Let’s not forget the miners in the coal debate

One of the challenges President Franklin Roosevelt faced in fashioning the New Deal was determining which sections of the nation were most in need of aid and economic development.  Clearly none were exempt from poverty, but there were certain areas where living conditions and economic deprivation were more extreme than others.

Today, we are in the midst of a heated debate about whether “clean coal” is actually clean, and if so, is it economically feasible and safe to mine coal and utilize it as an energy source. The outcome of this debate could go to either extreme.  On one hand, since the U.S. has such an abundant supply of coal, “King Coal” could dominate energy production as it has for much of American history.  On the other hand, if America and the world’s alternative energy programs are regarded with greater importance and provided with more funding, coal could become somewhat of a relic of the past because of the prohibitive problems of carbon dioxide and sulfuric emissions, as well as destruction to our land by strip mining (cutting off mountain tops, etc.).

We have been reminded recently of the dangers of shaft mining.  The recent disaster in West Virginia  resulted in more deaths than any other mining incident in the past forty years.  Mining is still a very dangerous occupation. What is different from the days of the New Deal and before is that through strong union leadership, miners are now well paid for their efforts.

Franklin Roosevelt often used his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, as “eyes and ears” on conditions in the hinterland.  Ms. Roosevelt often collaborated with her best friend, Lorena Hickok, to explore these locales far off the beaten path.

Lorena Hickok

In 1935 Lorena Hickok toured Appalachia.  First she went to West Virginia, where according to H.W. Brands, author of Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she found that “there was not in the state a single city or county hospital with free clinics or free beds.”  She elaborated, “Some of them [the people of West Virginia] have been starving for eight years.  I was told there are children in West Virginia who have never tasted milk.”

She then went to the eastern Kentucky portion of Appalachia where conditions may have been even worse.  She wrote:

They all carry guns and shoot each other.  And yet they never think of robbing people.  I cannot for the life of me understand why they don’t go down and raid the Blue Grass country…They shoot each other, and yet there is in them a great deal of gentleness.  Toward their children, for instance.  And you hear about them stories like this: Relief in Kentucky having been none too adequate in the matter of clothing, most of them are scantily clad.  An investigator visiting one of their villages back up in the mountains in Clay County a few weeks ago noticed that all the men and boys, as they passed one cabin, pulled their caps down over their eyes.  When asked why, they told him: “Well, you see, the women folks in that thar place hain’t go no clothes at all.  Even their rags is clean wore out and gone.”

Historian Harry Caudill, in his book Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, refers to eastern Kentucky as “the first frontier in the war on poverty.”  In the forward to the 1962 book, John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall wrote:

This is Daniel Boone country, where Indians and then fiercely independent frontiersmen found in these isolated valleys the elements that sustained a vigorous life.  Yet it is one of the ironies of our history that many of their descendants live there today in bleak and demoralizing poverty almost without parallel on this continent.

In visiting the area in 1973, I found mostly wooden shacks, irregular access to electricity, dirt roads, and remnants of company towns.  But there was a somewhat robust coal industry made possible by the presence of railroad spurs criss-crossing the land to haul out the fuel.  Peering to the horizons,I saw that  mountain tops were often sheared off as the more economically feasible strip mining was literally making its mark on the land.  As depressed as the area was, it was largely untouched by the icons of much of economically distressed America.  There were virtually no neon signs, fast food franchises, visible liquor stores, pawn shops, or other magnets of fast-paced America.

When I returned in the mid-1990s, my image of “romantic poverty” (easy for me to say since I didn’t have to live it) was shattered.  Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Radio Shack, AutoTire, even Blockbuster signs dotted the land.  The streets were littered with more broken glass, paper wrappers and crushed cans.  The area was still poor, but now a very garish brand of poverty.  This was not the eastern Kentucky that Lorena Hickok had seen in 1935.

Despite its historic poverty, Appalachia has rich traditions that are an essential part of Americana.  Music was created with the use of never-before-invented, hand-made instruments.  The stories in the songs reflect a life unique to this remote part of America.  There are crafts representing the values and experiences of the people as well as their limited resources.  And while the relationships among some Appalachian people have been characterized by long-lasting grudges (most notably the Hatfields and McCoys.), there is an essentially kindness of the people.

Ever since coal was first mined in these rounded mountains, the workers and their families have been exploited by the companies of King Coal.  You can read Night Comes to the Cumberlands for one vivid story after another of exploitation of people, first by big business, and then regrettably at times by their own unions.

If a determination is made that coal can really be mined and burned cleanly, then there will be economic benefits for the people of Appalachia, but perhaps at certain social costs.  If coal is deemed an unfeasible source of power, and it can be adequately replaced by clean fuels such as wind and solar power, then the future of Appalachia is more uncertain.  Parts of the land are still pristine enough for eco-tourism; more investment dollars are in the hands of the people; and the reduction or elimination of coal would mean that the corporate landlords who have dominated the area for centuries would move their business elsewhere.

If coal becomes a relic of the past, we owe a considerable amount to the miners who risked their lives and sacrificed for their families, and who brought us a truly American culture during the years when coal was king.  These are hard-working people who did not make the decisions to pollute our skies, rivers, and lakes with toxic particulates.  The people of Appalachia have been largely forgotten for most of their history. If coal becomes a relic of the past, the people of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia will be further at risk.  Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater; we owe them the right to live as productive lives as any other Americans.