As we watched the latest mining tragedy unfold at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, I remembered a story of a friend. When Aubrey told us his story, we laughed . . . nervously. "I remember as a kid," he said, "my dad strapping his gun on in the morning and going with John L. Lewis to organize in the mines."
I was a young professor. He was my student. I had been recruited to teach history at Pikeville College. He was an older African American student who had been recruited to play basketball. I thought I was going as part of the Civil Rights Movement and worked with unemployed and disabled Black and White coal miners until our Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Center was burned to the ground.
"Snake", no one called him Aubrey, was a terrible basketball player, but was determined to get a college education so that he didn't end up in the mines, like his father. There were threats, guns and crosses burned. Presumably the same informative folks who called me in the middle of the night to share their opinions on race, the mines, class, religion and history, also decided that I needed a new car. Students were chased and beaten. Dorms in the next county over, Bloody Harlan, were sprayed with bullets.
The greatest dangers, however, remain below ground . . . the periodic mining disasters. Jock Jablonski, the reform candidate for President of United Mine Workers ran on a strong platform of improving safety for miners. Two of the three men convicted of assassinating Jablonski on the orders of then UMW President Tony Boyle were from Pikeville, our neighbors.
Some things have changed over the years. Mining is now much less labor intensive. Some things have not changed. It is still dangerous. Miners keep dying in the Upper Branch Mine. It's repeatedly been fined for safety violations, three times as recently as two weeks before the tragedy. The mine sidewalls have cracked and collapsed. The ventilation system does not work properly.
But Massey and its belligerent CEO Don Blankenship stonewalls, repeatedly appealing and challenging Mine Safety and Health Administration findings, routinely failing to pay penalties. So far its paid only $2,676 of the over $188,000 in fines.
One thing that seems to have changed is that the local residents have organized to fight back. In their highly recommended recent film Coal Country, Phylis Geller and Mari-Lynn Evans show how neighbors and ex-miners are working against Massey's Mountaintop Removal projects which have harmed their health and polluted their environment.
I can't help but smile now when I think of my old friend Snake . . . who made it through college playing bad basketball, went on to become a lawyer and worked to make the coal country safer. I think his father and John L would be proud.