CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Recently, while walking in the Georgetown area of Washington, I had an impromptu conversation with Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist and television personality Kathleen Parker. It was fascinating to meet her because she is considered to be an open-minded conservative and I find her center/right of center punditry and articles generally balanced, even when I disagree with her opinion. Importantly, she always seems kind and caring, which is so needed in today's political interactions.
After our short conversation, I spent the next evening reviewing some of her older articles. I was particularly interested in one published in Townhall.com "To Appalachia With ... Respect." In this article, written before President Obama's first term, she suggested that candidate Obama had more in common with the people of Appalachia than perhaps he or they realized.
It has been disconcerting to witness our region's failure to cultivate this natural connection. During the second term of the Obama administration this potential alliance should be explored and, perhaps, this is a way for West Virginia to reconnect with our traditional civil rights legacy that has recently been hijacked by the extreme right.
Parker extensively quoted Ron Rash, Appalachian poet, author and the Parris distinguished professor in Appalachian cultural studies at Western Carolina University whom she interestingly describes as a "purebred Appalachian." Rash stated that "African-Americans built this country and got nothing back" and then went on to add, "So did Appalachians."
West Virginia is the only state that is completely enclosed in Appalachia, and its civil rights history is often lost through modern political alignment. Rash explained to Ms. Parker that "these often-impoverished descendants of the Scots-Irish weren't slaveholders, and most mountain communities were pro-Union during the Civil War." In a sense, he says, "blacks and Appalachians are natural allies."
It is disconcerting to witness the vitriol displayed from much of Appalachia for the Obama administration policies designed to assist those most in need. For instance, the Affordable Care Act, dubbed "Obamacare," expands affordable Medicaid coverage for millions of low-income Americans. In an area that has documented health challenges and limited access to health care, one would think that this initiative would be applauded. Instead, many disadvantaged white Appalachians side with entrenched powers against their own economic interests.
Entrenched powers have traditionally attempted to keep those who have common economic interest at odds. Race has too often been the catalyst for separation. The positive civil rights history of Appalachia, particularly the underreported and often misunderstood coalfield race relationships, is forgotten in many of our contemporary conversations.
Parker quotes former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb's Wall Street Journal article where he opined: "The greatest realignment in modern politics would take place rather quickly if the right national leader found a way to bring the Scots-Irish and African-Americans to the same table."
In this time of challenging economics, declining access to the middle class and the extreme accumulation of capital at the highest strata of society, we would do well to reexamine how all elements of the poor and working classes can work together for societal uplift. The addition of poor and working class whites to the last election's formidable coalition of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians would establish a powerful voting bloc for societal change.
During this second term, the Obama administration should spend considerable time and political currency in Appalachia. Since our area seems most hostile to the administration's programs, an alignment here would send a powerful message to the rest of the nation. I call on our local political and thought leaders to join in serious conversations with the Obama administration and the public toward a path forward. Together, we can forge a way to bring seemingly disparate interests together. It is time for Appalachia to honor its history and recover the mantle of leadership in the area of civil rights and race relations.
Appalachians in general and West Virginians specifically have an opportunity to lead a discourse that will help to catapult our country to a 21st-century understanding of racial harmony.
Fryson, a lawyer, pastor and Chief Diversity Officer for West Virginia University, is a Gazette contributing columnist.