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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Pressure on Kentucky's governor yields progress on wages

West describes an instance when direct pressure on Kentucky's governor yielded a wage hike to equalize Kentucky miners' wages with their northern peers. The plight of miners in Kentucky dramatized the often overlooked troubles faced by poor whites in the South, West believes.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

I went into Lexington once. There was a meeting being held my the wage earners incorporated. And I went in and just, from the floor, made a speech. You know, I'd been over in east Kentucky and I made this speech. I was totally unknown. Allan describes that later in his writing. I got acquainted then and then we began to work on getting a big representation in Kentucky workers alliance. We affiliated, of course, with the national. We had our state convention. Must have been '36. We had it in Frankfurt. We wanted to go see the governor. We wanted work. There was no direct relief then, no welfare. If you were unemployed and had kids they just went hungry unless some of your friends or kinfolks could spare a few scraps. The Kentucky legislature had not done anything about this situation. So we wanted to put a little pressure on the legislature and the governor to do something about it. And we went to the state capital. We took a delegation over to the capital, to the governor's office. And they told us that the governor was not in town, that he was over in Indiana making a speech for Roosevelt. And while we were there parleying a black, some kind of a servant or some worker around that place, came up and whispered to one of our members that "They're giving you the run around. I saw the governor just a few minutes ago over at the mansion." This fellow came up and told me this. I said Now wait a minute, I understand that you are misinforming us, that the governor is not in Indiana but he's right here in this town." "Oh no, no. He's over in Indiana making a speech for Roosevelt." Well, I said "We're going over to the mansion." So we went over there and got all our people up on the lawn and up on the front steps. We knocked on the door. And a black servant came to the door. We said we'd like to see Gov. Chandler, A.B. Chandler. He said, well he was sorry but the governor was out of town. I said "We don't believe this is true. We have been told that he's right here in the mansion." He turned around and went back in and just two or three minutes later he came back and said "The governor is indisposed and can't see you." I said "Now wait a minute. You go tell the governor that there are several hundred Kentuckians out here and we're going to stay right here on this lawn and on this front porch until he gets disposed to see us." In a few minutes here comes the governor and his wife. And man, we had a parley. It was something. She was a tough talking woman. Allan McElfhesh was crippled. He doesn't have any legs now, but he walked on crutches then. I remember she called him a little crippled s.o.b. She was awfully rough. He was sharp as a briar and he asked a lot of questions. She got upset and just really cursed him out. We had this kind of thing. Demonstrations in Louisville, over in Paintsville, over at the WPA offices you know. And out of all of it we finally made some definite gains. We got the Kentucky alliance wages raised equal to the others, you know, above the Mason-Dixon line.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was that a direct result of the pressure that you put on?
DON WEST:
It was a direct result of the pressure we put on and others were putting on. See, there was a workers alliance in Atlanta, Georgia, and in…. It was a pretty big organization. And all over that demand was one of the demands. Pointing out how ridiculous that the same hours, from the same sources, there should be this discrimination. It was partly discrimination against black people, but mainly against poor whites, too. Because there were more poor whites than poor blacks. This is a thing that a lot of people haven't realized. That in the South there always have been more poor whites than poor blacks. Poor white… the onus has been put on him, you know, as being the main culprit.