Category Archives: History

Enough with the Destruction

‘The Resistance’ can count me out if all it seeks is destruction

By Michael M. Barrick

I am an old hippie who has no use for the ways of the established order. Ask the CEO of any corporation or the principal of any school for which I’ve worked. Or the pastor of any church I’ve attended. Most “order” is based on outdated, controlling systems designed to destroy creativity, and hence freedom. That leads to injustice.

I was raised to recognize and oppose injustice. I was also taught to do it peacefully. I was also taught there were great costs to standing against “The Establishment.” I learned that mostly the hard way.

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I still oppose “The Establishment” even though my generation is the establishment. I am with the disaffected and dissatisfied. I am not satisfied with the direction of our nation. I believe “Citizens United” has led us down the path of crony capitalism even worse than the Robber Barron era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In short, the inordinate control that corporations exert over our personal lives and political systems as a result of that Supreme Court decision have so polluted our national discourse that this outcome – violent resistance – was inevitable.

It is still unacceptable though. “The Resistance” must reject anarchy. Too many protesters are leaderless with no clear purpose short of destruction. If they wish to improve how our nation cares for the poor, vulnerable and the environment (I think that’s what they want other than Donald Trump’s head), they need leadership. Now.

That would – should – come from progressive clergy and politicians. The anarchists have legitimate complaints. There is truth to the saying, “If you want peace, work for justice.” There is plenty of injustice today. No ordinary American would ever enjoy the bailout received by Wall Street. Police departments do not need to be militarized. Energy companies such as Dominion and Duke should not be allowed to destroy the environment and seize private property through eminent domain to build fracking infrastructure. The War on Drugs is a complete failure, leading to the unjust imprisonment of tens of thousands of people, mostly minorities. We are spending more on the military than ever before even though we can’t muster the will to provide health coverage for all Americans.

So, one can understand the anger.

Violence, however, is not the answer.

To appreciate that, one needs a sense of history. There is talk on street corners no matter where I go that people say they’ve never seen our country in such a mess. I have. It was 1968.

The Vietnam War was at its peak, with thousands of young Americans subjected to an unjust draft. It was called the Selective Service System and it was very selective. If you were in college or could get a deferment because daddy had connections, you weren’t selected. So, eventually, the working class youth had enough of it and started burning draft cards, fleeing to Canada and even occupying buildings. Yes, there was some violence, especially at the Democratic National Convention, but that was largely precipitated by Chicago’s ruthless police.

Also in 1968, blacks, a century after the completion of the Civil War, were still having to fight for economic justice and attempts by white supremacists such as Alabama Governor George Wallace to deny them their constitutional rights.

The nightly news in 1968 was dominated by headlines about war, domestic unrest, racism, and political assassinations. We’ve been here before.

The most obvious attack upon the Civil Rights movement was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But he was not the only person killed that year. So was Bobby Kennedy, as he closed in on the Democratic nomination for president. So were activists and students. The nightly news in 1968 was dominated by headlines about war, domestic unrest, racism, and political assassinations. We’ve been here before.

As I did then, I turn to music for guidance. The folk and rock protest music of the 1960s and 70s helped stop the Vietnam War. And, the most popular group of the decade, the Beatles, spoke to the madness of 1968 through their song, “Revolution,” which was released in November of that year. Compared to many other groups, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Beatles had been relatively silent on political issues – until John Lennon penned “Revolution.”

Here is the first verse: “You say you want a revolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world. / You tell me that it’s evolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world. / But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know you can count me out.”

Well, 50 years later, nothing has changed. I want to change the world. There are literally as many ways to do that as there are people willing to do it. But when you are destructive, you lose me as an ally.

Being destructive is being lazy. It shows a lack of real thought about how to address our many disagreements. It sets a horrible example for our children, and converts nobody. It is unbecoming of a human being. So, if we wish to convince others to be more humane, we must set the example.

No violence. No destruction. Only love.

Try it. It is my experience that in the end, to be effective, you’ll only have time for love.

© Michael M. Barrick. Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash

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A Few Questions for White Supremacists

What crimes are written on your skin?

By Michael M. Barrick

foundingfathersThe Rev. William Apess, an ordained Methodist minister and Native American (he was part Pequot), put in writing the questions below and asked them of his white audience. He did this in 1833, nearly 200 years ago. Sadly, his questions remain relevant today – perhaps more so, because after two centuries, it is startling to think that every white person in the United States has not been forced to ponder these questions. In any event, here is what Rev. Apess asked of his white Christian brethren:

Now let me ask you, white man … have you the folly to think that the white man, being one in fifteen or sixteen, are the only beloved images of God? Assemble all nations together in your imagination, and then let the white be seated among them. … Now suppose these skins were put together, and each skin had its national crimes written up it – which skin do you think would have the greatest? I will ask one question more. Can you charge the Indians with robbing a nation of almost of their whole continent, and murdering their own women and children, and then depriving the remainder of their lawful rights, that nature and God require them to have? And to cap the climax, rob another nation, to till their grounds and welter out their days under the last with hunger and fatigue. … I should look at all the skins, and I know that when I cast my eye upon that white skin, and if I saw those crimes written upon it, I should enter by protest against it immediately and cleave to that which is more honorable (“The Native Americans,” p. 299).

