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Build it Up, Appalachia!

We were born and raised in the hills of West Virginia, and so we’ve experienced our share of jokes and stereotypes from people outside the region. Calling someone a hillbilly is accepted by the majority of Americans as appropriate -- an expression of a politically correct stereotype. But most people don’t understand how those cultural denigrations mask a severe system of oppression and exploitation in Appalachia.

For over 120 years, coal miners from Appalachia have energized the rest of the country, providing the raw energy for foundries, plants, mills, and the electricity in our homes. For the rest of America, the legacy of coal has been that of ‘cheap energy’. The reality is that coal is not cheap: someone has to pay the true price, and it has primarily been coal mining communities in Appalachia. For generations our people have dealt with ruthless coal barons; endemic poverty; mine disasters; health problems due to coal production; and, now, the wholesale destruction of our mountains and culture through mountaintop removal (MTR) coal extraction. The rest of the nation gets cheap energy only because the true costs have been externalized onto us ‘hillbillies’.

The stereotypes marginalize our central role in the nation’s prosperity and cast our problems in terms of cultural deficiencies rather than serious economic and social issues that stem from 120 years of rule by coal operators. For all those years, we have struggled time and time again to improve our lives, to throw off the domination of King Coal and to create a better future. A vital example of this was the Battle of Blair Mountain.

In 1921, ten thousand West Virginia coalminers engaged in the largest armed labor conflict in United States history. The veterans of this conflict helped organize the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers and other industrial unions in the 1930s. This mix of union solidarity and mountaineer pride among Appalachian coal miners has served as the backbone of the American labor movement.

From June 6th-11th, the long history of Appalachian resistance to domination and commitment to building a better future will begin a new chapter. An assortment of groups are commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain with a fifty mile, nonviolent mass march through the southern coalfields of West Virginia. We are marching to demand the preservation of Blair Mountain (which is threatened by MTR operations), the immediate abolition of mountaintop removal in Appalachia, a strengthening of labor rights, and an investment in sustainable, clean, safe jobs in our region.

It is this last point that we would like the rest of the nation to really consider. The best way to end environmental and social injustice in the coal fields is to provide safe, clean, and sustainable employment alternatives. The people here in the ‘coalfields’ are ready to take on the challenge of transforming our economy.

There is a growing movement centered around stopping the destructive practice of mountaintop removal in Appalachia, and we are in the midst of a full-on confrontation with the coal industry. This is the front line of the environmental movements, where the struggle for combating climate change starts and where the foundation of renewable energy production needs to be built. Today, over half of America’s energy comes from coal.


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In our struggle and organizing work, we have been talking with our communities about the burgeoning green energy economy, and the emergence of sustainable green jobs. But these new opportunities are once again bypassing central Appalachia. After all that we have been through -- our day-to-day struggle to preserve our mountains, our health, and our very culture -- the thing that we need most is a substantial investment in green energy production and manufacturing.

Let’s break King Coal’s reign over central Appalachia. Let’s directly confront the coal operators, the coal industry and outside interests by constructing something new, right in the belly of the beast. Let’s put a wind turbine plant or a solar-panel manufacturer in southern West Virginia, or eastern Kentucky, or southwest Virginia.

This is the most direct way to combat mountaintop removal and all of the negative impacts of the coal cycle. By working with us to diversify our economy, provide jobs for displaced coal miners and empower the citizens of Appalachia, you will be working with us to end the endemic poverty created by coal companies who wish to keep their labor supply destitute, in need of jobs, and fearful when their ability to provide for their families is threatened. It is the most direct way to confront the issue of endemic poverty and environmental degradation in Appalachia, not to mention larger issues of climate change.

We call for substantial investments in sustainable energy production, in good safe jobs. We call for all the people who care about the environment to invest in Appalachia. Get in the trenches with us, and help us build our country back up. We’re ready to go to work.

Let’s make this happen.


For more information about the Appalachia Rising: March on Blair Mountain event (June 6-11th), please visit

Brandon Nida

Brandon Nida is a native of Salt Rock, WV, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, a community organizer with Friends of Blair Mountain, and board member of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC).

Dustin Steele

Dustin Steele is a native of Mingo County, WV, and is currently a student at Marshall University. He is a project coordinator with Build It Up West Virginia, and comes from a long line of union coalminers.

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