In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced an unconditional “war on poverty.” On one of his first publicity tours promoting his antipoverty legislation, he traveled to cities and towns in Appalachia, which would become crucial areas for promoting and implementing the legislation. Johnson soon signed the Economic Opportunity Act, a piece of legislation that provided a structure for communities to institute antipoverty programs, from vocational services to early childhood education programs, and encouraged the creation of new initiatives. In 1965, Johnson signed the Appalachian Regional Development Act, making Appalachia the only region targeted by federal antipoverty legislation, through the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission. The Appalachian War on Poverty can be described as a set of policies created by governmental agencies, but also crucial to it was a series of community movements and campaigns, led by working-class people, that responded to antipoverty policies. When the War on Poverty began, the language of policymakers suggested that people living below the poverty line would be served by the programs. But as the antipoverty programs expanded and more local people became involved, they spoke openly and in political terms about poverty as a working-class issue. They drew attention to the politics of class in the region, where elites and absentee landowners became wealthy on the backs of working people. They demanded meaningful participation in shaping the War on Poverty in their communities, and, increasingly, when they used the term “poor people,” they did so as a collective class identity—working people who were poor due to a rigged economy. While many public officials focused on economic development policies, men and women living in the region began organizing around issues ranging from surface mining to labor rights and responding to poor living and working conditions. Taking advantage of federal antipoverty resources and the spirit of change that animated the 1960s, working-class Appalachians would help to shape the antipoverty programs at the local and regional level, creating a movement in the process. They did so as they organized around issues—including the environment, occupational safety, health, and welfare rights—and as they used antipoverty programs as a platform to address the systemic inequalities that plagued many of their communities.
In September 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) held its first convention in Fresno, California, initiating a multiracial movement that would result in the creation of United Farm Workers (UFW) and the first contracts for farm workers in the state of California. Led by Cesar Chavez, the union contributed a number of innovations to the art of social protest, including the most successful consumer boycott in the history of the United States. Chavez welcomed contributions from numerous ethnic and racial groups, men and women, young and old. For a time, the UFW was the realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community—people from different backgrounds coming together to create a socially just world. During the 1970s, Chavez struggled to maintain the momentum created by the boycott as the state of California became more involved in adjudicating labor disputes under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). Although Chavez and the UFW ultimately failed to establish a permanent, national union, their successes and strategies continue to influence movements for farm worker justice today.
“Working-Class Environmentalism in America” traces working Americans’ efforts to protect the environment from antebellum times to the present. Antebellum topics include African American slaves’ environmental ethos; aesthetic nature appreciation by Lowell, Massachusetts “mill girls” working in New England’s first textile factories; and Boston’s 1840s fight for safe drinking water. Late-19th-century topics include working-class support for creating urban parks, workers’ early efforts to confront urban pollution and the “smoke nuisance,” and the exploration of conservationist ideas and policies by New England small farmers and fishermen in the late 1800s. In the early 20th century, working-class youth, including immigrants and African Americans, participated in the youth camping movement and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, while working-class adults and their families, enjoying new automobility and two-day weekends, discovered picnicking, car-camping, and sport hunting and fishing in newly created wilderness preserves. Workers also learned of toxic dangers to workplace safety and health from shocking stories of 1920s New Jersey “radium girls” and tetraethyl lead factory workers, and from 1930s Midwestern miners who went on strike over deadly silicosis. The 1930s United States rediscovered natural resource conservation when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed millions of working-class youth. Lumber workers advocated federal regulation of timber harvesting. Postwar America saw the United Auto Workers (UAW), United Steelworkers (USWA), Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and other labor unions lobbying for wilderness and wildlife preservation, workplace and community health, and fighting air and water pollution, while the United Farmworkers (UFW) fought reckless pesticide use, and dissidents within the United Mine Workers (UMW) sought to ban surface coal mining. Radical organizations explored minority community environmentalism and interracial cooperation on environmental reform. Following post-1970s nationwide conservative retrenchment, working-class activists and communities of color fought toxic wastes and explored environmental justice and environmental racism at places like Love Canal, New York and Warren County, North Carolina and formed the Blue-Green Alliance with environmentalists.