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Exhibition Overview

The Records of the Council of the Southern Mountains, 1970-1989, were given to the Southern Appalachian Archives of Berea College through a resolution of the Council’s Board of Commissioners April 24, 1970, and later by deed of gift on June 11, 1990. The accumulated 218 cubic feet were received in several installments from 1984 to 1995. These records accounted for the nineteen years of Council history from 1970 to 1989. Several boxes of pre-1970s material was presorted out of this collection and will merge into the Council of the Southern Mountains Records,1912-1970, at a later date.

The already processed 1912-1970 collection covers the period when the organization's reform efforts were directed toward encouraging church, education, health, government, and business interests to develop consensus-based strategies for solving regional problems. It documents the Council's creation, early successes and struggles, its 1950s rise to national prominence and wrenching, internal ideological conflicts over how best to wage the War on Poverty during the 1960s.

The combined collections, along with the records of the CSM related Appalachian Volunteers, also at Hutchins Library, provides a unique, comprehensive resource for studying the shifting style, content and direction of social reform efforts in southern Appalachia during much of the twentieth century. This material is also an important resource for the study of the Appalachian identity movement and generally enhance the attractiveness of the already rich vein of Appalachian primary source material in Berea’s Southern Appalachian Archives. The combined collection also augments the Kentuckiana Digital Library’s full text version of the Council of the Southern Mountains’ monthly magazine Mountain Life & Work, for the years 1925-1958.

A Brief History

The history of the Council of the Southern Mountains (CSM) 1912-1989 reflects the shifting style, content and direction of social reform efforts in southern Appalachia during much of the twentieth century. The CSM (originally Conference of Southern Mountain Workers) was formed in 1912 as the result of multi-state, fact-finding travels conducted in 1908-1909 by John C. and Olive Campbell who were sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation. The Campbells identified a pressing need to bring geographically isolated health, education, and church workers together to share ideas, experiences and enthusiasms. An exploratory meeting in Atlanta led to the creation of a formal organization and plans for an annual conference.

The first and subsequent annual conferences brought hundreds of people together and served as forums for discussion of problems and solutions. Through these interchanges the organization developed a vision of the Appalachian region as a whole and in 1925, moved beyond conference sponsorship to advocating a unified "program for the mountains."

Southern Mountain Workers Conference
Southern Mountain Workers Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee. April 6-9, 1926.
Photo: Unknown.
SAA 101, 237-14.
Southern Appalachian Archives

John C. Campbell served as the Council's executive secretary until his death in 1919. Olive Campbell continued in his stead until 1928. During her administration, an office was established in Berea, Kentucky as the result of financial and ideological ties with Berea College. Helen Dingman of Berea's Sociology Department succeeded Olive Campbell, serving as part-time Executive Secretary and editor of the Council's magazine, Mountain Life and Work , until 1942.


Dingman was followed by Alva Taylor and then Glyn Morris during the 1940s, a time of dire financial straits for the Council. Preoccupation with the war and frustration over years of seeing worthy projects going begging led to shrinking membership rolls. Financial support from both Berea College and the Sage Foundation ceased in 1949 and for a time the Berea office was closed. Enough funding was found to reopen in 1951 and Perley F. Ayer of the Berea College Sociology Department became executive secretary.

Ayer’s overarching vision for the Council was that it not be the champion of any one cause or group, but provide a forum where differing or even opposing sides could come together and create positive change. His efforts during an energetic fifteen-year tenure resulted in the Council becoming the largest and most significant social reform organization in Appalachia by the mid-1960s.

Under Ayer’s leadership, the annual conferences increased in size and importance. The budget grew from $4600 in 1952 to $105,000 in 1964. For the first time significant numbers of major utility and energy companies joined the organization. Council-coordinated programs in the areas of children’s dental health, maternal and infant care, and adult education were undertaken in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. In 1959 the first of ten annual workshops on the problems of Appalachian migrants were held for urban areas service professionals. A corollary to this program was the establishment in 1963 of a Chicago office to provide information to migrants about coping with city life and a place to gather for mutual support.

In the 1960s, the Council served as an expert source of information and know-how for those at the federal level working to establish the Appalachian Regional Commission. The War on Poverty funding that followed allowed major increases in Council staff, budget, and programs. However, with federal monies came pressure to alter the Council’s working philosophy. Its traditional consultative / coordinating approach gave way to one of program implementation and its accompanying bureaucratic intricacies.

The Appalachian Volunteers (AVs) was the most precedent-breaking, program conceived by CSM staff. It was based on the concept of inspiring young people from Appalachia to prepare themselves for service to their home region. In 1964 an initial group of students from Kentucky colleges spent vacation time repairing one-room schools, tutoring, and promoting self-help activities among community residents. The project’s early results were impressive enough to win a major funding increase. This made year round programming possible but had the unforeseen result of attracting young white activists from outside the region, several of who were veterans of the civil rights movement in the south.

Internal philosophical differences over the community organizing aspect of the program led to Appalachian Volunteers staff leaving the Council in May of 1966. They incorporated in Bristol, Virginia, as a non-profit organization and were approved to receive the federal funds originally allocated to the Council. Remaining federal funds allowed the Council to continue training community action technicians, providing technical assistance to anti-poverty agencies, promoting establishment of community action programs, and administering on-the-job training and other manpower projects.

Council of the Southern Mountains Conference
Council of the Southern Mountains Conference.
Photo: Warren Brunner.
SAA 101, 237-3.
Southern Appalachian Archives
The 1960s national debate over how best to achieve social change was represented in microcosm among Council staff and membership. Several younger staff rejected the council's non-confrontational, consensus seeking stance. Growing tensions between old and new ideas lead to passionate debates among Council members at the 1969 and 1970 annual conferences. At the 1969 conference, an amendment to the by-laws was passed that within three years, required 51% of the CSM governing board to be drawn from the ranks of the poor. The resulting atmosphere of conflict led to the resignations of many of the Council’s long-time members. The 1970 conference capped the changes of the previous year with the adoption of a resolution that the resources of Appalachia should be placed under democratic, public control. Believing this resolve to constitute a socialistic or even communistic stance, many additional members resigned. Executive Director, Loyal Jones resigned soon after the 1970 conference.

In Jones' place, Warren Wright, Julian Griggs, and Isaac Vanderpool formed a leadership triumvirate. Management by professional staff was replaced by a grassroots, cooperative structure. Membership was restricted to "Appalachian organization(s) working for a democratic and economically secure future for Appalachia and our people." The Council became mainly a crusading organization that focused particularly on helping poor people to organize for the purpose of challenging governmental and industrial establishments, championing the rights of coal miners and textile mill workers, and fighting against strip-mining. Council offices were moved from Berea to Clintwood, Virginia, in 1972 and publication of Mountain Life & Work continued on a monthly basis until the organization disbanded in 1989.

- Harry Rice

Continue to the Online Exhibition and Timeline to know more about how CSM changed in the 1970s and 1980s.

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