CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Day was a time to reflect about what this great state means to each of us. It is the place I will always call home.
When I was 17, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers declared eminent domain and flooded our ancestral homeland for the Burnsville Lake. It was a period of great political will to take farmland and create recreational dams. Thousands of acres of farmland were lost forever. Now a few boaters fish where our corn fields once stood.
Like so many other West Virginians, we were forced to leave. We joined family in Akron who had left during the great migration in the 1950’s and 1960’s when the coal industry went into decline.
I was proud of my heritage so it was shocking when everyone had a West Virginia joke to tell. No, we did not make moonshine. Nor did we have an outhouse. Instead, we waited each week until Friday came. Then we loaded up the car and drove back to West Virginia. I remember as we got closer to the state line, I could see the mist come off the mountains and I knew I was home again.
Years later I would understand that those media stereotypes had been perpetuated by the coal industry in an effort to marginalize us.
I did not know about Blair Mountain and the Coal Wars until I saw the film “Matewan.” We were not taught this story in our classroom. The coal companies purchased our books and censored our truth. Now they want to blow up this sacred site for their insatiable greed and erase that monument to human rights.
They still attempt to indoctrinate our children, with the support of our very state government. They understand, as we do, that unless people are dehumanized and left desperate, no one would support the way these rogue companies operate. The response to this feudal system is for politicians to tell us to either accept the status quo or leave because people need jobs.
Just exactly how many of us should die “premature” deaths and have our children suffer daily with asthma for those 3,500 jobs?
West Virginians have made incredible contributions to the world. We have also made incredible sacrifices. We live on perhaps the richest land in America, yet we continue to be among the poorest and sickest people. We have been colonized by the coal industry. Since coal was discovered this industry has exploited the land and people of this state. It has controlled our political system and perverted true democracy. These companies, driven by greed, have a lot to lose if the people stand up to them.
But West Virginians must realize that we, too, have a great deal to lose. We have our culture, our history, our future, our very lives at stake in the struggle to abolish mountaintop removal mining. This is a fight we cannot lose or we have lost all that we are.
When I see coal trains, over a third of them bound for India, Russia, or China, chugging through communities blasted off the face of the earth by mountaintop removal mining, it hurts my soul. To realize that for the last 60 years the Southern coalfields have been a sacrifice zone and that our elected officials continue to support this mono-economy is beyond comprehension. That politicians continue to ignore the fact that people are dying early deaths because of mountaintop-removal mining is unforgivable.
I understand the political reality. Sen. Rockefeller came to West Virginia in the 1970’s and ran a campaign to stop strip mining. He pointed out the environmental and economic catastrophe of allowing outside coal companies and profiteers to make billions of dollars leaving the people of this great state impoverished forever. When he lost his first election, he made a public decision to support the coal industry to get elected. Sometimes I forget that money and power are more important to some people than justice and honor.
It is perhaps true, as Sen. Rockefeller and Sen. Manchin state, that there is a War on Coal. If so, it was declared generations ago on the people of this state. It is seen in our communities where coal companies level our ancient mountains, fill our streams and hollers and poison our air and water forever.
If ever we must stand together to keep our state from being destroyed, it is now. As Sen. Robert C Byrd said, “Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.”
Evans was the 2010 West Virginia filmmaker of the year and executive producer of “Coal Country and The Appalachians.”
READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE at the Charleston Gazette