LET’S GO MOUNTAINEERS!

This is NOT a rallying cry for the sports teams of my school, West Virginia University.

It IS a rallying cry for the good citizens of my adopted state, the 33rd State, the state whose birthday was earlier this week, the 149th anniversary of its admission to the union after its split from Virginia.

This was my post on Facebook on Wednesday:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WEST VIRGINIA

149 years of uninterrupted labor peace, honest government and economic prosperity.

As a friend of mine properly noted this was extremely tongue-in-cheek.

I call West Virginia my adopted state because I was born and raised in Pennsylvania. But both my parents had deep roots in the state so when I came to WVU in 1966 and became acclimated it was pretty much a no-brainer when, after graduation in 1969, I returned for good in 1974 to Morgantown.

Entering West Virginia from one of its neighbors it is often apparent that poverty seems more prevalent once you cross that border. Even in more prosperous centers of the state such as here in Morgantown, one does not have to search far to find families living in shacks with dirt floors. Not that poverty does not exist in our neighbors, of course, but I don’t believe any of them can link that poverty to one cause far more than others.

COAL

That word has played both devil and angel to our citizens.

Coal, the carbon based mineral that was and is still abundant within our borders should have provided a means for all citizens to have an opportunity to earn a good living, provide for their families, and even help fund the means for education that would generate even greater opportunities for the children of these miners.

After all, coal was used to help forge steel that built our great factories and railroads and later cars and appliances. Coal was valuable as heating fuel itself in the homes. Coal powered the locomotives that traversed the railroads and coal became a primary source of electricity generation to power all the desired uses of these ions from lights to eventually radios, refrigeration, and fancy contraptions of all ilk.

Well the people who owned the coal profited very well thank you. But the people who worked for them, who did the dirty end dangerous work of bringing the coal from the ground didn’t fare so well.

In large part they were relegated to company towns where everything was owned by their employer and often their only pay came in  a form that obligated them to spend it at company stores. “Sixteen Tons” is only a glimpse of the bleakness of this life.

Death visited these miners on the job as an everyday hazard, not a rare happenstance. 1907 saw 361 die at one time in Monongah in neighboring Marion County. There are other cases of over 100 deaths at a time and almost countless cases of multiple deaths.

Miners and their families were murdered by the thugs hired by company owners to keep them in line and law enforcement that was supposed to protect them. One time a train carrying some of these thugs,  who were equipped with machine guns, rode through a coal camp as residents were wantonly gunned down.

Names such as the Felts Brothers, Don Chafin and Bill Blizzard and killing fields like Matewan and Blair Mountain reverberate through the hills.

Has unionization and modern practices improved matters? Well there are 19 instances of mine accidents killing from 3-78 men just since my arrival in  1966.

The coal camps are gone but exploitation is still the rule. It may be far subtler but it exists.

These days it largely consists of propaganda that glamourizes the miners, emphasizes the importance of coal to the economy, damns the federal government for attempting to control pollution or enforce safety regulations, and leaves the impression that coal is the be all and end all of the Mountain State.

We even have the Friends of Coal Bowl, an annual football game between the state’s two major universities. Hype hype hype throughout the game all letting us know what wonderful folks the coal companies are, complete with testimonials by their employees.

Hogwash.

We suffer new health hazards from coal-fired power plant pollution and the rape of the land through mountaintop removal. Our politicians, most especially in Charleston, refuse to accept responsibility to move the state forward.

Three Democrats; the governor a Senator and a Congressman, refuse to endorse Obama for re-election because they are kowtowing to the coal interests who oppose his policies that will benefit us in the long run by de-emphasizing coal.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, on the other hand, is outspoken about the need for change, but is heavily berated for his words. http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2012/06/22/rockefeller-tells-w-va-what-it-doesnt-want-to-hear/

My fellow Mountaineers, please wake up and realize that this blind worship of coal, which has never produced overall favorable results for the majority of us, needs to cease.

Embrace the notion that coal, while nowhere near to becoming totally irrelevant, needs to move forward, not simply cling to the status quo. 

The nation once did away with one king who-ill-served it. Let the citizens of this state now reject King Coal as its monarch, and make it a commoner subservient to the people.

 
 
 
 
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