What Were They Thinking?

This by John McFerrin. John is the editor of The Highlands Voice, the monthly newspaper of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy

What Were They Thinking?

What were those people thinking?

We see pictures of policemen at the Selma Bridge beating African Americans with clubs.  We read stories of African Americans sitting at lunch counters, asking to be served.  All they got was spit upon, mustard squirted on them, and ridicule.  We see pictures of George Wallace standing on the steps of the University of Alabama, declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!”
I was alive for the last days of the legalized segregation known as Jim Crow.  I can recall seeing a laundromat with a “whites only” sign.  What was the great evil they were avoiding?  Was it all that terrible if the overalls of a white person had to occupy the same washing machine that had once been occupied by the overalls of a black person?

We look back at those times and it all seems ridiculous.  The people at the Selma Bridge just wanted to vote.  The people at the lunch counters just wanted a cup of coffee with a side of respect.  People just wanted to wash clothes.  They wanted the mundane things that everybody takes for granted today.

So what were people thinking?  The answer is that they weren’t.  At some point in their lives they had latched onto the idea that African Americans were inferior to white people.  That idea had seeped into their very souls, become as much a part of them as breathing.  They no more had to wonder whether African Americans were inferior than they had to remember to blink every few seconds.

Had they been thinking, they would have remembered that the idea that African Americans were inferior—and the slavery that that idea justified—had led to a disastrous civil war.  They would have remembered all those lessons in school about colonists shouting “no taxation without representation.”  Did white people really think that they could go on forever taking African Americans’ tax money and never let them vote?   Did they think we could ignore forever our own Declaration of Independence, the part about the self-evident truth that all men are created equal?

From the perspective of fifty years later, it is obvious what the white people should have done.  They should have put away their clubs and said, “Just sign right here, and we’ll see you first Tuesday in November.”  They should have said, “Coming right up.  Would you like a doughnut to go with that?” We might have ended up the same place we are now but we would have gotten here a lot sooner and without as much turmoil and bloodshed.

That they didn’t is because they just didn’t think.  They just let this long ago adopted, and never examined, idea about the inferiority of African Americans take over their brains.  Once that happened, the actions of George Wallace standing in the school house door, the club wielding policemen, the lunch counter and laundromat owners saying no all followed naturally.  No thinking required.

The idea that African Americans were inferior to white people is not the first bogus idea that has seeped inside us and led us to unwise action.  It won’t be the last.  Today we have another one floating around in the brains of West Virginians, or at least in the brains of West Virginia’s elected leaders.  The pervasive, but never examined, idea is that what is good for the coal industry is good for West Virginia.

This is not to say that the coal industry is comparable to slavery.  Slavery is evil.  There is no argument that can be made in its favor.  The coal industry has been a mixed blessing.  It has made it possible for lots of West Virginians to make a good living.  It has also given lots of West Virginians black lung.  It has paid a lot of taxes.  It has polluted our air, polluted our water, and pounded our roads to bits.  It has been our economic leader for well over a century.  It has led us to the bottom, one of the poorest states in the nation.

While there could be legitimate disagreement over the value of the coal industry in West Virginia now and in the past, it has one striking feature in common with slavery and its big brother, white supremacy.  Just as the idea that African Americans are inferior seeped into our soul until people followed it without thinking, the idea that what is good for the coal industry is good for West Virginia has seeped into the soul of West Virginia politicians until it is acted upon without thinking.

The examples are everywhere.  In 2009, when other states were looking for ways to diversify their sources of energy, West Virginia did the same.  Many assumed this would result in the development of such sources as wind, solar, geothermal etc.  West Virginia being West Virginia and all, West Virginia passed a law that defined alternative sources so broadly that it included burning coal.

By 2015, it was clear that the law did not prevent the burning of coal and that there was no evidence that it ever would prevent the burning of coal.  Acting on the assumption that the 2009 law might somehow, someday, in some undefined way hurt the coal industry—and the more important assumption that this was what the coal industry wanted—the legislature repealed the 2009 act.

Is this the action of a thinking body?  With a coal industry that will not be here forever, wouldn’t a thinking body want to start developing an alternative source of energy?  Or is this just the action of a body that listens to that part of its brain that bleats, “Coal industry good” and then acts without having to think?

Then there is the reaction to the proposed Clean Power Plan.  It would limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.  As soon as it was proposed Wests Virginia politicians joined in a chorus, bleating, “Coal industry good, Clean Power Plan bad.”  There were predictions of the end of the coal industry, economic catastrophe, blah, blah, blah.

Yet the only serious study that has looked at the requirements of the Clean Power Plan found that the opposite is true.  The study was done by the Center for Energy & Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law and Downstream Strategies, a Morgantown consulting company.

It concluded that, properly implemented, the Clean Power Plan could promote economic growth, provide energy savings for consumers, while making significant carbon dioxide reductions.  It does this through a mix of energy efficiency, more use of natural gas, and more use of renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar power.

Did the study make any politician stop and think?  Did anyone say to themselves, “Hey.  Maybe this Clean Power Plan is not such a bad thing”?  Not that I can tell.  To the extent that it penetrated the brains of any politician it ran smack into the What’s Good for the Coal Industry is Good for West Virginia idea and disintegrated on contact.  It never had a chance to reach the “promote economic growth” and “provide energy savings for consumers” parts of those brains.

Finally, there is the state’s reaction to what President Obama calls his Power Plus Plan.  It would provide one billion dollars over five years to restore lands and waters degraded by decades of mining and support sustainable development projects.  It would provide fifty six million in job training for laid off miners and 3.9 billion over ten years to shore up health and retirement benefits for retired miners.

When asked what he thought of such a program, one of our Congressmen declared, in effect, “Coal now, coal tomorrow, and coal forever!”  Accepting money to cushion the blow of a declining coal industry (which is already happening) meant giving up the idea that the coal industry would forevermore be here, bestowing its beneficence upon West Virginia.  He wanted no part of it.  He would turn down any amount of money if it meant questioning his core belief about the coal industry.

Energy policy is hard.  For all its faults, the coal industry is here.  Its decline will require significant adjustments.  We all want energy; figuring out the best way to provide it and use it is not easy.

It is doubly hard for the West Virginia political establishment.  The brains of that establishment are so clogged up with the idea that what is good for coal is good for West Virginia that they can’t think.  All it can do is rattle on about the war on coal and compete for bragging rights on who can fight back most effectively.

We have to do better than that.  Otherwise, people will look back fifty years from now and say, “What were those people thinking?”

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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