Like so many others, I always got this warm greeting from Larry Gibson, followed by a big hug. Like so many others, I saw mountaintop removal coal mining with my own eyes for the first time on Larry’s mountain in southern West Virginia, Kayford Mountain, and I’ve been fighting to end the devastation ever since. Like so many others, I then took countless more people up to Kayford with me: reporters, national environmental leaders, film crews, students and many, many others. And to every person he took up Kayford Mountain, Larry would say that if he or she didn’t do everything they could to end mountaintop removal after coming down from that mountain, then they had wasted his time.
Like so many others, I just cannot believe that Larry Gibson has died.
If you’ve ever seen a photo or video footage of mountaintop removal, you’ve likely seen Kayford Mountain. Because it was one of the few places you could reliably see mountaintop removal from the ground, everybody – and I mean everybody – went to Kayford. And Larry was always there to greet them and give them a tour, walking you up to the edge of a gaping wound in the earth that would shake you to your core and never let you go.
I’ll never forget one of my later trips to Kayford, when a mining company pickup suddenly veered off the mine site and climbed an impossibly steep pile of rubble to park a foot away from our group and tell us that we needed to leave, for our own safety. Larry was cool and calm – he didn’t pick a fight, but he didn’t rush us away either. The mining representative’s concern for Larry’s well-being seemed laughable given that Larry’s family property was surrounded by mountaintop removal on three sides. And this garden-variety intimidation certainly wouldn’t faze Larry – it was nothing compared to what he had been subjected to over the years, including having his home shot at and ransacked, his truck run off the road (including once with a Washington Post reporter on board), and his dog shot and killed.
In spite of it all, Larry never backed down.
Larry’s courage made him special, but it wasn’t just that. It was his tireless determination to spread the word and bring more people to the cause, by hosting anyone and everyone on Kayford, conducting countless speaking tours of community groups and college campuses, talking to reporters, and attending hundreds – if not thousands – of rallies and protests, often putting his own safety and freedom on the line. You couldn’t miss Larry. Decked out in his signature day-glo green hat and shirt, with a stocky build and a twinkle in his eye, Larry was always a welcome sight, from the halls of Congress to the hollows of Appalachia. As social media will affirm in the days ahead, Larry changed thousands of lives, and will forever leave an empty space in these thousands of hearts. Including mine.
Larry was heralded during his life, recognized as a CNN Hero and featured in People Magazine, among other accolades. But it didn’t go to his head. For Larry, these were all just bigger platforms to spread the word about the need to end mountaintop removal. Even while he became a public figure, he kept his feet on the ground in Kayford, and his focus on building the movement, one new person at a time. If you stood with him, shoulder to shoulder, and stuck with the fight, you would earn Larry’s friendship and respect, and sometimes that alone kept people going in the struggle to end mountaintop removal.
I always imagined that, when we celebrated the end of mountaintop removal, Larry Gibson would be there. I can’t believe Larry won’t be alive to see the abolition of the coal mining practice that was – and still is – destroying the mountains and communities he loved.
Now, we are going to have to do it for him. I can think of no finer tribute to Larry than to fight harder, in the words of Judy Bonds, and redouble our efforts to end mountaintop removal.