Mathew Louis-Rosenberg: Fighting for Fairness
I am in mourning for a dear friend and a great teacher to me, Larry Gibson. Since hearing that he had a heart attack up on his beloved Kayford Mountain Sunday, almost everyone I know has been shell-shocked. His decades of uncompromising leadership in the fight against strip mining and his profound effect on thousands of people make it so hard to believe that he is really gone. He was a pillar of strength for so many of us in West Virginia. Larry was more than just an icon or a great speaker. He was a loyal friend, a fierce warrior, and a deeply caring man. He had a bedrock morality. Larry always let you know where you stood. Larry always stood on the side of “his people”, the citizens of the West Virginia coalfields.
The day before he died, I was in a meeting discussing the recent action on Patriot’s Hobet Surface Mine. Larry had recorded a video message for us. He told us once again that we had to find a way to unite the people. He told us that he was planning on going to the UMWA’s Fighting for Fairness at Patriot rally on Tuesday. He wasn’t going to protest against mining or convert anyone. He was going because Patriot trying to take away miners’ pensions and health care is wrong and another attack on his people. He knew it would be dangerous and many people tried to talk him out of it, but he was going to go anyway, because it was the right thing to do. Nobody was surprised. Larry spent his whole life fighting for fairness.
Like Larry, everyone I know in the movement against strip mining supports the union miners in their struggle against Patriot. Many outspoken opponents of mountaintop removal have families depending on Patriot pensions. It isn’t fair that union miners are being asked to pay the price of a declining coal industry. It isn’t fair that thousands of miners are still getting black lung because the coal companies refuse to follow the law. It isn’t fair that people below strip mines live in fear of heavy rain after floods upon floods. It isn’t fair that people have been pushed out their families’ hollow and had their graveyards desecrated for a few more tons of coal. It isn’t fair that people who live near the mines have staggeringly high rates of cancer and birth defects. It isn’t fair that West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country. It isn’t fair that the counties where the most coal is mined are some of the poorest in the country because almost all the money leaves the state. It isn’t fair that out-of-state corporations own over 80% of the land in southern West Virginia. It isn’t fair that people have to choose between working in the mines or at McDonald’s. It isn’t fair that the politicians and the coal industry are lying to the people about the future of coal in West Virginia and doing absolutely nothing to prepare our state for the industry leaving us high and dry. It isn’t fair that every law about coal mining has been written in blood.
Towards the end of his life, I heard Larry mostly talk about two things. First and foremost was that we need to come together with all the people. We are all trying to fight for fairness in Appalachia. We all want of good future for West Virginia. We cannot keep letting the operators and the bankers and the politicians divide us. We have to learn to reach across the lines. The second thing he said was that this couldn’t be about Larry Gibson. That no movement could revolved around one man. Instead, he challenged us all to be leaders and helped us become them. One of the last things he said in that video was that we need to get bigger, smarter, stronger, that we couldn’t be satisfied until real change comes. All of us he called his children now have the heavy task of picking up his torch, and between all of us, figuring out how to carry it.