Inside Appalachia: Finding Love & Tolerance Instead of Racism & Homophobia


Racism and homophobia, love and tolerance–none of these are new to Appalachia. Today, we explore the stories of Appalachians who are moved to spread love, not hate.

In West Virginia, a racist hate crime shakes a community to spread a message of tolerance.

And a Kentucky songwriter’s high lonesome tune is inspired by a gay coal miner’s true story.

This past week our country celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. day with a new discovery- a rarely heard speech Martin Luther King Jr. made in 1965 at the UCLA campus. A recent grad student and his professor found it in a cabinet while gathering tapes of old speeches.

“Not only we’ve come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go before the problem of racial injustice is solved. I don’t think I have to stay on this point too long. We need only turn on our televisions and open our newspapers and look around in our communities. We know that no section of our country can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood.“- Martin Luther King Jr. 1965

Today, we’re looking at how those words King spoke back in 1965 still overshadow the civil rights struggles for many people in Appalachia.

Racist Hate Crime Shakes Hillsboro Community into Action to Spread Message of Tolerance

Forty-year-old Robert Ratliff admitted to using fluorescent, green paint, in the middle of the night to write two words on the side of the town’s only restaurant, the Pretty Penny Cafe. Our producer Roxy Todd reports that to Hillsboro, those two words have had a ripple effect of emotions- from shock, to fear, to pain, and now–to love.

Blair says she’s looking forward to the“Bob Marley Birthday Bash“. It’s an annual event held every year at the Pretty Penny Cafe. This year, on Feb. 7 the restaurant will be serving Jamaican food all day and there will be live music. Click here for more information about what Hillsboro is doing to promote tolerance and diversity.

Haunting Banjo Tune Inspired by Coal Miner’s Struggle

Songwriter Sam Gleaves was inspired by the story of Sam Williams, a former coal miner who was harassed at work for being gay. 


Songwriter Sam Gleaves. Photo by Susi Lawson.

Sam Gleaves is a musician who grew up playing old time mountain music in Southwestern Virginia. His songs have a high lonesome, old-time sound. Their roots are deep in Appalachia, and the stories they tell explore some bitter truths about how hard it can be to be different here. 

Sam Williams is 32 years old, tall and muscular, with hands that are chiseled from the seven years they’ve spent cutting coal from these hills. But he’s not a coal miner anymore. He quit Massey energy in 2010 after working as a miner for seven years. I spent an evening at their home. At their kitchen table, I ate a nectarine while Burley Williams cooked burritos. Sam Williams talked about what happened when his coworkers found out he was gay.

“Not that I ever even told them that I was gay. They just watch, follow, see me come out of a bar, automatically stereotype me. I faced a lot of things in the mines. I’ve been told that they hope all faggots die. There’s a fine line between someone saying that they’re joking and somebody looking you in the eye and saying it and knowing that that’s what they meant. But when it’s your supervisors it’s a whole different ball game.”

He and Burley have lived together since 2009. The first years they were dating, Sam Williams was dealing with the worst of the harassment and threats from his co-workers. Burley says there were nights when he feared for Sam’s life.

“And they messed with his vehicle, like scratched ‘Quit Fag’,” says Burley Williams. Sam’s co-workers “took the wheel weights off his tires. It was nerve-wracking because when he didn’t come home, I had to go out drive to the mines and go search for him. I’m thinking someone’s shot him on the side of the road.”

Sam Williams’ co-workers even came to their house late at night to bang on their door. To protect himself and Sam, Burley bought his very first gun. He also got a concealed weapon permit, in case they were ever confronted when they went out in public.

“You always know that there’s hate out there. There’s individually people that never will be accepting of gay individuals. So you do have to take precautions to protect yourself and your family and your loved ones,” said Burley Williams.

Our story on Sam Gleaves and Sam Williams was reported by Roxy Todd, in collaboration with a new podcast WVPB is working on called Us & Them. Us & Them explores how Americans are divided along cultural fault lines. Listen for new episodes this spring.


Credit Fairness West Virginia
Sam Williams (formerly Sam Hall). Photo by Fairness, West Virginia

Historic Civil Rights Training Center in Eastern Tennessee 

Based in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, a place known as The Highlander Center has been a kind of melting pot of ideas. For over eighty years, people have come to Highlander to learn to promote social justice and racial tolerance. It’s probably best known for its role in the civil rights era, when such movement icons as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks passed through its doors.