I enter my protest. I cling to that which is more honorable – the truth that all people are created equal. The dishonorable truth is that white nationalists, supremacists and the KKK are ignorant, abhorrent blemishes on the white man’s skin. As a white man that is descended from “Indian killers” as my forefathers shamefully bragged, I am mortified. I repent. To atone for these sins, all that I can do is shine light on this truth – that no race is superior to another.

© Michael M. Barrick

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Our Way of Life

“Our way of life” requires
a war machine says the president.
He is not the first to say so;
“The Donald” is just more blunt.

Despite the feigned consternation
of the chattering class, this is our history.
A continent conquered through genocide,
the slaughter completed when Chief Sitting Bull was shot down.

An economy sustained by slavery,
its history screams of man’s inhumanity to his own.
Tolerated far too long,
it could be ended only by Civil War carnage.

Industry was built on the backs of laborers
as crony capitalism profited all but the workers.
War was waged on miners in the West Virginia hills
while children in Southern textile mills labored to the bone.

An empire was built
from Cuba to the Philippines.
Puppet dictators were established here and yonder,
while we fought undeclared wars in Southeast Asia.

We have been at war
since our children were – children.
Our granddaughter has yet to live
in a world in which we don’t wage war.

We justify it easily,
even though the boxes we call home
are filled with boxes of stuff.
It is, after all, Our Way of Life.

All “dire threats” to it
will be destroyed.
If in doing so we obliterate ourselves –
it is Our Way of Life.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

Sitting Bull quote

Memorial Day not about Celebrating War, but Ending it

We honor those who gave ‘the last full measure of devotion’ by working for peace

By Michael M. Barrick

George Barrick

George M. Barrick Jr.

It was May 1950, about five years since Morgantown, W.Va. native Lt. George M. Barrick Jr. had returned from World War II, recipient of two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart for meritorious action and wounds received during the Battle of the Bulge. During those five years of peacetime, Lt. Barrick – a direct descendant of Morgantown, W.Va. (then Virginia) founder Colonel Zackquill Morgan – had graduated from West Virginia University with a Bachelor of Arts, received his commission as an officer in the U.S. Army, had fallen in love and started a family.

On May 12 1950, a short paragraph in the social pages of The Morgantown Post noted a visit by Lt. Barrick. It read, “Lieut. and Mrs. George Barrick and their infant son George Barrick III, arrived last night from Ft. Benning, Ga., to visit in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Max Mathers and Mrs. Margaret Barrick on Park street. Lieut. Barrick has been assigned to Japan for 30 months duty and will leave for San Francisco, May 29. Mrs. Margaret Barrick and Mathers Barrick (his brother) motored to Fort Mead, Md. to meet the visitors.”

Though it spoke of a new deployment, it did so without alarm. As it turned out, this brief account of a family gathering is also an account of the last time the family was together, for in less than two months, Lt. Barrick was dead, killed in action in Korea.

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George Barrick Jr. with his son, George III and wife, Sara, in Morgantown, W.Va. in May 1950.

The social announcement hinted at no such danger. Nearly five years since Japan’s unconditional surrender to Allied forces in August, 1945, the United States military continued to serve as an occupying force. So, the assignment seemed routine. That changed, however, on June 25 when North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel in overwhelming force, quickly capturing the South Korean capital and driving the surprised and disorganized army further and further south. Soon afterward, the United Nations condemned the action and authorized the use of force to repel the invasion. Based on this resolution, President Harry Truman ordered U.S. troops into the war. The closest – those overseeing the transition in Japan – were among the first to be airlifted into areas still under South Korean control, soon to be positioned in defensive positions among unfamiliar hills and valleys, with rifles and bazookas to hold off tanks.

So, in just over two months, a much different story was being told in the local newspaper. The Morgantown Post of July 26, 1950 carried this headline: “Local Officer Reported Missing in Korea Action.” Beside his photo, the newspaper reported, “This area’s first casualty of the Korean War was reported here today with the receipt of word that 2nd Lieut. George M. Barrick Jr., 26, has been missing in action since July 12.” The article continued, “Lieut. Barrick, son of Mrs. Margaret Barrick, was serving with the 21st Infantry Regiment of the 24th Division, the first American unit to go into action against the North Koreans.”

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George Barrick Jr. (left) with his brother, Mike, ca. 1934

It wasn’t until November, 1950 that his family learned for certain that he had been killed. It was even longer before he returned home. Indeed, it was more than a year since his last visit in May. Again, the local paper tells the story. In the June 20, 1951 edition of The Dominion-News, the headline read, “Body of Hero Brought Home: Barrick Rites Set for Saturday.” Again accompanied with a photo of Lt. Barrick in his uniform, the first full paragraph read simply, “The last full measure of devotion.”

