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Constance Alexander: In-depth study reveals past glories and chronicles WKY’s declining political clout

In 1988, when I moved to Kentucky and registered to vote, the clerk kind of chuckled when I expressed my registration preference as “Independent.” Puzzled by her reaction but – heeding a bumper sticked I’d recently spotted that said, “We don’t care how you did it up north” – I did not inquire about her reaction.

Not long after, a new western Kentucky friend set me straight. “If you want a say in who gets elected,” he said, “you have to register Democrat and vote in the primaries.”

Since that orientation to my new Kentucky home thirty-four years ago, I have seen a dramatic shift away from almost-anything-Democrat politics. Today, Republican über alles now extends to the degree that a number of political contests have no Democrat in the running. In other words, “blue dogs” and donkeys need not apply.

The cover design of George Humphreys’ meticulously researched new book, “The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock,” is a captivating depiction of western Kentucky’s isolation from the rest of the state. Against a red and blue background, the white silhouette of Kentucky is almost split in two by a red fissure. The connection between the western part and the rest hangs by a thread.

In the preface, Dr. Humphreys explains that the region’s history is underappreciated because its historiography draws heavily “on events and people in central and eastern Kentucky.”

He amplifies the point with a geographical, economic, and historical overview that provides context for various, and sometimes conflicting, definitions of the region.

Like the story of the blind man and the elephant, Western Kentucky is perceived in many ways. To some, fidelity to the Confederacy defines the region; to others, it is the production of dark-fired tobacco, the Jackson Purchase, the region’s coal fields.

According to Penny Miller’s analysis of Kentucky politics, the region is united by a commitment to the “virtue of the rural life.”

The state motto, “United we stand, divided we fall,” is a matter of opinion and, according to Humphreys, most scholars agree “that more precision is needed in defining the commonwealth’s regions.”

From that framework of ambiguity, readers of “The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” are guided through the phases of the region’s demise chronologically, starting with the New Deal. That era began when rural electrification was in its infancy and indoor plumbing was rare on the farm. Dirt roads and lack of bridges made travel difficult. With the economy spiraling as the Depression took hold, banks failed, people were out of work.

Madisonville’s Ruby Laffoon was elected governor, bolstered by support from west Kentucky newspapers and a rousing endorsement from Alben Barkley in his hometown, Paducah. Both men jumped on the bandwagon for Franklin D. Roosevelt, with Barkley delivering a speech at the Democratic convention in Chicago asking his cohorts to “remove from the body of our nation the dead flesh and decayed bones resulting from twelve years of Republican quackery.”

“The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” is rich with informational nuggets and memorable quotes like Barkley’s. In the chapter “From the Ohio River Great Flood to the Atomic Age,” readers learn that FDR’s inauguration occurred as the massive 1937 flood was ravaging the Ohio River Valley. With snow and ice hampering rescue efforts, an estimated 30,000 west Kentuckians evacuated to nearby cities.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Civilian authority in Paducah broke down, according to a February 1 editorial in the Paducah Sun-Democrat: “The second industrial city of Kentucky is no longer a city, but a complicated arrangement of little islands formed of homes, stores, churches and office buildings protruding pitifully along the edge of endless miles of turbid brown water.”

A section of historic photographs in the center of the book allows readers to put faces and names together. One eye-catching example features former governor Wendell Ford from Owensboro with Governor Happy Chandler. Grinning delightedly, the two hold a fake newspaper with the headline, “Democrats Nominate ‘Happy’ for President,” a dream that never came true.

White male faces predominate except for an image of D.H. Anderson, president of West Kentucky Industrial College, which provided job training for Blacks in the Paducah area during the Jim Crow era.

“Happy Days and the Last Hurrah of State Democratic Party Factionalism,” analyzes Kentucky at midcentury. A study entitled “Program of Action for Kentucky,” which had strong input from western Kentucky, declared that, by the early 1940s, Kentucky “had come upon sorry days.”

Despite advances in education, conserving natural resources, and improved infrastructure, the 1950 census reflected stagnant population numbers “with only Calloway, Christian, Daviess, Graves, Henderson, Hopkins, Logan, McCracken, Simpson, and Warren Counties reporting gains since 1940.”

“The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” cites a 1998 article by journalist Al Smith, reflecting on western Kentucky’s place in Kentucky life and politics. Smith explained that, despite the region’s feelings about being overlooked and isolated, western Kentucky had “delivered large Democratic majorities, for which it was richly rewarded with governorships and more than its share of state legislative leaders and U.S. senators. With those positions also came public roads, state parks, and state institutions.”

As the 21st century geared up, the region’s influence as the Gibraltar of Kentucky Democracy stalled. The last page of “The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” provides food for thought regarding the region’s past and future. With the definitive switch to the Republican Party, one might reflect on the statement that “western Ky has yet to reap the harvest for this from Frankfort or Washington.”

Moreover, Humphreys points out, there are currently no political leaders comparable to Democrats Alben Barkley, Happy Chandler, Earle Clements, Ned Breathitt, or Wendell Ford.

“The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” ends with speculation regarding the leadership void that needs to be filled “so that western Kentucky can move forward in addressing the very serious challenges of revitalizing the economy…and creating opportunities to discourage the further emigration of young people.”

Published by University Press of Kentucky, “The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” should be in every library across the commonwealth, in the hands of educators engaged in exploring the history of the commonwealth, and on the reading lists of anyone interesting in understanding how a once solid Democratic voting bloc evolved into a conservative stronghold.

A presentation about “The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock” by George Humphreys

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One Comment

  1. Lee Durham Stone says:

    Great review. Thanks.

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