A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Everyday Heroes: John Rosenberg helped balance scales of justice in Eastern Kentucky

John Rosenberg

John Rosenberg


This story about John Rosenberg is reprinted from Steve Flairty’s 2008 book, “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes.” Rosenberg, though retired as Appalred director, remains active and effective in the community and state in a host of ways: social justice, education and the environment.

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

John Rosenberg has been in the middle of significant historical times since he was born to Jewish parents into the political turmoil of 1931 Germany.

Many years later, in another part of the world, America, he helped make history. He participated, as a lawyer, in the great civil rights battles of the 1960s in the Deep South. In the last three decades Rosenberg, living and working in the quaint, Appalachian town of Prestonsburg—has spread his sphere of influence even further. He’s touched lives in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky and beyond in a way that will be forever significant.

The three different times and places have a strong connection to each other. The first and second helped form him, the latter helped define him.

“I was born in Magdeburg, Germany, during the days when Adolf Hitler was rising to power,” said Rosenberg. The family lived in a Jewish community, next to a synagogue. The father was a school teacher and a lay leader at the religious building. What happened as a child in the middle of the night, Nov. 11, 1938, is indelibly imprinted in John Rosenberg’s psyche. It has been called Night of the Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht.

“We watched as storm troopers proceeded to build a bonfire of all the holy books in the synagogue, and then they dynamited the building. The next morning the Nazis arrested my father and took him to the concentration camp in Buchenwald.”

After a week, Rosenberg’s father was released and returned to the family, and they were moved to an internment camp in Holland for a year. After that year, his family was able to arrange passage on a boat to the United States, one that Rosenberg called “the last boat bound for the United States, before Germany invaded Holland in the early stages of the second World War.” Still reeling from the rude uprooting, but joyful about arriving—safe, but with few resources—in the city of New York, the Rosenbergs awaited a new life.

Soon, the Rosenbergs migrated to their adopted country’s southern region, to Spartanburg, South Carolina. There, the father gained work sweeping floors at a shirt factory, then quickly began a promotion process. That same work ethic, plus an astute intelligence, enabled son John to acquire scholarships, then to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from Duke University. A four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force followed, then Rosenberg worked in sales for a Philadelphia chemical manufacturer. But more noble instincts took over, and John Rosenberg headed southward again, this time to the University of North Carolina Law School. He graduated in 1962, and a most productive public service career was ready to begin.

Predictably, Rosenberg was drawn toward issues of justice, particularly for those with little power because of their status in life, ie, the poor, racial minorities, and those who, by birth and culture, unwittingly invited prejudice against themselves. He became a part of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice when the U.S. experienced tremendous social upheaval.
It was the time of Martin Luther King, voting literacy tests, and racial violence.

Rosenberg, working under mentor John Doar, was part of the team that prosecuted the murderers of three civil rights workers in the noted U.S. v. Price case in 1967. An acclaimed movie about the case, called Mississippi Burning, was later produced in 1988. From 1962 to 1970, Rosenberg was involved in voting rights, school desegregation, public accommodations, and employment discrimination cases largely in the South. In a time when core values were challenged, and needed to be—often against bitterly hostile resistance—John Rosenberg was positioned squarely in the dynamics of fundamental civil rights change in America.

In 1970, after leaving the Justice Department, Rosenberg received a request to come work with a group of lawyers to address what were called “some serious legal issues in central Appalachia.” Rosenberg, his wife Jean and small child were camping in Canada at the time, but soon headed south in their ‘67 Peugeot—on their way to little Prestonsburg. The family stayed in a camping site outside the town, made connections to the principals involved in the federal legal services program that would be expanded into Eastern Kentucky, then, as Rosenberg likes to say, “We never left.”

Rosenberg was hired as the deputy director of the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund (Appalred), headquartered in Charleston, West Virginia, for the Kentucky operations office in Prestonsburg. Appalred was formed as a federally financed legal services program, helping those without the resources to hire their own lawyers for civil matters. The Kentucky office, with Rosenberg at the helm, would cover a 37 county area in eastern Kentucky, and by 1973, Rosenberg’s agency would be funded independently of the Charleston office..