The account continued, “Home yesterday from the faraway battlefield in Korea on which he died last July fighting under the country’s colors accompanied by a military escort, came the body of Lieutenant George Milton Barrick Jr., son of Mrs. Margaret Mathers Barrick and grandson of Mr. and Mrs. Max Mathers of this city.”

Max Mathers holds George Barrick Jr

Max Mathers with his great-grandson, George Barrick III in May, 1950.

After detailing funeral arrangements, the story continues, “Lieutenant Barrick was one of the most popular young men to reside in this city. He was a direct descendent of Colonels Zackquill Morgan and John Evans, Revolutionary War heroes and pioneer settlers of what later became Morgantown and Monongalia County.” The account revealed, “He was killed while commanding an ammunition and pioneer weapons platoon of the Headquarters Company, Third Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Division.”

He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on June 25, 1951, one year to the day that the Korean War began. Those present at his funeral Mass prayed, “O Jesus our Savior….Grant peace and eternal rest to the souls of all who were engaged in this whirlwind of war and were swept unto death.” Now, 67 years since these events unfolded, with peace still quite tenuous on the Korean Peninsula and around the world, there is no greater time to pray and work for peace – so that accounts of pleasant family gatherings such as those from May 1950 are not nullified by battlefield dispatches just two months later. Such prayers and efforts make the sacrifice of Lt. Barrick – and every person who has given “the last full measure of devotion” – worthy of honor.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2016-17. The author is the nephew of Lt. Barrick.

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Praying [Stefan Kunze]

Credit: Stefan Kunze

Don Blankenship Got by with Murder

His shameless contempt for working people is business as usual in West Virginia

By Michael M. Barrick

I was with my uncle once when he was appealing a local property tax assessment. He was told that he had the right to appeal, but that the appeals board could, if it wanted, actually raise his taxes if they deemed it appropriate. They could also uphold it, or reduce it, but that initial caveat was enough to give pause.

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Don Blankenship (Credit: Wikipedia)

It’s too bad that isn’t the scenario faced by Don Blankenship as he appeals his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court for conspiring to violate mine safety laws. He just recently completed his paltry one-year prison sentence for that conviction, which was based on charges after 29 coal miners were killed at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine, which at the time was owned by Massey Energy. Blankenship was its CEO and court testimony revealed that he was intimately involved in the conscious efforts to violate mine safety standards – violations that eventually led to the explosion that killed the UBB miners. These facts were supported by the “Report to the Governor” by the Governor’s Independent Investigative Panel. It characterized the April 5, 2010, explosion: as “ … a failure of basic coal mine safety practices.”

So, if there was justice in this country, Blankenship could appeal, but would face these options, as did my uncle:

  1. Conviction upheld
  2. Conviction overturned
  3. Conviction upheld, and the judges rule that the one-year sentence was a perversion of justice and that Blankenship is to immediately be returned to prison for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately only the first two options are available. So, the families of those killed at UBB are again subjected to another news cycle of Don Blankenship pretending he is not only innocent, but as he wrote in his little pamphlet after his conviction, “An American Political Prisoner.”

Meanwhile, surviving family members of the UBB tragedy are unwilling prisoners to the memories of their lost loved ones, for that and photographs is all that is left of them.

This, sadly, is too typical of the stories out of West Virginia. Don Blankenship got by with murder. His self-published book is infuriating; his continuing denials and appeals nauseating.

The state of West Virginia is the poster child for the horribly negative effects upon working class people by crony capitalists. This is not news. Sadly, to a large extent, the people of the Mountain State have brought this upon ourselves. We elect people to office who not only refuse to ensure proper laws and regulations are in place to protect miners and all of the state’s workers, but also instead roll them back.

The discovery of coal, gas and oil throughout the state in the 19th century led to an unholy alliance among industrialists and politicians; to this day, it continues to subjugate the people of West Virginia for its own personal profit. The judiciary is next to useless, as it is full of minions financed by – you guessed it – Blankenship. The new governor, Jim Justice, not only has a record of ignoring and delaying payment of fines for his own mining operations, he is the state’s richest man. He talks the game, but his record suggests that his preferential concern is for his cronies, not his constituents.

wv-dep-logoMeanwhile, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is known throughout the state as the “Department of Everything Permitted.” And, that was before Justice purged it of previous top officials who were constantly criticized by environmental and public health advocates. In comparative hindsight, they were true champions of the people. So, despite the evidence of extreme threats to public health and the environment, Mountaintop Removal permits are rubber-stamped by DEP, despite the best efforts of citizens and environmental groups such as Coal Mountain Watch, OVEC, and countless others.

