Contributed by John E. Davis, November 2019.
The summer before his final year at the Vanderbilt Law School and during the summer and fall after his graduation, John Kennedy worked for the Student Health Coalition in 1971 and 1972. He provided assistance to former miners who were seeking black lung benefits and disability payments from federal and state agencies. He was based in Lake City, Tenn., but ranged throughout the area being served by SHC’s health fairs. While the focus of his assistance was intended to be black lung and disability, once the mountain people heard there was a “free lawyer” available to them, they sought all kinds of legal assistance and advice from him.
John also helped to start the Black Lung Association in Lafollette. Its founding purpose was to provide essential information about black lung ailments and assistance to miners. But with John’s help, the Black Lung Association later grew into the board for a primary care clinic in Jacksboro, which opened in 1975 using two doctors from the National Health Service Corps.
The Black Lung Association had another, semi-clandestine purpose. It promoted reform within the United Mine Workers. Members of the Association were intent on ousting a murderous union regime that had been responsible for the 1969 killings of Jock Jablonski and his family. They helped to elect a reform slate of UMW officers in 1972.
During his first summer with the SHC, John served as the informal concierge at Braden’s Grocery. This empty, two-story, multi-room building, located on the highway between Lake City and Clinton, had been loaned to SHC for use in reviewing medical records and providing temporary housing for SHC staffers during the first health fair in Briceville. At other times during the summer, Braden’s Grocery was a place of R&R where members of the SHC who were immersed in community work or who were headed to another health fair could stop over for conversation and a beer with their peers. Kennedy lived there all summer, so it fell to him to manage the flow of people through “his” building.
In 1973, John assisted with the start-up of the East Tennessee Research Corporation (ETRC), an initiative led by John Williams, a fellow graduate of Vanderbilt Law School, and by Pat Kalmans. John Kennedy continued working for ETRC for several years. He lived in a log cabin on the edge of Norris Lake, but later moved into a small house in Lake City on the same road as the SHC residence known as the “Ponderosa.” His housemate in both places was another former member of the SHC, John Davis, who had taken a job with the Anderson County Schools. The houses occupied by Kennedy and Davis never had quite as many visitors as the old Braden’s Grocery, but there was a constant stream of community workers and health workers from SHC and summer “tourists” from the Vanderbilt campus SHC who stopped over for an evening or afternoon visit, including on one occasion, Vanderbilt’s Chancellor, Alexander Heard.
After his years in East Tennessee, Kennedy spent two years working with the United Mine Workers in Washington, D.C., helping to establish outpatient clinics to treat miners with black lung disease in East Tennessee and East Kentucky. In Tennessee, the Jacksboro clinic served as a base for a medical team to rotate through several of the primary care clinics that had been started through the work of the SHC.
In 1977, John moved to Nashville and pursued his chosen vocation of practicing law. His avocation, however, was what he always referred to as “chasing trains.” Wherever he lived, he knew the schedules of any freight trains that were passing nearby. At various times, day or night, he would suddenly hop in his car and race off to arrive just in time to meet his chosen train. He would then stand beside the tracks as engines tugged their clanking chain of coal hoppers, box cars, tankers and other rolling stock, ending with a caboose that earned a farewell wave from Kennedy – and from any others he had coaxed into joining him on the chase.
To learn more and to hear from John Kennedy himself, check out this clip further detailing his work with the Student Health Coalition.
John Kennedy describes Bill Dow’s motivation to coordinate an investigative review of potential corruption in East Tennessee economic development districts, explaining that said corruption could reinforce power systems–namely, the allocation of state and federal funding to health and other community… Continued
John Kennedy describes the evolution of his career and transition to Washington in 1974. Upon suggestion from Eula Hall, Director of the Mud Creek Clinic, and with an official offer from Tom Ludwig, the union rep responsible for occupational health… Continued
John Kennedy shares the story behind the establishment of the Jacksboro Clinic (1973) at a 2019 Coalition gathering in Nashville. Full footage of the 2019 gathering. Continued
John Kennedy reflects on the difference between 1971 and 1975 perceptions of black lung, including recognition of the disease, access to healthcare, and availability of legal support. For more information on John Kennedy’s involvement with the East Tennessee Research Corporation… Continued
Charles Scott and John Kennedy discuss the racism intrinsic to the Student Health Coalition’s work, particularly in Morgan County, Tenn. Scott underlines the importance of (1) recognizing and (2) remembering the power they (as majority White students) had in these… Continued
John Kennedy describes the initial inundation of legal clinics with Black Lung cases, due largely to nonexistent dust control in underground mines and extremely limited access to physicians and lawyers who could help with disease management. He provides further insight… Continued
John Kennedy describes his introduction to the Black Lung Association in LaFollette, Tenn. The organization’s primary functions were twofold at the time. First, supporting legislation that would secure black lung benefits for coal miners, and along with it, providing legal… Continued
John McArthur elaborates on how his familial background and upbringing set him apart from many others involved with the Black Lung Association (BLA). Raised in Appalachia, he was radicalized while in college at UTC and shifted his studies from forestry… Continued
John Kennedy elaborates on Heleny Cook’s and Jane Sampson’s role with Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM), their organizing efforts having grown directly out of John Gaventa’s strip mining research and related work about the American Association. For more information on… Continued
John Kennedy reflects on the impact of his Coalition experience, both on his career and life as a whole. For more information on John Kennedy’s involvement with the East Tennessee Research Corporation (ETRC) and work related to black lung, follow… Continued
John Kennedy provides further insight to the Black Lung Association’s legal processes and evolution as an organization that could govern the proposed Jacksboro Black Lung Clinic. Prominent folks involved in getting said clinic up and running included, but were not… Continued
John Kennedy shares about his introduction to the SHC while finishing up his degree at Vanderbilt Law School (1971), recollects others who were involved in the Coalition’s early law school projects, and delineates his role researching the East Tennessee Development… Continued
John Kennedy describes the deadly repercussions of severe conflicting political interests and struggle for power within UMW ranks, leading to the murder of Jock Yablonski and his family in 1969. Yablonski had opposed Tony Boyle’s re-election as Union President and… Continued
John Kennedy describes monumental developments in black lung care during the summer of 1973, primarily as it pertains to the establishment of state and federally funded clinics. He details the complex effort in acquiring these funds, including the role key… Continued
Kate Bradley frames the initiative to organize a local health council and community clinic as a direct response to the Petros health fair’s preliminary identification of needs. She details early fundraising efforts, including Pat Kalmans’ key role in securing grant… Continued
In supplement to ETRC’s involvement with the Black Lung Association in LaFollette and the Black Lung Clinic in Jacksboro, John Kennedy describes its ongoing activity outside of East Tennessee, too. Namely, he discusses his role setting up clinics in eastern… Continued
John Kennedy details progression of the Black Lung Association (BLA) between 1972 and 1973, following its first successful objective in replacing Tony Boyle with Arnold Miller as president of United Mine Workers (UMW). For more information on John Kennedy’s involvement… Continued
“The Black Lung Association Responds to the Deadly Disease’s Rise”: http://appvoices.org/2019/10/11/the-black-lung-association/
Community Health Centers of East Tennessee: https://chetn.org/about-us