At Appalred, Rosenberg began to assemble a competent, committed staff of lawyers that reached 48 by 1981. A large cadre of interns and volunteers from a wide variety of law schools were brought on board with Rosenberg’s sterling reputation. Around the region, ten Appalred offices operated, and they were effective, serving sometimes as many as 7000 clients per year. Tackled by Rosenberg and his passionate calvary for the poor were family law, consumer matters, housing, health law and disability issues involving Medicaid and SSI matters, environmental law and coal mine health and safety.

A highly significant victory occurred in 1988 in what John Rosenberg termed “the death knell of the interpretation of the broad form deed.“ That deed, according to the Kentucky courts, allowed harmful surface mining to take place without the landowner’s consent. Appalred’s lawyers had tried to overturn this judicial interpretation for year’s without success. The death knell was a constitutional amendment that effectively required landowner consent before surface mining could take place.

The amendment’s language was written by Rosenberg and his staff, largely through the efforts of a grassroots citizens group, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. It passed with 92 percent of Kentucky voters agreeing. Another important case involved an action in the ’70s against building a dam on the Red River, which would have displaced many poor people and destroyed a pristine part of the Red River Gorge. In several cases, Appalred’s Mine Safety Project won victories for miners when they complained about safety conditions in the mines. Appalred’s work to make sure public school students received free text books resulted in a legislative victory for low-income people. There are many more stories, but Rosenberg and Appalred’s greatest legacy is perhaps in the thousands of individual stories of appreciative, now hopeful, clients in the region.

Rosenberg’s influence in the Prestonsburg community has also been, in a word, exemplary.

The community of David was dying. A former coal camp about 10 miles from Prestonsburg, it’s condition again stirred Rosenberg’s social justice sensibilities. Said Rosenberg, “The houses were owned by a group of local businessmen who collected rent but refused to do any substantial repair work. After a series of community meetings, we incorporated the David Community Development Corporation (DCDC), which bought ’the town’—about 40 houses and the surface area surrounding the town from ridge to ridge. Over the next few years, the DCDC financed and sold the houses to the resident-renters, built about 20 new low income and moderate income homes, developed a new water and sewer system, and supported the development of a model alternative school for high school dropouts called the David School.” Rosenberg did virtually all of the legal work required for the development.

One wonders where Rosenberg finds time to accomplish so many things, but his help in promoting improved science education in the area—both for children and parents—resulted in the East Kentucky Science Center on the Prestonsburg campus of Big Sandy Community and Technical College. It’s ironic that Rosenberg’s bachelor’s degree from Duke was in chemistry, and not political science, but knowledge in both fields led him, as chairman of the center’s governing board, to propose a building including a planetarium, an exhibit hall and a science classroom, and it was accomplished in 1997. To date, over 30,000 students have taken advantage of the science center and it’s services. “Our original idea idea was to acquire science materials and disperse them to schools, but it became a bigger project,” Rosenberg said. “We hope to see young people be inspired to get into the field of science through this experience.”

Rosenberg also was influential in establishing a local project that improved housing conditions in Eastern Kentucky. “We established a successful low income housing project to focus on home repairs for our citizens,” he said. The program is essentially driven by volunteers and has made a difference in the daily lives of hundreds. Rosenberg’s wife, Jean, has also been a tireless supporter of his initiatives for the needs of others less fortunate. She has directed a program for single parent homemakers, many who have been abused, to help provide educational opportunity and financial assistance, plus emotional support.

For John Rosenberg, it has been a productive life. A man blessed by new opportunities in America after being pushed from his homeland, he has returned the blessing a thousandfold. Forgoing much higher income and the prestige of a more high profile law practice, Rosenberg chose to use his bright mind to help form brighter futures and offer hope to multitudes of common and decent folk who needed only a little boost along the way. “Lawyering uphill,“ a term he often uses to describe his difficult black lung cases over the years, might also apply in general to the good work he has done in Appalachia, where he has made a positive difference for generations ahead in Eastern Kentucky.

To read more of Steve Flairty’s Everyday Heroes stories, click here.

Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. This story is from Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3, due to be released in early 2013. His most recent book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is now available at local bookstores. Or contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)

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