Meanwhile, anyone attending the various meetings for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline has witnessed the collusion among industry, politicians and law enforcement, in scenes reminiscent of the West Virginia Mine Wars when private detectives and local cops worked for the coal companies. At one meeting in Jackson’s Mill in 2014, I saw several hundred residents – some who had driven more than two hours over the state’s winding roads – leave in total disgust. They saw that the cards had been stacked against them before they walked through the door. What had been billed by industry officials as a “town hall” was really an opportunity to spew forth propaganda. They aligned themselves as if at a trade show. There was absolutely no opportunity for citizens to ask questions in a public forum that would have allowed for give-and-take. The gas company knows how to silence citizens. But just in case they failed, standing outside were several county deputies dressed in full riot gear.

The message was delivered loud and clear: We’re in charge, this is a show, and there is nothing you can do about it.

It is this absolute control of West Virginia’s economy and political system by the fossil fuel industry that allows them to be disdainful of the people of West Virginia – and to cause Don Blankenship to delude himself into thinking he’s a political prisoner. The truth is, he is simply another fat cat conducting business as usual in West Virginia, and getting by with murder in the process.

State seal_old goldWest Virginia’s state motto is “Mountaineers Are Always Free.”

Well, we aren’t. In fact, it is we, not Don Blankenship, which are the political prisoners. If only we had the fight in us that Blankenship has. How long will we be prostrate at the feet of the likes of Blankenship?

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

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To receive a PDF of the Governor’s Independent Investigative Panel on the UBB disaster, send an email to michaelbarrick56@gmail.com

Take a Hike!

Mother Nature nurtures our souls with wonderment and beauty

By Michael M. Barrick

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MORTIMER, N.C.Wilson Creek is officially a National and Scenic Wild River. That federal designation, which took effect in the summer of 2000 is critical, as the purpose of the law according to The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Systems website, is “ … to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational value in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Wilson Creek earned its designation only because of hard work and cooperation among county and federal elected officials and staff.

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The “creek” which is certainly as much like a river as the stream it feeds into – the Johns River – deserves the designation. Scenic and wild it is, as it tumbles thousands of feet in elevation over 23 miles down the Blue Ridge Escarpment through the Pisgah Forest in northwestern Caldwell County. Through the millennia, it has carved out steep and imposing gorges as well as quiet ponds for fishing or tubing as it nears it confluence with the Johns River.

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Harper Creek, a major tributary of Wilson Creek near Edgemont, N.C.

Its headwaters begin on Calloway Peak, the highest point of rugged Grandfather Mountain at 5,946 feet. More importantly to me is that a favorite spot on it is just 18 miles from my front door. Indeed, on my last visit last week – as I sat on a rocky perch overlooking the waters below and canyon to the north – a couple of determined kayakers were navigating its boulders and rapids.

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Perhaps it is because of how and where I was raised, but my soul demands nourishment from Mother Earth. Its wonderment and beauty is soothing. Add the challenges of a strenuous hike and the focus it requires, and you can understand the origin of the expression, “Take a hike!” It was probably a wife growing weary of her husband, “White Hair Curmudgeon,” grumbling and mumbling.

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I have been visiting here now more than 40 years. Formerly used by the Cherokee as a hunting ground, it was eventually logged by the first European settlers. It was once one of the most vibrant communities in the county, but two devastating floods – in 1916 and 1940 – made worse by the muddy slopes stripped of timber, stopped industry and settlement in Mortimer, though more than a few hardy souls live here and in nearby Edgemont.

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In the summer, it has its share of tourists. On a winter weekday, though, there’s a good chance you’ll see far more critters than people. Especially while the leaves are off the trees, it is where I go to “listen” for whatever I might need to hear; to interact with nature – hawks, whitewater, giant cliffs, rocks, steep paths and more – that are just not available in suburbia.

To paraphrase Jimmy Buffett, when I place myself in wooded latitudes, it does wonders for my attitude. So, go take a hike!

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

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Read more about the National Wild and Scenic River Act

The Cost of Reaching the Moon Must Not Be Forgotten

Honoring the memories of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee

By Michael M. Barrick

Fifty years ago, the USA was shooting for the moon. In fact, exactly 50 years ago today, as I sat in the recliner at my grandmother’s house to spend the night, a news flash came on the TV that I will always remember – some of the men I considered the greatest heroes on earth had died in a fire in the Apollo 1 Command Capsule in a routine shake-down for their upcoming NASA mission.

apollo-1-astronauts

The Apollo 1 official crew portrait. L-R: Ed White, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee. Credit: NASA.

The three men who died that night were Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. I was most familiar with Ed White because two years earlier he was the first man to walk in space – a death-defying feat that I watched on TV. Indeed, I watched every launch and splash down, not to mention feeds from space during the mission (a marvel in itself), whether at home or in school.

Astronauts were heroes to me because they were modern-day explorers, risking it all.

In the turbulent 1960s, they were a welcome relief from the weekly body counts out of Vietnam and of those protesting the war (think Kent State); of fire hoses, attack dogs, beatings, false arrests and murders being the daily risks faced by Civil Right activists; and, national leaders being assassinated at an alarming rate.