Back in 2007, the Highlander Center was celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary. NPR’s Audie Cornish was there, and she recorded this story about the Highlander Center’s future, present and past.

Since that story first aired back in 2007, the Highlander Center has launched a new program called the Appalachian Transition Fellowship. The Fellowship connects emerging young leaders in Appalachia with host communities. Together, they work on projects that can support a sustainable economic transition in Appalachia. Thirteen fellows are currently working in WV, KY, TN, NC, OH, and VA. The Highlander Center is currently accepting applications for host communities and fellows for next year.

Investigation into West Virginia’s High Rate of Youth Incarceration Juvenile Justice System

One question we’ve been hearing in the national news lately is whether different groups of people can sometimes receive different treatment by our justice system. And it’s not just a matter of race.

Some children in rural areas, especially in West Virginia, might be at a disadvantage in our country. While the US has cut its juvenile incarceration rate by half, West Virginia’s rate is 42 percent higher than the rest of the country. The Mountain State has also seen the largest increase in youth incarceration since 2001.

Dana Goldstein wanted to find out why. She’s the author of “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” and a staff writer forThe Marshall Project, where she covers the school-to-prison pipeline. Her latest investigation, “No Country for Young Men,” tells the story of Junior Smith, a young man from Philippi, West Virginia, who got caught up in the juvenile detention system at the age of 17.

John Hockenberry, of PRI’s The Takeaway, caught up with Dana Goldstein last October to talk about her investigation into West Virginia’s juvenile justice system

Since this report first aired last October, West Virginia’s intergovernmental task force has been exploring ways to change these statistics within the state’s juvenile justice system. Last year, the task force released a report, which includes 20 recommendations on how to reduce the state’s incarcerated youth population. The report focuses heavily on preventative measures to deal with status offenders, or juveniles who commit offenses that would not be considered crimes for an adult.

Governor Tomblin is expected to introduce a state bill encompassing those recommendations sometime next week.

Story of a Small, Appalachian Town Voted to Welcome Diversity Vicco, KY

In January 2013, Vicco KY became the smallest town in America to pass a LGBT anti-discrimination law. Inspired by the story, one of the co-creators of the show Will and Grace, Max Mutchnick, heard about Vicco’s new ordinance and was inspired to donate a playground to the city. As that playground was being built, a team of producers from The Hollywood Reporter traveled to Vicco to make a short film. They were there when the new playground broke ground. They talked with residents to talk about the city’s decision to make it illegal to discriminate against the gay community in their city limits.

We checked in with Vicco mayor Johnny Cummings this week to find out how the town has been doing since it first passed its anti-discrimination ordinance back in 2013. Cummings said there are a couple of new smaller businesses that have opened in town, and there is talk of a possible new legal “moonshine” distillery that could come to Vicco. Realtors have also seen an increase in the number of people who are interested in moving to Vicco.

Seven cities in Kentucky now have LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances like Vicco’s. The town of Berea, KY voted against this type of ordinance last fall.

Supreme Court Announces that it Will Settle the Issue of Same-Sex Marriage Bans

Civil Rights go beyond issues of racial injustice; LGBT discrimination continues for many people in Appalachia. But these last two years have certainly seen some sweeping changes for laws allowing same sex couples to marry. In Appalachia, gay marriage has become legal in West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania by court decisions. States that have banned gay marriage by law include KY and TN.

And last week the U.S. Supreme Court announced that by this June it would review lower court rulings on gay marriage. That means the Supreme court will decide whether the state bans on gay marriage are constitutional.

LGBT advocacy groups in Kentucky have been asking the Supreme Court to look at this issue.

And WUKY’s Josh James reports that supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage in Kentucky are reacting to the news that the Supreme Court now appears poised to settle the issue.

Many advocates of bans against same sex marriage quote religious opposition to homosexuality. But a Kentucky Baptist pastor has said that he supports gay marriage. Last November, the Kentucky Baptist Convention voted to sever ties with a Louisville church after its decision to support homosexuality. Crescent Hill Baptist Church announced last year that sexual orientation and gender identity would not be a factor in hiring, ordinations, or performing marriage services. Executive Director Paul Chitwood says the vote to disassociate from the church was difficult but necessary.

Crescent Hill Pastor Jason Crosby maintains the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn



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