Live Mic: lessons of 1968’s RFK Appalachia visit still echo today

Mar 16, 2020, 8:02 PM

RFK Robert F. Kennedy visit appalachia...

1968: Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

(Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

SALT  LAKE CITY — Sometimes a walk into the past leads us right back to the present.

In February 1963,  U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy answered the nationwide fitness challenge issued by his brother President John F. Kennedy and walked 50 miles from just outside Washington, D.C., — in temperatures below freezing — all the way to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va.

Decades later, while retracing the Appalachia visit of RFK, Lee Lonsberry met author Matthew Algeo and spent miles walking together.

Algeo joined Lee on his show, Live Mic, to talk about his new book, “All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia.”

RFK and the Appalachia visit

In Feb. 13, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy went to eastern Kentucky to learn about rural poverty, spending two days investigating living conditions there and visiting 20 of  the 30 poorest counties in the nation.

“Kennedy learned that [President Lyndon Johnson’s] War on Poverty was not as successful as people hoped it would be,” Algeo said, “and some of the problems are still with us today.”

Unemployment, economic uncertainty, environmental concerns with strip mining, racial and class divisions can still be found in the Appalachia today, Algeo said.

“Kennedy, when he was done with this trip, was really determined to run for president,” he said. “It was one of the things that made him decide to jump into the race.”

Echoes of the past

“Not a lot has changed with the people there. Democrats still outnumber Republicans on the registration rolls in most of the counties in eastern Kentucky,” he said.

Donald Trump campaigned in the same counties in eastern Kentucky in 2016 and won by 60 to 70 percent, said Algeo.

One of the banners at a stop during the RFK visit to Appalachia region read:

“Don’t Give Us Anymore Promises. We Can’t Eat Your Fancy Promises.” 

“It’s the kind of thing you might see today,” said Algeo.

Discontent yesterday and today

The thread weaving its way from 1968 to today is “the continuing dissatisfaction people have with the government and elected official,” Algeo said.

On March 16, 1968, just a month after that Appalachia visit, RFK entered the presidential race.

Two weeks later, President Johnson said he would not seek re-election.

Early on June 5, hours after he had won the California primary, Robert F. Kennedy was shot in the hotel kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died 24 hours later.

Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry can be heard weekdays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app.

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Live Mic: lessons of 1968’s RFK Appalachia visit still echo today