I was a 10-year-old boy, soon to be 11. My imagination had been captured like never before – or since – by the space program. I grieve that my seven-year-old granddaughter has no such heroism to capture her imagination. These are perilous times, complicated by a momentum of mediocrity in our institutions and a very unpredictable president.

nasa-logoThe space program was an explicit acknowledgment that we could literally shoot for the moon despite all of our domestic and foreign challenges. We could do anything if we were focused enough. We taught our children that. We teach our granddaughter that.

For me, however, it wasn’t history. It was the future! Maybe even my future. What red-blooded American kid didn’t want to be an astronaut? We watched the space program unfold before our eyes on TV. Our granddaughter will see it only at the Smithsonian.

I watched those space launches and splash downs. I got goose bumps to see those astronauts emerge out of a helicopter onto an aircraft carrier to the salutes of those on board.

But on that evening half a century ago, they weren’t on my mind. I was enjoying the “alone” time with my grandmother and her cooking, as well as her unlimited supply of Coca-Cola.

And then the news flash. The heroes were dead, as explained in this news report from the next day.

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L-R: Roger Chaffee, Ed White, and Gus Grissom training for their Apollo 1 flight. Credit: NASA.

On that tragic evening 50 years ago today, as the newscaster interrupted the show I was watching, I rushed into the kitchen to tell my grandmother Grannyred – affectionately called so because of for her hair color – in sobs what I had just learned. She took my hand and we went back to watch the news. I think she thought it best I not watch it, but she was also a tough realist who really never shielded us from much of anything. Her favorite phrase (at least to me) might have been “Get over it” or some version of it.

Not this night though. She comforted. Eventually, exhausted, I fell asleep. I woke up in the chair on a very frosty morning, a blanket over me. She said no more. Time to move on I guess.

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NASA

NASA did. Two-and-a-half years later, I watched the first men land on the moon. Had astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee lived, it would have been them. Instead it was others. The men who died did not do so in vain. Lessons learned allowed NASA to accomplish the task assigned to it less than a decade earlier by President John F. Kennedy: to send and safely return a man to the moon by the ends of the 1960s.

Sadly, neither major political party is interested in reviving the space program. However, if you’d like to teach somebody young about it, I recommend the movie “October Sky” based on the book “Rocket Boys” by Homer Hickam. Hickam, a West Virginia native, was a NASA engineer.

rocket-boysIn the movie, Homer has a dramatic exchange with his teacher, Miss Riley. He says in desperation that his options in the isolated, southern West Virginia town of Coalwood are limited to do as his father and neighbors did – work the mines. Miss Riley responds firmly, “As long as you’re alive on this earth, you have a choice!”

It was true then and it is true now. So, if we truly want to honor the memories of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, we need to fund NASA. We need to go where no person has gone before. Let us give our children some hope in the midst of the terror. Maybe even, by turning our attention to the values of space exploration, it will serve as a catalyst for cooperation between nations – and one day, peace. It’s a much better use of resources than building a wall along the US/Mexican border and starting a tariff war in the process.

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© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

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A Tribute to Immigrants

People from numerous nations built Clarksburg, West Virginia

By Michael M. Barrick

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CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – I was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in this small West Virginia town in 1956. Growing up, there were clear distinctions between nationalities. A town settled primarily by Italians coming to work the coal mines in the late 1800s, it also has its share of descendants of the Irish, Polish and other immigrants that created the bustling community I enjoyed in the 1960s.

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Clearly, such progress would not have happened without cooperation. And it certainly would not have happened without the immigrants who gave blood, sweat, tears and their lives to power the nation’s steel mills and power plants. Yes, there were divisions; but generally, we benefited from the diversity. To this day, the proud heritage of the Italian families is evident in restaurants, bakeries, churches and family gatherings. The joy, the laughter, the bantering – and oh, the food!

Understandably, I grew up celebrating our town’s diversity, even though I wasn’t really conscious of it then.

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So, as the issue of immigration comes to the forefront this year, I hope you will consider my memories, and these three photos. They are of a tribute to the immigrants of North Central West Virginia. It is on the courthouse square in Clarksburg.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

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Two Caldwells: N.C. County Exemplifies the Appalachian Divide

Recent activities reveal not much has changed for decades

By Michael M. Barrick

 

caldwell-county-map(Note: Caldwell County, N.C. is in Northwestern North Carolina, along the southernmost border of Appalachia as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission. It is on the eastern slope of the Eastern Continental Divide, with the Blue Ride Escarpment stretching into the county. About half of it is mountainous, though the county and Appalachian region end at the Catawba River, at the southern end of the county. The mountains run southwest to northeast roughly parallel with N.C. Hwy. 18. North of that line, mountain ways still prevail; to the south, the urban Piedmont has infiltrated into what was once rich farm land – and, in places, still is – along the Catawba River. Based upon my travels throughout Appalachia, the observations in this essay apply to many regions of Appalachia trying to recover from its dependence upon a mono-economy).

