Committee continued.  Since the sedition statute had been declared unconstitutional and any arrests voided, the McSurelys’ attorneys challenged the original October 1967 U.S. Senate subpoena due to its reliance on illegally seized materials.  In July 1968, a U.S. Court of Appeals sided with that challenge and ordered the return of all seized materials.  The materials were returned to their original owners in November.  A determined McClellan decided to retool his investigation to focus on the activities of SCEF and any association the organization may have had with “subversive activities.”  McClellan ordered new subpoenas prepared.  The subpoenas ordered the McSurelys to make available any SCEF related documents they possessed and to appear in Washington before his committee in January 1969. [71]      

On December 3, 1968, KUAC arrived in Eastern Kentucky to hold a series of hearings.  A local AV employee, Edith Easterling, was ordered to appear.  Upon her arrival, she was seated and sworn in.  She requested to be allowed to open her remarks with a heartfelt and sweeping apology.  “Bystanders in the packed courthouse room moved to the edge of their seats in anticipation of her exposing communism among the AVs.  In strong and unequivocal language she apologized to the people of Pike County for having helped elect that ‘Dirty Courthouse Bunch’ headed by Ratliff.” [72]  Thus began two days of inflammatory, confrontational testimony between KUAC and the federal anti-poverty workers in the region.  McSurely discussed his original sedition charge by stating that the men who had seized the material from his home had done a much better job of distributing it then the federal workers could have ever done.  He noted much of the literature was seen circulating throughout the community soon after their arrests. [73]

            Eight days after KUAC had concluded its regional hearings and left the area, the War on Poverty in Pike County reached a violent conclusion.  Late on the night of December 12, 1968 several sticks of dynamite were hurled from a passing car at the bedroom window of Al and Margaret McSurely.  Their one-year-old son, Victor, was asleep near his parents in his crib at the foot of their bed.  The explosion blew out the window and sent broken glass flying through the room.  Terrified and disoriented, but having escaped serious injury, the family fled to a friend’s house and called the police.  Meeting the local authorities back at their home, it was discovered that the dynamite had struck just below the window, missing the opening by inches.  McSurely declared, “The angle of the blast, the number of sticks of dynamite, and the fact that the person who threw the dynamite knew where we were sleeping leads me to believe that the intent was to kill us.” [74]  No suspects were ever arrested and no charges were ever filed in the bombing of the McSurelys’ home.   

The McSurelys realized their participation in the federal social programs in Eastern Kentucky had come to an end.  It was time for them to leave.  Their legal struggle with the local and federal officials determined to dismantle the War on Poverty and expose subversive activities continued for years.  However, after the bombing, the McSurelys never spent another night in Pike County.  Sadly, for them, the War there was over.      

Identifying five characteristics, I can summarize the fluid process that represented failure within hundreds of communities throughout the country as federal social workers fought the 1960’s War on Poverty: Arrival – Acknowledgement – Activity – Alarm - Action.  The McSurelys provide a convenient example.  It was not long after their April 1967 arrival in Pike County that they were acknowledged by both the needy and the wary, the poor and the powerful.  Their activities created varying degrees of alarm within the traditional, established, community leaders.  Soon that alarm produced a call to action – and quickly thereafter that call was answered in the form of the August 11 arrests.  For all practical purposes, once the action began the War on Poverty in Pike County ended.  That action required federal anti-poverty workers to redirect their attention.  It then became necessary to focus their time and energies responding to the emerging social and legal challenges.  Seldom were remaining resources sufficient to maintain existing, or plan future, anti-poverty initiatives.  Predictably, any forward progress, infant programs, and significant momentum quietly faded away.  In Pike County, Kentucky it took four months in 1967 to follow the five-point flowchart described above.  Once it was completed, there was little left over to continue the fight.  


     Closing note

So 10 years after President Kennedy promised a new era for Appalachia, the million or so impoverished whites of the region remain rooted in penury and political impotence … because things seem to remain static in the hollows, and because affluence has increased generally in the nation as a whole, the relative position, economically and socially, of the people in the isolated hollows is worse than a decade ago. 

                                                            Homer Bigart

                                                            New York Times, June 15, 1971 [75]


The 1960s War on Poverty never saw the 1970s.  In hundreds of communities around the country, programs designed to give poor citizens the ability to claim a fair portion of their local economic base failed.  Those programs had grown to include efforts that encouraged disenfranchised people to vote, to participate in their municipal governments, to speak out against the war, and to demand equal social services.  Eventually, as in Pike County, these programs became casualties, as business and political leaders mounted fierce opposition directed at the elements attempting to shift control of the local wealth and power base.  National politicians were unable to ignore or counter the influence wielded by local officials.  As support at the federal level diminished, and with President Johnson’s attention consumed by Vietnam, the national War on Poverty was legislatively dismantled until it eventually faded into an obscure obsolescence.  To date, it has not been resurrected.  



