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Friday, June 29, 2012

Appalachian Patriotism And The Role Models Who Explained It To Me

A few recent events have led me to speculate and ruminate on what patriotism means and the role models in my life who taught me about patriotism. 

Firstly, a Facebook exchange with a former teacher prompted me to think about patriotism, politics, and the importance of our right to free speech and its free exercise. This woman taught me in two math courses in high school and we were not particularly close in that time period.  But recently, we have connected on Facebook, as millions do, and have not just re-established our relationship but it seems to be growing.  We share some basic ideas politically, morally, and ethically about, good, evil, right, wrong, and the responsibility of those who have more to protect and care for those who have less. I express my political opinions freely and often.  My former teacher has often, so she says, bitten her tongue in the company of others rather than give herself free expression. I said to her that, in my opinion, anytime we allow those who are misinformed or just plain wrong to go without benefit of further information and even confrontation we do both themselves and ourselves a disservice. She responded that I have begun to help her develop the courage to speak more freely and more often.

 Secondly, the recent decision of the US Supreme Court to uphold the Affordable Health Care Act showed me how important a single individual can be and how monumental a change can be brought about when that individual does the right thing.  Chief Justice John Roberts showed the judgment and courage to step outside the persona and mold, or, more appropriately, cage which many of his alleged supporters have tried to build around him in order to use him to achieve their own objectives.  And he proved that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he has read voluminously and understood well the US  Constitution and prior case law.  Chief Justice Roberts stepped out on his own, in the right, and became the key vote and opinion writer of the most important decision the Supreme Court has handed down since the errant and egregious decision in the Gore v. Bush case of 2000.  With a single vote, Roberts proved that he is truly an independent and intelligent jurist.  He also established a new and expandable legacy for himself in the mold of prior Chief Justice Earl Warren and retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.  All three have shown the courage to take the right action despite any preconcieved notions.  Chief Justice Roberts has opened the door through which he can pass to become a  historically great Chief Justice.

Thirdly, the 4th of July is approaching. It is nearly Independence Day and deserves some discussion.  Also, my earlier post on "Patriotism An Appalachian Value" has consistently been one of my most frequently viewed and best received writings on this blog. It can't hurt to discuss patriotism and the men who showed me what patriotism should be in Appalachia.  I was very lucky to have three men in my life, all now deceased, who showed me from the time I born until I was past forty exactly what patritotism is and how it should be utilized to protect the rights of all. 

The first of these men was my father, Ballard Hicks, who lived from 1887 until 1971.  He was past 60 when I was born but managed to live until I was 20.  He was born to Charles and Elizabeth Carpenter Hicks in the Head of Bruce at Mousie Kentucky at a time when Grover Cleveland was President and died during the term of Richard M. Nixon.  He was a devout Democrat all his life.  He had lost his life savings in the Bank of Wayland at Wayland, Kentucky when the stock market crashed at the start of the Great Depression.  He rebuilt his life and died after nearly 30 years of self employment as the owner of a country grocery store. He and many of his friends never voted a Republican vote in their lives and they were correct in doing so.  He had a third grade education but was one of the most intelligent men I have ever known.  He read regularly and I knew from the time I was old enough to understand that I would go to college.  He taught me about the importance of free speech, separation of church and state, union labor, the minimum wage, and the programs of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Great Society.  He taught me to think on my own, form my own opinions, express them freely, and defend them vigorously.