LENOIR, N.C.  – Any essay or discussion about religion and politics is full of risks, even more so during the sacred seasons of Hanukkah and Christmas and the time of the African-American Kwanzaa celebration. Add in that we just completed the most contentious election season in memory, and we’ve got frayed nerves. So, first some disclaimers about what this essay is not about.

  • This is not a criticism of the Caldwell County schools or anyone working for them. I support public education. I have taught at South Caldwell High School, served on the School Board, was a Community in Schools mentor, and our children attended and graduated from the county schools.
  • This is not about the “right” to say “Merry Christmas.” I’m 60-years-old. Nobody has ever told me I couldn’t say Merry Christmas. If I’ve ever offended anyone saying it, I am not aware of it.
  • This is not about ensuring that we have a Christian nation. We are not a Christian nation. We have never been a Christian nation. I hope to goodness we never have a theocracy. If Donald Trump moves in that direction, you can be sure it’s for political purposes, not because of firmly-held values. I respect other faiths. I respect no faith. In fact, while it’s nobody’s business what faith I hold (or don’t), I can say that I sure do respect my many friends who are agnostic or atheist. Based on the way Christianity is lived out in this country, it’s amazing anyone claims the faith.

Which brings me to what this essay is about: Caldwell County’s contradictory natures. I’ve been traveling here since I was a young child and we’ve lived here the better part of 25 years. History and geography essentially divide the county in half; that it’s a bit contradictory is not surprising. However, our granddaughter’s recent Christmas concert at the school she attends here in the county – combined with the overwhelming support received by Donald Trump in Caldwell – revealed just how ironic and nuanced this county can be.

The Christmas concert was very well done, sweet and well-received. The staff, teachers and administrators are to be commended for the hard work put into it. However, I did not hear one Christmas song that was remotely sacred. That bothers me, because, well, for God’s sake, it’s Christmas! I may have missed it, and if I did, I apologize. Maybe they were given legal advice that prevented them from using sacred music. If so, such advice is questionable, because in the past, choirs have chosen to sing sacred songs; it was done at South Caldwell and courts have allowed them.

In any event, at the end, I imagined that somebody would get up, Jimmy Stewart-like, humbly grasp the microphone and say, “Well, uh … that was sweet, but I fear we have forgotten why we gather.” He or she would then start singing, “Joy to the World” and all in the room would join in.

I suggested it to my wife. She quickly nixed the idea. Plus, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

But still, I imagined it. Of course, it would have been inappropriate. It would have upset the children, disrupted the work of school personnel, and potentially escalated into something quite unpleasant. Still, it seemed like the reaction I expect from people who fiercely defend Christianity and all things Christmas.

It seems all the spunk has been taken out of them. That’s what happens when you can’t find work and your communities are slowly shuttered.

Caldwell’s economic decline because of its past dependence upon the furniture mono-economy has left many unemployed and underemployed people. Finding themselves unable to find new work, they have quietly receded into the decaying neighborhoods of our small towns or small homesteads scattered among our mountain regions. Meanwhile, a slow but growing influx of artists, musicians and craftsman offers hope.

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The L. C. Hudspeth Store – also known as ‘The Blue Store’ along NC 90 near Collettsville. For decades it served the people of the isolated mountain community. Courtesy of Bill Tate.

Geography is a challenge for us also. Northlakes is nothing like Edgemont. The booming south end of the county is more aligned with Hickory. Meanwhile, farmers in Collettsville, Kings Creek, Dudley Shoals, Buffalo Cove and elsewhere struggle to maintain family homesteads as retirees move into the mountain townships like Globe and Patterson. The artisans moving into Lenoir are adding a flavor to the town not seen since Doc Watson was playing downtown.

So, we do seem to have two Caldwells – the conservative descendants of the county’s settlers and the new settlers, looking to convert Lenoir into an art and music destination or live out their retirement years here.

The best description I’ve heard of Caldwell County was from then-Mayor Robert A. Gibbons Sr. roughly 20 years ago. I was working as a reporter at the News-Topic. My beat included the Lenoir City Council. It led to some interesting exchanges with Mayor Gibbons. When he retired, he called and asked that I tell the story of his roughly 25 years as mayor. In an exhaustive and entertaining interview in our conference room, a very relaxed Mayor Gibbons provided an excellent history of Lenoir and insight into the backroom deals not previously disclosed. Not every comment was printed.

However, one thing he said about Caldwell County was so characteristically descriptive and politically incorrect – not to mention arguably accurate – that I had to print it. I’m going from memory here, but I am confident that this is an accurate paraphrase if not exact quote. As we were concluding the interview, the mayor leaned closer to me across the table and volunteered, “You know, there are two kinds of people in Caldwell County. You have the folks living in the mountains that don’t give a happy damn about anything, and then you’ve got those folks who like that dancing on your tiptoes like they do at the Civic Center.”

That sounds like Caldwell County, circa 2016, to me.

