On April 24, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson famously visited with Tom Fletcher, an unemployed coal miner/sawmill laborer, and his family in Inez, Kentucky. President Johnson sat on the front porch ostensibly to talk about the family’s life and struggles to make ends meet in a down local economy. The visit made for a great photo op for the President and just as he began to leave, President Johnson boldly proclaimed, “I have called for a national war on poverty. Our objective is total victory.” The quote and photos from the visit were splashed in newspapers and magazines worldwide.
Unwittingly, Tom Fletcher soon became the poster boy for Appalachian poverty with articles speaking of his lack of education and describing his home as a “shack” and “ramshackle.” The unflattering descriptions of his life and home embarrassed Tom Fletcher greatly. Fletcher wasn’t alone in being offended by the persistent exploitation of poor Appalachians that soon followed. Other journalists began to visit the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky all in search of their own story of the area’s poverty and struggles.
In 1967, Canadian journalist Hugh O’Connor led a crew into the mountains of Eastern Kentucky to film local residents. They were filming a documentary to be called “US” that was to depict life in the United States dating back to the pioneer days. O’Connor’s crew paid a visit to rental homes owned by Hobart Ison in Jeremiah, Kentucky, which is part of Letcher County. O’Connor paid the residents of the rental homes $10 to sign a release form so that they would give permission to film.
Upon hearing of the filming, Hobart Ison was outraged and drove down to find the crew on his property. With a pistol in hand, Ison confronted O’Connor and his crew in the yard of one of the rental properties to demand that they leave. The crew attempted to retrieve their camera equipment when Ison began to discharge his pistol at the cameras and then directed his fire at Hugh O’Connor. O’Connor was struck by a bullet which felled him with a fatal wound. According to coverage of the event in The New Yorker, Hugh O’Connor’s last words were, “Why’d you have to do that?” just before he expired.
The shocking news ripped through Letcher County with loyalties divided between those who were outraged by the shooting and others who were sympathetic to Hobart Ison. Many residents even lined up offering to pitch in to help pay Ison’s bond. The murder trial had to be moved to nearby Harlan County due to the difficulty in finding a suitably impartial jury.
The first trial ended in a hung jury with 11 jurors in favor of conviction being blocked by one dissenting juror in favor of acquittal. Another trial was scheduled but, just before it was to commence, Ison pleaded guilty to a charge of voluntary manslaughter on the advice of his attorney. A deal had been arranged for a sentence of 10 years in prison with parole after serving one year. Ison served his time then lived out the rest of his life without ever expressing regret for murdering Hugh O’Connor. – Shane
*Appalshop produced an excellent documentary about this story entitled, ‘Stranger With a Camera” directed by Elizabeth Barret.*
*TAP originated in part to offset media coverage that all too often portrays Appalachians in an incomplete, erroneous, and, usually, unflattering manner. With that being said, it would be the height of hypocrisy to claim that I don’t understand the outrage and fatigue caused by these inaccurate depictions. In most cases I think the intentions are good – people want to show that there are many folks in need in Appalachia. I think we can all agree with that ambition but it is tiresome to have that be the only story that ever gets told. There are plenty of folks who live here that are quite happy with our lives, but that story isn’t newsworthy and doesn’t reconcile with their preconceived expectations so it doesn’t air or get printed.
I travel all over Appalachia with a camera and have experienced nothing but welcome receptions by gracious hosts. I am not naive enough to think that being Appalachian myself doesn’t have a lot to do with it; however, treating people with respect, courtesy and honesty has more to do with it. We Appalachians have a great antenna for spotting a phony. We may not always call you out to your face but, trust me, we know.
The murder of Hugh O’Connor was an egregious injustice that set our image back and further justified the stereotype of being prone to violence. Having said that, the coverage of Appalachians has changed very little over the years so there is still a lot of pent up resentment at the consistent misrepresentation of our people and culture.*
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