Harry Caudill: A Man of Courage

By Patrick Reed | 3/23/17 8:45 AM

One of the most important Kentuckians of the 20th century, Harry Caudill brought the story of Appalachia to national attention when his book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” was released in 1963. The nonfiction account of Eastern Kentucky’s coal region, part history and part polemic, eloquently recounted the exploitation of Appalachia’s land and its people by business and government interests, and made Caudill a national spokesperson for his homeland.

Harry Caudill spent his life advocating for Eastern Kentucky, with the aim of helping the powerless as well as securing the region’s unmatched natural resources for future generations. His work led to lasting government reforms for Appalachia, and his legacy remains a touchstone for activists today.

The film Harry Caudill: A Man of Courage, produced by Dave Harl and written and narrated by Jerry Deaton, examines Caudill’s life, his writing, and his impact on Eastern Kentucky. It features archival footage of Caudill as well as interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and fellow activists, including a rare interview with his wife, Anne Frye Caudill.

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During the mid-1940s, as World War II ended, the coal industry in Kentucky was at its peak in terms of annual production (topping out at over 70 million tons per year) and employment (more than 70,000 jobs). Those times did not last for long however, as innovations in mining technology led to a dip in coal jobs by the 1950s. In addition, coal companies began to deplete the rich seams of coal deep in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, and, using new equipment, they turned their attention to surface mining (also known as strip mining or in some cases mountaintop removal) in order to secure coal that had previously been unreachable.

As surface mining and mountaintop removal took hold, and coal jobs became less plentiful, the patterns of exploitation that had long been in place throughout the region – affecting both the land and its people – grew more evident. Even so, it took the writings of one man, persuasive in their insight and outrage, to make the rest of America fully aware of Appalachia’s plight.

The Genesis of “Night”
Harry Caudill was born in Whitesburg, Ky., in the shadow of the Pine Mountain ridge, in 1922. He was a member of a family who were among the first to settle in Whitesburg during the 18th century. After graduating from Whitesburg High School and the University of Kentucky, he served in the Army during World War II and suffered major injuries to his left foot and leg that would affect him for the rest of his life.

Caudill earned a law degree from UK and by the 1950s was serving as a Democratic state representative for Letcher County. He had also married Anne Frye, who was from Cynthiana in central Kentucky. Anne and Harry met at the university.

According to Anne Frye Caudill, her husband decided to write a book about his homeland after giving a graduation speech to an 8th-grade class in Letcher County in 1960.

“It was raining, and the rain was trickling through the roof of that old school, and running down on one of the desks,” she recalls. “And Harry said the children got up to sing, and the class had put up all kinds of paper decorations around for the graduation, and the children got up to sing ‘America the Beautiful,’ and they sang it beautifully. And Harry said that somehow or other, that just made him so sad.”

Caudill soon began walking through the woods near his home, collecting thoughts about Appalachia’s economy and way of life from his own experiences as a lawyer, politician, and native son. Anne Caudill assisted him from the very beginning in collecting and transcribing his thoughts, conducting research, and editing his work. Their partnership would result in 10 books, hundreds of articles, and numerous lectures, interviews, and correspondence.

After organizing his writings into a manuscript, Harry allowed one of his friends, Mary Bingham of Louisville, to read it. Bingham, the wife of Louisville Courier-Journal publisher Barry Bingham Sr., sent the manuscript to Atlantic Little Brown, who published a book.

Inspiring the War on Poverty
“Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area” was released in 1963, and reviewed by Atlantic Monthly magazine. The book soon became widely read and a catalyst in many of the subsequent political developments in Eastern Kentucky over the next half-century, influencing a generation of social and environmental activists as well as journalists and historians.

“Caudill was talking about the environment, he was talking about the land use and land ownership in the region, he was talking about political corruption and the power of corporations at a time when those were issues that many American communities struggled with,” says Ron Eller, PhD., retired professor of history at the University of Kentucky.

“Harry was trying to tell the story, to his own satisfaction, so that the people of the mountains and other places could understand what the dynamics were that had caused the Appalachian region and the coalfields to get in this impoverished situation,” Anne Caudill says. “And that meant telling the story of the coal industry and how it operated. And he had firsthand knowledge of all of that – he didn’t have to read about it, he had firsthand knowledge of it.”

Soon after “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” was published, the New York Times sent Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Homer Bigart to Whitesburg to report on Appalachia. Bigart became friends with the Caudills, and his series on the abject social and economic conditions throughout the region helped to further publicize what Harry Caudill had first brought to light. By 1964, President Lyndon Johnson had declared a “War on Poverty” and increased federal investment in Appalachia for education, jobs, and environmental programs.