With feet in both camps – a Mountaineer, but also a writer – I get it. As a mountain person, I just want to be left the hell alone. As a writer, I am compelled to seek avenues for my craft, avenues which often include me sticking my nose in the business of others. Obviously, these goals can sometimes be at odds.

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Caldwell County is blessed with natural beauty. Wilson Creek is just on example. It drops thousands of feet in Caldwell County. Photo by MB

The artists and musicians are in the minority. Their venues are limited. The existence of the Caldwell Arts Council and other robust efforts in the area are encouraging. Still, the question is, can the two Caldwells coexist? Can the young people filling Lenoir’s restaurants and bars in the evenings lives alongside those folks whose parents and grandparents filled the furniture plants once humming along 321-A? Election Day makes me wonder. Early Voting revealed a very divided community; for 17 days people screamed at one another as the Board of Elections failed to do its job. The school concert, though, brought folks together. For a short time, for our children, we set apart our differences.

That means we can do it in other ways too. So, wherever you fit in the spectrum, let’s remember we’re all neighbors. Feel free to celebrate your faith. But please be kind enough to let others choose not to. That will be a big first step in healing the wounds caused by a very contentious election season. Only then can we move together to help our community continue its recovery.

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! A Festive Kwanzaa! Cheers!

© The Lenoir Voice, 2016 

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Ken Hechler, an Inspirational Mountaineer

His life of service to West Virginia is an inspiration for all those seeking justice

By Janet Keating 

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Ken Hechler, front, at a rally to end mountaintop removal outside the headquarters of Massey Energy. Photo by Vivian Stockman.

SLANESVILLE, W.Va. – West Virginia and the nation has lost a true hero and people’s champion. Former Congressman Ken Hechler died at his home in Slanesville on Dec. 10. He was 102.

There are politicians, public servants and then there was Ken Hechler, a man in a class all of his own – military man, historian, educator, politician, activist and, my personal favorite, “hell raiser.” Those who knew him are familiar with his uncompromising commitment to justice and the betterment of all people in West Virginia, but especially for his advocacy of the health and safety of our nation’s coal miners. OVEC (Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition) members may know him best for his passion for democracy and our iconic mountains. As a lifetime member of OVEC, Ken was often a speaker at rallies to end mountaintop removal where he sang  “Almost Level, West Virginia” his parody of the popular John Denver song, “Almost Heaven, West Virginia.”

I came to know Ken in the late 80s during my first-ever plunge into environmental issues as a member of the Huntington Tri-State Audubon Society – working to “save” the Green Bottom wetlands, the third largest wetlands in West Virginia near Huntington, where the pre-Civil War home of General Albert Gallatin Jenkins still stands.  Ken, as a Jenkin’s historian and then Secretary of State of West Virginia, was familiar with Jenkin’s history and so joined with our coalition urging the state and federal government to consider managing the former plantation home, its wetlands and its significant Native American archaeology for a higher use beyond simply a hunting ground.  Not surprisingly, the media portrayed the issue as hunting vs non-hunting (though some folks were very concerned about birds of prey which frequented the area like Bald Eagles as well as the historic Jenkin’s home).

After several years of butting heads with both state and federal agencies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to hold a public hearing where Ken and others faced off.  Despite a room full of several hundred angry, shouting hunters, Ken stood his ground and voiced his concerns. In the end, a reasonable compromise was reached where the wetlands were expanded, the Jenkin’s home underwent renovations (and was managed for a brief time by West Virginia Division of Culture and History), signs were posted to alert hunters to the presence of protected birds of prey and native species were planted to provide wildlife habitat. Undoubtedly, Ken’s involvement garnered greater media attention and raised public awareness to the issue, than we otherwise would have had, a valuable contribution.  Presently, Green Bottom Wildlife Management Area has become a well-known location for bird watching and hunting, although the Jenkin’s home, despite the millions spent on its overhaul, is boarded up and no longer open to the public. Nevertheless, every time I visit Green Bottom, I am thankful that Ken lent his time, energy and “notoriety” to this unique site.

When the issue of mountaintop removal reared its ugly head, Dr. Hechler eagerly joined with community members and environmental activists hoping to end the destructive mining technique.  He was a member of Congress during the catastrophic failure of the Buffalo Creek sludge-dam in 1972 that killed 125 West Virginians, a tragedy which eventually led to the passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act in 1977 (SMCRA).  This bill, however, continues to be a failed attempt by the state and federal government to regulate surface mining by the coal industry. Ken was greatly concerned when the final version of the bill legitimized mountaintop removal (MTR) which was supposed to be an exception rather than the rule when it came to strip-mining; MTR was only to be used when a flattened mountain provided land for authentic economic development. While coal companies by law are supposed to return the former mountains to “approximate original contour,” unfortunately, states regularly issue permits with variances to that provision. As it turns out, Ken foresaw the destruction that would follow the passage of SMCRA – hundreds of thousands of acres of denuded, flattened mountains along with more than 2,000 miles of annihilated streams and disappeared communities. A favorite phase of Ken’s, “Akin to putting lipstick on a corpse,” was how he referred to strip-mine reclamation.

