WV gov. Joe Manchin

When Walmart recently announced its intention to build a super-center near the Wilderness Battlefield in Virginia, filmmaker Ken Burns and a host of Pulitzer Prize-winning historians denounced the move for its obvious offense to our national heritage site.

We need that same outrage for another battlefield under assault.

First, imagine if a thin seam of coal was found under the Wilderness Battlefield, or Union Square in Manhattan or the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, and the local governors signaled their intention to work a backdoor scheme to allow an absentee coal company to blow up and then strip mine the historic landmarks, for a handful of non-union jobs, as the rest of the economy sinks.

Now consider this breaking news update today from Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia: “Manchin administration officials moved this week to have Blair Mountain–site of the landmark 1921 coalfield labor battle–removed from the National Register of Historic Places.”

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Strangely enough, the state officials “found” some landowner objections that hadn’t been considered in the extensive long-time vetting process.

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With the ink still drying since the historic Blair Mountain in West Virginia was added to the National Registry with great national applause, after years of debate and research, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin’s administration’s haste in conjuring a landowner dispute over the legendary range exposes him to a growing caricature of an out-of-touch politician from last century.

First, Blair Mountain is not simply the site of a famous labor battle in the coal wars, or the place of the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War, when thousands of union coal miners and World War I veterans literally marched and fought to liberate coal camps in southwestern West Virginia held hostage to the whims of ruthless absentee coal companies in 1921.

Blair Mountain represents an attitude that is as relevant today as it was in 1921; that the long-term jobs and safety and health of coal miners and coal mining communities must be placed above the profit interests of outside coal companies.

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In 1898, the United Mine Workers fought and bled and won an 8-hour workday. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act into law in 1933, granting all miners and workers the legal right to belong to a union without any repercussions, “a wave of mountainous proportions” swept through the coalfields of Appalachia, whose battle at Blair Mountain was finally vindicated.

“Rather than foster the development of tourism and long term sustainable jobs,” says former underground union miner and recently decorated West Virginia History Hero Wess Harris, publisher of the definitive book on Blair Mountain, When Miners March, “Joe Manchin and Randall Reid-Smith, director of the Division of Culture and History, prefer to disgrace our state before the entire nation by tossing our proud Union history to the hounds of greedy out of state corporations. We need both Bill Blizzard and his son, William C. Blizzard, now more than ever. Fortunately, like Joe Hill, they are both still with us and fixin’ to go on and organize! I hear they are thinkin’ it may be time to march.”

That leaves me wondering what it’s going to take to get Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, to march again on Blair Mountain, and demand an end to the union-busting job-stripping community-dividing mountaintop removal operations by non-union companies?

Two months ago in Washington, DC, huddled in the back of a restaurant with a cadre of journalists, I found myself listening to attacks on West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin for his support of mountaintop removal. Noting the gold rush of other governors for green jobs initiatives, investment funds and loans to attract new industry to their states, one veteran journalist referred to Manchin as “our generation’s Theodore Bilbo,” Mississippi’s infamous segregationist governor who took his narrow-minded populism to the US Senate during the Depression.

His point: Even if Manchin, like Bilbo, could manipulate the divisive coal issue to eventually win a Senate seat, his legacy in Washington, DC would be forever dirtied by his servile deference to outside coal companies, such as Richmond-based Massey Energy, and their devastation of Manchin’s home state.

Gov. Manchin: The nation knows that mountaintop removal is one of the most egregious human rights violations in our country. The nation knows that over 500 mountains in Appalachia, and over 1,000 miles of streams, have been destroyed.

But I defended Manchin, as I have in the past: I have always appreciated his sincere doggedness regarding mine worker safety laws and his long-time commitment to coal miners. As I have done for years, I also feel compelled to remind cynical journalists that Appalachians have not only been on the frontlines of the coal wars, but served on the frontlines of our nation’s struggle for Independence, and led our abolitionist, labor and civil rights movements. That the first muckraking journalist brave enough to take on corruption in Washington, DC was legendary West Virginia writer/editor/publisher Anne Royall in the 1830s.

But I’m done defending Manchin and his pathetic capitulation to the outside coal companies to destroy the symbolism of Blair Mountain.

It’s time for the venerable Sen. Robert Byrd to step in and demand an end to this nonsense of wiping out Blair Mountain and Appalachia’s great coal mining heritage.

Because the destruction of Blair Mountain is the ultimate sign to the rest of the nation that Manchin’s barking dogs of the coal industry continue to rule him. Meanwhile, the caravan of the new green jobs initiatives sweeping the nation–and a sustainable transition from a coal mining economy to a renewable energy and green manufacturing economy–is leaving Manchin behind in the 20th century.

While Manchin likes to shine his state’s new motto–West Virginia: Open for Business–the journalists in DC knew that Manchin’s refusal to embrace a transition to a new green economy, while other states in southern Appalachia continue to grow and flourish and celebrate their beautiful hills, valleys and historic towns, was the reason Forbes Magazine had ranked West Virginia at the bottom of its list of states for best business.

Which side are you on, Governor? A sustainable future, and long-term jobs and healthy communities for Appalachia, or a blast to the past of mountaintop removal?