Jeff Biggers suggests an ambitious and risky Appalachian strategy for Barack Obama:
By the 1920s, plundered for their coal and unable to compete with the non-union labor in Kentucky and West Virginia, the southern Illinois coal towns had turned into deforested and eroded wastelands, and were depicted by one government report as a “picture, almost unrelieved, of utter economic devastation.” Southern Illinois lay claim to the highest infant mortality rates in the nation.
Today, stripmining in the central Appalachia coalfields is producing the same results. More than 470 mountains and their adjacent communities have been leveled, despoiled, and economically ruined since Barack Obama first moved to Illinois. The massive machinery and explosives involved in mountaintop removal and strip-mining have gutted the labor movement and dramatically reduced jobs in West Virginia, Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania.
Instead of falling back on his failed Ohio message for the illusory concept of “clean coal,” which offers no real sense of job security or regional understanding of that industry’s job-stripping mechanization, Obama needs to recognize that it’s indeed time to release Appalachia from its stranglehold by King Coal and the region’s default economy of low-paying service jobs. He needs to summon the courage of another Illinois presidential candidate: Abraham Lincoln.
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,” Lincoln told Congress in 1862. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Disenthralling himself from the rhetoric of change, Obama has a wonderful chance to rise to the occasion, transcend issues of race, and stop one of the most immoral crimes against nature and our society today: He needs to call for an end to the destructive policies of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, demand passage of the Clean Water Protection Act (HR 2169), which has 129 co-sponsors and bi-partisan support across the coal states, and launch a new “Green Deal” to rebuild the region.