 Where are they now …

            After leaving Pike County for good in 1968, the McSurelys moved several times, eventually settling in Washington D.C. in the early 1970s.  Margaret became a nurse and Al worked with the postal service and as a teacher.  They spent over 15 years in criminal and civil courts in cases involving their time in Pike County - both as plaintiffs and defendants.  In 1983, finally cleared of all charges, they sought and won a $1.6 million civil suit in federal court against Senator John McClellen, Thomas Ratliff, and Senate investigator, John Brick.  On a personal note the couple divorced in 1979.

            Margaret later received a Masters degree, settled in Wilmington, NC, and worked developing local ESL programs.  She continues to live there and is active in the “movement.” [76]  Al went to law school and in 1984 established a private civil rights practice in Chapel Hill, NC.  In 2005, for his years of social service, he received the NAACP’s William Robert Ming Advocacy Award, the highest honor the national group gives an attorney.  Thomas Ratliff lost his 1968 bid to become Kentucky’s Lt. Governor.  He eventually retired from the coal business, from his private law practice, and from public office.  He still resides in Pike County.          

            In 1969, Al McSurely told the Louisville Courier Journal he was proud of his role as the “lightning rod” who stood up and got things going.  He emphasized his position that it is the organizer’s job to get people together so they can “take on the system.” [77]  Still defiant in 1982, Thomas Ratliff “repeated his belief that [the federal employees] were revolutionaries trying to incite the poor people with whom they worked to overthrow the government.” [78]  The ideological struggle continues to exist.




AV or AVs                                          Appalachian Volunteers

CAA or CAAs                                     Community Action Agencies

CAP or CAPs                                      Community Action Programs

EOA                                                    Economic Opportunity Act

KUAC                                                 Kentucky Un-American Activities Committee

NICOA                                               National Independent Coal Owners Association

OEO                                                    Office of Economic Opportunity

SCEF                                                   Southern Conference educational Fund

SNCC                                                 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

VISTA                                                 Volunteers In Service To America



[1] Alan McSurely, “Letter from Pikeville Jail,” August 15, 1967 [McSurely private collection].

[2] Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States  (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 170.

[3] Harrington, 171.

[4] David Zarefsky, President Johnson’s War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History  (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1986), 22.

[5] Alan McSurely, oral interview taped by author, August 21, 2005.

[6] G. David Garson, “Economic Opportunity Act of 1964,” [Page on website].

[7] Daniel P. Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (New York: Free Press, 1969), 90.


[8] Alan McSurely, oral interview taped by author, September 10, 2005.

[9] Allen J. Matusow, The Unraveling of America: a History of Liberalism in the 1960s  1st edition, (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 244. 

[10] Robert A. Levine, The Poor Ye Need Not Have With You (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1970), 67.

[11] Gareth Davies, From Opportunity to Entitlement: the Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), 162.

[12] Davies, 196.

[13] Matusow, 251.

[14] McSurely interview, August, 2005.

[15] Zarefsky, 131.

[16] McSurely interview, September, 2005.

[17] Paul Good, “Kentucky’s Coal Beds of Sedition,” The Nation, September 4, 1967, 168. 

[18] Alan and Margaret McSurely, “What We’re Doing in Kentucky,” The Southern Patriot, November, 1967.

[19] Alan and Margaret McSurely, “The Billion Dollar Coal Fields: A Statement by Al & Margaret McSurely,

January 14, 1967, Pikeville, Kentucky,” [Personal memo.]

[20] McSurely interview, August, 2005.

[21] McSurely interview, August, 2005.

[22] Charles Hamilton & Stokely Carmichael. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Random House, 1967), 61.

[23] McSurely interview, August, 2005.

[24] Hamilton & Carmichael, 37.

[25] McSurely interview, August, 2005.

[26] McSurely interview, September, 2005.

[27] Harrington, 179.

[28] Howard Zinn, SNCC, The New Abolitionists  (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), 126.

[29] McSurely interview, September, 2005.

[30] Louise Lander, ed., War On Poverty (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1967), 58.

[31] McSurely interview, September, 2005.

[32] McSurely interview, September, 2005.

[33] “Bradens, Three Others Indicted,” Nashville Banner, September 12, 1967, afternoon edition.

[34] McSurely interview, September, 2005.

[35] “Grand Jury Will Review Sedition Case,” Pike County News, August 24, 1967.

[36] McSurely interview, September, 2005.


[37] Suzanne Crowell, “A Victory in the War Against Strip Mining,” The Southern Patriot, August, 1967.

[38] Crowell, “Strip Mining,” 4.

[39] “Ray Supporters Will Continue Backing of Him,” Pike County News, July 27, 1967.

[40] Crowell, “Strip Mining,” 4.

[41] Gene Mason, “The Subversive Poor,” The Nation, December 30, 1968, 722.

[42] SCEF Memo (Louisville: c. 1969).

[43] Mason, 722.

[44] McSurely interview, September, 2005.

[45] Bruce Jackson, “In the Valley of the Shadows: Kentucky,” How We Lost the War on Poverty, eds. Phyllis and Marc Pilisuk (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, distributed by Dutton, 1973), 94.  