Ballard Hicks, 1887-1971


Ballard Hicks was a shining example of a man with little formal education who had studied enough on his own to be well versed in many of the most important topics of his time.  He bought and urged me to read everything from "Boy's Life" to "The American Farm Journal" and "The Courier Journal".  But the most important thing he taught me was to think on my own.  It is interesting that I have a 97 year old half sister who is still outspoken, intelligent, and opinionated.  I see several of the same qualities in her of which I am most proud in myself.  I am convinced that it is no accident that we both grew up in the same man's home. 
Shortly after my father's death, I became exposed to Appalachian writer, professor, preacher, union organizer, and community activist Don West.  I have mentioned Don in several of my blog postings but have still never written the long Appalachian Hero piece which I intend to do about him.  Don was born in a poor Appalachian working family in North Georgia and lived from 1906 to 1992.  I knew him from 1973 to his death.  While my father taught me to think about democracy and patriotism in many important ways and set me on the right path, Don West expanded my vision of democracy and patriotism from two different perspectives.  He was both a member of the working class as was my father and also a member of the educated Appalachian social activists who have been my colleagues and friends since a few years before I met Don.  Don had worked in mills, mines, cotton fields, and log woods.  He worked his way through both Lincoln Memorial University and Vanderbilt University Graduate School.   He never ceased to be a member of the working class and loved physical labor better than any other human I have ever known while maintaining his status as a genuine intellectual. 
Don was absolutely unflinching in his adherence to the values and beliefs which his experiences had taught him were right.  He believed that no workers rights were ever less important than the corporation by which that worker might be employed.  He also taught me that core beliefs should always be spoken and defended; and,  if necessary, those beliefs were worth suffering for.  Don West was beaten and left for dead while organizing miners in Harlan County Kentucky.  He was fired by Oglethorpe University for expressing his beliefs.  He had two homes burned because of objections to his beliefs.  He was hauled in front of the House Unamerican Activities Committee of Senator Joe McCarthy and flatly refused to bend about his beliefs.  
I learned many things from Don West.  But the most important of those include the need for trade unionism for all workers, the rights of all people to a decent standard of life (including affordable health care), the importance of the separation of church and state, and the inviolable right to free speech. 
Don West, 1906-1992
  I was very lucky to have known Don West for nearly 20 years.  I have been affected by his example in a multitude of ways.  His collected writings are published under the name "No Lonesome Road" and an excellent biography called "A Hard Journey: The Life of Don West" was written by James Lorence. 
I met the third person who taught me about democracy and patriotism about 1984 in Chapmanville, West Virginia.  He was James G. "Jim" Ferrell and was the closest and best friend I ever had.  Jim was the son of devoutly Irish Catholic parents and was raised to believe many of the same concepts as Don West and Ballard Hicks.  I have written a longer Appalachian Hero posting about Jim on this blog.  He was a major influence on my life.  He left WVU law school to join the Army during WWII and never returned to study law as he had dreamed he would.  That is a shame because he would have made a fine attorney.  Instead, he ran a country store, worked in a food stamp office, and acted a wage bond enforcement officer for the West Virginia Department of Labor.  He believed firmly in the duty of the well off to assist the needy and practiced it to the point that he sometimes even gave away more than he kept.  He fought for worker's rights his entire life and was a life long Democrat just as my father had been.  I have to say they were alike in many ways.  Jim Ferrell believed that government should meet the needs of the people, all the people.  He was also outspoken and unflinching in his defense of his convictions.  He was one of the finest human beings I have ever known.  Jim lived from 1924 to 2004. 

All three of these role models lived in roughly the same time period in Appalachia.  My father was the earliest  born of the three and was grown before Don and Jim were born.  But their life times overlapped significantly. It is interesting that they never met and yet each of them influenced me tremendously.  I would have loved to have heard those conversations if they had ever been in the same room.  Individually and collectively they taught me many of the core concepts on which I still base my life.  Democracy and patriotism for them were not about a little person who simply served a large government or country.  It was about a government and country which also was able to adequately serve the needs of every little person who comprised part of that country.  They did not believe in a world in which individuals might be forced to unquestioningly adhere to the rules of government.  They believed that right and good required that all individuals must be free to live life as they wished so long as that did not harm others.  They believed in fair wages, equal rights, equal health care, and equal opportunity for all.  And so do I.  Thank you Daddy, Jim, and Don!  And also, thank you John Roberts!  And Happy Birthday, America!

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