You won’t see the Kentucky flag proudly displayed by many. Unlike its more basic counterparts in states such as Texas, it does not adorn belt buckles and cowboy boots, or any personal items for that matter. If you were to travel all of the great Commonwealth, you would probably only see the blue flag flying over government buildings.
The North American Vexillological Association (a group that studies flags) did a survey to discover which flags among the US and Canada were the most popular of the bunch. Kentucky, along with the other states that adopted the “Bed-sheet and seal” design did not fair too well. Among 72 flags, Kentucky’s ranked 66th. I wrote my state legislators and the Governor to plead for a new design, but my pleading was in vain.
I soon learned to embrace the fact that the flag was sub-par. I began to believe that a bad flag was a tradeoff we had to make for an awesome state song, the greatest college basketball team in the world, bourbon, and fabulous horses. But as I drove from Eastern to Central Kentucky, I realized that the flag isn’t sub-par at all. In fact, it’s more of a contract than a flag.
The seal in the center of the flag shows two men embracing each other in a warm handshake. The official explanation is that the men depict a statesman and a pioneer. But why are they embracing each other? The answer is written around them: United We Stand, Divided We Fall. In the early 1900’s when the flag was created the image probably had a more literal meaning. The relations between frontiersmen and statesmen was probably very important for a younger Kentucky to prosper.
There aren’t many animal-pelt covered pioneers around anymore, and there certainly aren’t any statesmen who still dress in that older style. But if you take the frontiersman as a representation of both Eastern Kentuckians and the residents of the more prosperous parts of the state, the flag can take the form of a serious personal promise made long ago that every Kentuckian must help their neighbors.
The people of Appalachian Kentucky have kept their part of this contract for generations. Hard working men and women have broken their backs–both literally and metaphorically–to supply energy for the rest of the state, and even the rest of the world. The work conditions were often rough and the paychecks were not always the grandest, but behind their dusty faces was, and still remains, a smile. They are proud to do their part for their fellow man.
When the coal boom of the first half of the 20th century dwindled, many Eastern Kentuckians packed their bags and headed north to factories to find work. Though they were living elsewhere, they remained proud Kentuckians and they were still doing their part to supply the city-folk, especially those in Lexington and Louisville, with the best American-made products they could buy.
And most notably, when their country called for them, they left the hills and hollers they loved to be shipped overseas to fight for these United States. Mountaineers have humbly shed more than their fair share of blood for our country, and will always fight as hard as they can for America. The same stubborn independence and bravery that won freedom for this country is deeply woven into our strong Appalachian values.
The Appalachian Kentuckian has been proud to uphold his end of the handshake, and the rest of Kentucky has held its end up too. Some of our brightest Eastern Kentuckians owe their education to Central Kentucky professors. I am proud to drive my Georgetown-made Toyota across the winding roads of the east. The handshake has been pretty good to us all.
But everyone who’s not living under a rock knows that things aren’t going too well for the folks in Eastern Kentucky. In my home town of Whitesburg, it only takes a brief look at the latest census data to see that there is a problem. Letcher County’s yearly income per family is more than $10,000 lower than the state average! Letcher County homes are worth $65,000 less on average than the rest of the state, and they have nearly half as many college graduates based on percentage.
Even though Eastern Kentucky is down, it’s not down for the count. Mr. Rogers said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
If you look at Eastern Kentucky, there are plenty of helpers and they come from every part of the Commonwealth. Dr. Pearse Lyons, a naturalized Lexingtonian, is creating jobs in Eastern Kentucky through his international agricultural company Alltech. Representative Hal Rogers and Governor Steve Beshear came together, despite party differences, to create the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative to create a detailed plan for economic recovery. When the small mountain town of West Liberty was struck by a deadly tornado in 2012, people traveled from all over the commonwealth to rebuild businesses and broken lives because Kentuckians work together.
In all of these cases, Central, Western, Northern and Eastern Kentucky are coming together not to make Eastern Kentucky better, but to make all of Kentucky better, because until all 120 counties are thriving, the state will not be united.
So consider 2015 the year of the Kentuckian. This is the year to build a stronger, more united Kentucky. All Kentuckians should strive to better their communities daily, and must do their part to further develop the areas of the state that need it most. As the Kentucky General Assembly convenes, citizens should demand that legislators think outside of their district when considering laws. And, if you feel so compelled, fly the ole’ blue bed sheet with the seal at your Old Kentucky Home.