Anne Caudill recalls clearly a visit from Democratic Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy to Whitesburg in early 1968. During Kennedy’s stay, Harry Caudill helped to educate the candidate about the region and its history, and advocated for the passage of a federal law banning strip mining as well as for more financial help to Appalachia. According to Anne, Robert Kennedy vowed to return to Eastern Kentucky and use his political influence to secure more aid, but he was assassinated only months later.

Political situations changed by the late 1960s and into the 1970s, and mountaintop removal became even more prevalent throughout Appalachia while labor unrest increased. Harry Caudill, in an archived television interview from this period, explained that he had never been against coal mining and was well aware of its importance to his homeland. But he believed that the relentless surface mining extraction by coal companies in pursuit of corporate profits was wreaking destruction on Appalachia’s natural resources that would affect generations to come.

“Any society, any system of government, any economic order that says we will sacrifice whole ranges of mountains for one product – in this case, coal – is short-sighted and stupid,” he said.

“Who will live on the lands that we conserve or tear up today?” Caudill asked later during the interview. “Who will drink the water that we will pollute or purify today? They are the millions of people who have no voice. Somebody has to speak for the unborn. Our lives on this earth are short. But the effects of our work may very well be everlasting.”

A Complicated Life, and a Lasting Legacy
By the 1970s, Caudill had become disillusioned with the lack of improvement in the region, Anne Caudill says. For a time, he became interested in applying theories of eugenics to help address Appalachia’s problems, and began correspondence with the highly controversial Stanford University physicist William Shockley.

Shockley, who earlier in his career won the Nobel Prize as co-inventor of the transistor, had developed a theory called “dysgenics” that argued for the genetic inferiority of certain racial and geographic populations. According to Anne Caudill, her husband eventually drew away from Shockley’s theories and abandoned a plan to conduct IQ testing in Eastern Kentucky. Still, Harry Caudill’s affiliation with eugenics tarnished his prior contributions in the eyes of many admirers.

Caudill taught Appalachian Studies at UK during the late 1970s and 1980s and continued his writing and activism until his final years, when he developed Parkinson’s disease. Caudill shot himself at his Whitesburg home in 1990, and Anne Caudill honored his wishes by refusing to have him transported from his beloved mountains to Lexington for emergency brain surgery.

Many of the problems in Appalachia that roused Caudill to action back in the mid-20th century are still present. As a comparison between 1960 and 2014 maps showing poverty-stricken counties in Appalachia makes clear, the counties of Eastern Kentucky in particular remain imperiled, as coal mining and coal jobs decline to historic lows and widespread opioid addiction devastates families and communities.

But Caudill’s impact has been profound and lasting. His words and actions contributed to
• the overturning of the unjust Broad Form Deed land ownership laws,
• the government purchase and preservation of several unspoiled woodlands and creeks,
• the improvement of reclamation procedures for land that has been strip-mined,
• and the development of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission, among other initiatives.

Caudill’s legacy was examined in the Lexington Herald-Leader’s 2013 series “Fifty Years of Night,” and his commitment to finding ways to unleash Appalachia’s abundant natural and human resources can be seen in the launch of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) economic development initiative in 2014 that spans 54 counties.

“I think Harry would be pleased to see what’s going on with the SOAR initiative,” says Kentucky Resources Council director Tom Fitzgerald, who was motivated to move to Appalachia after reading “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” as a young man. “It’s bringing in a lot of diverse voices from the region to look at the assets the region has, to look at the opportunities as well as the threats, and how we move forward as a region.”

Harry Caudill was among the inaugural class inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, notes Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, joining luminaries such as Robert Penn Warren and Harriette Arnow as the only nonfiction writer in the group.

“What’s really scary about ‘Night Comes to the Cumberlands’ is that you can read it today, and except for a few facts, it is almost completely accurate to the present day,” Chethik says.

“I doubt that any man of his time had more courage than Harry Caudill,” says Kentucky writer and activist Wendell Berry, Caudill’s longtime friend. “Living in coal country, among reminders of its violent history, his law practice keeping him daily in view of the mining companies, he attacked them unremittingly in state government, in the courts, in books, in magazine articles, in letters and articles in newspapers, in hundreds of speeches and interviews. He never quit, and he never flinched. Until his final illness, Harry never stopped. A man of courage, constant to the end.”