On April 29, 1954, a cross section of Cincinnati’s municipal bureaucracy—joined by dozens of representatives drawn from local employers, private charities, the religious community, and other corners of the city establishment—gathered at the behest of the mayor’s office to discuss a new problem confronting the city. Or, rather, about 50,000 new problems, give or take. That was roughly the number of Cincinnati residents who had recently migrated to the city from the poorest parts of southern Appalachia. The teachers, police officials, social workers, hiring-department personnel, and others who gathered that day in April had simply run out of ideas about what to do about them.
“Education does not have importance to these people as it does to us,” observed one schoolteacher. “They work for a day or two, and then you see them no more,” grumbled an employer. “Some don’t want modern facilities—if they have a bathtub, they don’t use it,” another meeting attendee claimed. And the charges they leveled only descended from there: “They let their children run wild.” They left their trash in the street and refused to go to the doctor. They misspent what little money they had. They fought and drank with abandon. Some were even rumored to disregard “laws here, such as it being a felony to have sexual relations with a member of their own family or with a girl who consents.”
Marshall Bragdon, the long-serving executive director of an advisory commission to municipal government known as the Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee, had conceived of this daylong “Workshop on the Southern Mountaineer in Cincinnati,” as the gathering was billed. Though he did not like what he heard, he was hardly surprised. A key objective of the workshop, Bragdon would explain, was to “de-stereotype the city man’s and urban agency’s views of and attitudes toward hill folks,” so that they might be better able to assist this growing population of poor rural newcomers to the city. As the litany of complaints poured forth during the workshop’s opening bull session, it was clear that there was much de-stereotyping to do.
The 1954 Cincinnati workshop is a little-known episode in 20th-century American history, yet it would prove to be extraordinarily consequential. In its aftermath, municipal coalitions in a host of midwestern cities that were likewise on the receiving end of an influx of white migrants from the Appalachian South were inspired to take similar action. The workshop introduced new and influential ways of thinking about poverty in the postwar city, which would circulate broadly within liberal policy-making circles and, before long, would even come to shape the development of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.
At the same time, the Cincinnati workshop also revealed a yawning cultural divide separating the middle-class professionals in attendance from the white working-class objects of their reform-minded concern, one that was replicated throughout the region and in Washington, and that would only grow deeper and wider over the decades to come. Although none of the workshop participants was overheard talking about a “basket of deplorables,” the resonance between their descriptions of their new hillbilly neighbors and that more recent political malapropism—which might have cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election—is unmistakable. Then, as now, liberalism found itself confronting a white working-class problem at least partially of its own creation. The sequence of events set in motion by the 1954 workshop offers important insights into our current political impasse—and into the lessons the modern Democratic Party has failed to learn for more than half a century. [Continue reading…]