I chose the Democratic Party based on my family and my roots. I come from a
long line of Southern Democrats. My great grandparents, Jefferson Nathaniel and
Lillie Jane Cook, lived in these Appalachian mountains
all their lives and eked out what little living they could make as farmers.
They struggled to raise seven children. My grandmother, Nannie Bell Robinson
married my grandfather when she was 13 years old and he was 30. My grandfather
lost his farm in the Great Depression, and he and my grandmother struggled to
raise 9 children -- always in rented houses. There was a disabled uncle who
moved in and lived with them until he died -- he had nowhere else to go -- and
my grandparents, struggling so hard to feed their own family, took him in.
There were no government programs to help.
I have listened to my mother and my aunts and uncles describe how they were
so hungry as children that they would steal eggs from neighbors’ hen houses and
take them up into the woods, where they kept an old pan, and boil and eat them.
They took onion biscuits to school for lunch with nothing more than wild onions
pulled out of the ground. In those days, in these mountains, too many children
went to bed hungry or walked to school barefoot in the winter or went without
medical and dental care. That cliché photo of the Appalachian farmer with black
and missing teeth originated in truth -- namely, poverty and lack of dental
care. I’ve often wondered what it must be like to see your own child cold and
hungry and sick and to be powerless to do anything about it. What must it be
like to have absolutely no safety net to approach for help?
I do know that personal morality was sometimes compromised in those days.
Before she died, my grandmother confessed to me that she eventually engaged in
an affair with a man who lived down the road because he gave her $2.00 each
time. She told me that her children were starving, and $2.00 bought a lot of
food in those days. She told me she would have done anything to feed
I grew up in a different world from my grandmother and even from my mother.
But, though I never struggled as my parents or grandparents struggled, I was
exposed to enough of that struggle to gain a deep appreciation for the programs
I see in place in our society today and to realize that it was mainly Democrats
who were responsible for those programs. I think about my grandparents and what
it might have been like for them if there had been Medicaid and food programs
and disability for my uncle. I imagine their lives if their children hadn’t
grown up with rotting teeth and malnourished bodies. I wonder what some of them
might have become with a chance at an education. All of the boys joined the
military, and all of the girls married young. Although they all became decent
people, I’m not sure that any of them achieved their dreams.
For my grandmother’s generation, there were few choices and little help. My
grandparents were not poor because they were too lazy to work -- I have never known
harder working people. But the country was recovering from a Depression, and it
was a hard time for people to live. I often think about the decision my
grandmother made to sleep with another man in order to feed her children. And I
realize that if the Democratic programs that exist today had existed back then,
she would not have had to make that decision.
One uncle and several of my cousins went to work in the coal mines over in Virginia. My uncle
retired with black lung and today is fighting Alzheimer’s. One of his sons
suffered brain damage from a mining explosion and was left (at a young age)
unable to work or support his family. Fortunately by then, JFK had campaigned
for the presidency in West Virginia and was
appalled by the poverty he saw in Appalachia.
He called it a shame on our nation. He made a vow to fight for the poor and
ease the struggle for people in these mountains. President Johnson made even
greater efforts to continue that fight, having personally suffered the effects
of poverty as a child. When my uncle and my cousin became disabled, disability
programs were in place for them.
Democrats are sometimes scoffed at for being too soft, for believing in
equality and wanting to help people who are less fortunate. The Democratic
Congress is scoffed at for providing money for people in need.
I’m proud of the Democratic Party for those qualities. We live in a better
world today because of those qualities. I choose to be a Democrat because I
believe we are our brother’s keeper. I grew up in the Deep
South believing in a Jesus who taught, “In as much as ye have done
it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.” I find it difficult to
eat and enjoy prosperity if I know that my neighbor (through no fault of his
own) is hungry and struggling to provide heat and food for his child. My
parents and grandparents grew up hungry, with very little to call their own,
but they taught me, nevertheless, to share. They taught me that everybody
matters. This is the Democratic spirit and why I am proud to be a member of the
Leisa Gunter lives in Watauga County, where she works to help people who
have fallen on hard times and spends Sundays after church with her extended