[46] Good, 168.

[47] Crowell, “Strip Mining,” 4.

[48] Good, 168.

[49] “Three Arrested On Sedition Charges After Pike Raids,” Pike County News, August 17, 1967.

[50] McSurely interview, September, 2005.

[51] Good, 166.

[52] Good, 166.

[53] McSurely interview, September, 2005.

[54] Jackson, 93.

[55] “Bradens, Three Others Indicted,” Nashville Banner, September 12, 1967, afternoon edition.

[56] Jackson, 94.

[57] “Five Are Charged With Sedition By Pike County Jury,” Pike County News, September 14, 1967.

[58] Zinn, 270.

[59] McSurely, “Pikeville Jail”

[60] McSurely interview, September, 2005.

[61] Mason, 722.

[62] Mason, 722.

[63] “Sedition Law Section Ruled As Invalid,” Pike County News, September 21, 1967.

[64] SCEF memo, c. 1969.

[65] Mason, 722.

[66] “Mulloy, Pratt Are Convicted In Draft Case,” Pike County News, April 11, 1968.

[67] Mason, 723.

[68] Jackson, 100.

[69] Mason, 724.

[70] Susan Crowell, “Mountain Organizers’ Home is Dynamited,” The Southern Patriot, January, 1969.

[71] SCEF memo, c. 1969.

[72] Mason, 724.

[73] “Three Poverty Workers Charge Violation Of Their Civil Rights,” Pike County News, August 31, 1967.  

[74] Crowell, “Mountain Organizers’ Home,” 1.

[75] Homer Bigart, “Anti-poverty Programs Imperiled in Appalachia,” The New York Times, June 15, 1971.

[76] McSurely interview, September, 2005.

[77] Ward Sinclair, “Anger, Bitterness in the Mountains,” Louisville Courier-Journal, February 25, 1969.

[78] Mike King, “Ex-Pike Official Says No Guns Found in 1967 Raid,” Louisville Courier-Journal,

 December 17, 1982.





Primary Sources



Bigart, Homer.  “Antipoverty Programs Imperiled in Appalachia.” New York Times,

      June 15, 1971.


Crowell, Suzanne. “A Victory in the War against Strip Mining.”  The Southern Patriot,   

August, 1967.


Crowell, Suzanne. “Mountain Organizers’ Home is Dynamited.” The Southern Patriot,

           January, 1969.


Good, Paul. “Kentucky’s Coal Beds of Sedition.” The Nation, September 4, 1967, 166-169.


Louisville Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY,  February, 1969 – December, 1982.


Mason, Gene. “The ‘Subversive’ Poor.” The Nation, December 30, 1968, 721-724.


McSurley, Alan, “Letter From Pikeville Jail.” August 15, 1967. Copy printed by SCEF.

[This letter was penned in jail by McSurely after his Pike County sedition arrest.]


McSurely, Alan, oral taped interview by author, August 21, 2005.

[This is the first of two interviews I conducted and taped with McSurely.] 


McSurely, Alan, oral interview taped by author, September 10, 2005.

            [This is the second of two interviews I conducted and taped with McSurely.]


McSurely, Alan and Margaret McSurely. “What We’re Doing in Kentucky.” The Southern

           Patriot, November, 1967.


McSurely, Alan and Margaret McSurely. “The Billion Dollar Coal Fields: A Statement by Al &

           Margaret McSurely, January 14, 1969, Pikeville, KY”.

            [This is an informational memo.]


“Bradens, Three Others Indicted,” Nashville Banner, September 12, 1967, afternoon edition.


Pike County News, Pikeville, KY, July, 1967 – April, 1968.


Southern Conference educational Fund, Information Memo. Louisville, KY, ca. 1969.

[This SCEF memo provides an annotated timeline of the events beginning with the McSurelys’ arrival in Pike County up to the bombing of their home 21 months later.]



Secondary Sources



Davies, Gareth.  From Opportunity to Entitlement: the Transformation and Decline of Great

      Society Liberalism.  Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.


Garson, G. David. “Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.” (accessed August 19, 2005)


Hamilton, Charles and Stokely Carmichael.  Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America.

      New York: Random House, 1967.


Harrington, Michael.  The Other America: Poverty in the United States.  New York: Macmillan,     



Jackson, Bruce. “In the Valley of the Shadows: Kentucky.” In How We Lost the War on Poverty.

      Marc Pilisuk and Phyllis Pilisuk, eds. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1973.


Lander, Louise. ed. War On Poverty. New York: Facts on File, 1967.


Levine, Robert A. The Poor Ye Need Not Have With You: Lessons From the War on Poverty.

      Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1970.


Matusow, Allen J. The Unraveling of America: a History of Liberalism in the 1960s. 1st edition.

      New York: Harper & Row, 1984.


Moynihan, Daniel P.  Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on

      Poverty.  New York: Free Press, 1969.      


Zarefsky, David.  President Johnson’s War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History. Tuscaloosa, AL:      

      University of Alabama Press, 1986.


Zinn, Howard.  SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965.