A notable event in Ken’s effort to stop MTR was his participation in 1999, while WV Secretary of State, in a re-enactment of the historic Miners’ March on Blair Mountain that preceded the 1921 Mine Wars.  In 1997, the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection had issued what would have been the largest ever mountaintop removal permit in the state.  At risk were not only the mountains and the small community of Blair, but also one of the most historic labor/history sites in the nation, where about 7,000 miners determined to organize a union were met with great resistance and after five days, halted by 3,000 armed “militiamen” organized by Logan County Sheriff Don Chaffin. This was the largest battle on U.S. soil since the Civil War where eventually the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Air Corps were called in.

A courageous Dr. Hechler, 84 at the time, joined the reenactment with a number of others (OVEC’s Laura Forman, Carol Jackson, CRMW’s Judy Bonds, Larry Gibson, Jimmy Weekly, and Cindy Rank to name a few) supported by several organizations including OVEC.  For many people, the application and issuance of a mountaintop removal permit at historic Blair Mountain, which could literally erase the dark history of mining, underscored the sheer arrogance of coal companies as well as the complicity of government agencies. While the reenactors were not met with guns and soldiers, they were, however, harassed every day by miners and others who pelted them with eggs, and much to everyone’s horror, also shoved and kicked Ken.

From a story about the confrontation during the re-enactment by reporter Rick Steelhammer, Ken stated: “I tried to think about Gandhi and Martin Luther King and how they would react. It’s important to retain your cool, but it’s difficult when people begin to wade in and rip up all your signs, throw eggs at the back of your head, grab away your West Virginia flag, and trip and kick you.”

That incident led to warrants and arrests of those who committed violence and eventually landed some people in court, though not in jail.  One of the Logan County perpetrators of the harassment eventually ended up serving in Governor Bob Wise’s administration.  I still smile when I think about Ken holding a sign at a protest that said:  “Kick me and get a job with Bob Wise.” And recently, the D.C. District court upheld the U.S. EPA’s decision to rescind the permit for mountaintop removal on Blair Mountain, another people’s victory in which Ken participated in a major way.

Ken Hechler’s legacy though far-reaching (and incalculable) was also at times very personal.  In particular, his influence on Larry Gibson, another mountain hero, was very special. Ken often traveled with Larry to colleges and universities throughout the country to talk about the impacts of mountaintop removal on land and people of Central Appalachia. Because of Ken’s encouragement, Larry went back to school to improve his reading and writing skills. Having become quite a duo, both Ken and Larry were interviewed by “60 Minute’s” Mike Wallace, who came to West Virginia to produce a segment on mountaintop removal.

Through nearly two decades, Dr. Hechler, admired by so many, continued to answer the call, showing up at events, protests and rallies – the most notable one, a rally and protest at the Marsh Fork Elementary School, in Raleigh County, where he, along with actress Daryl Hannah and NASA climate scientist, James Hansen, were arrested in a non-violent, direct action to draw attention to the great need for a new elementary school.  A massive and dangerous coal waste impoundment loomed above Marsh Fork Elementary School adjacent to a coal silo, a coal processing facility and a mountaintop removal site. Coal River Mountain Watch’s Ed Wiley began urging state officials to build a new elementary school after he picked up his ill grand-daughter who told him, “Granddaddy, this school is making us kids sick.” After 6 years of tenacious organizing and advocacy, a new school was opened where Ken Hechler had,  once again, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with those most impacted.

As someone who was deeply concerned about the state of our country’s democracy, Ken became active in campaign finance reform issues, especially when “Granny D”’s (Doris Haddock) began her epic 3,200 mile journey/walk from California to Washington, D.C. to elevate the need for supporting the federal McCain-Feingold bill. If passed, this legislation would help reduce spending on political campaigns. Ken walked more than 500 miles with Doris who turned 90 years old by the time she arrived in the nation’s Capital. When Doris arrived in Marietta, Ohio, Ken Hechler was on hand to greet and welcome her as she made her way across the Ohio River to Parkersburg, W.Va., to speak to supporters.

In 2006, Granny D and Ken spoke at a regional mountaintop removal summit dubbed “Healing Mountains,” that OVEC and Heartwood (a regional organization that works to protect public lands from abusive practices) organized. Doris and Ken reminded us that if we want to win our issues, we needed to be more inclusive and supportive of people of color.  You may recall that Ken was the only member of Congress that participated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights march in Selma. Union supporter, environmentalist, statesman, writer, historian, teacher, husband, father and add one more label – civil rights activist.

If you still need convincing about what an amazing man that Ken was, he had the most incredible memory of anyone I’ve ever met. My hunch is that Ken spent his remarkable life making really good memories.

Dear Ken, we know that you, of all people, have earned your eternal rest. Well done. You will be sorely missed.

This article originally was published on the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition website. It is reprinted with permission.

Janet Keating is the former Executive Director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (www.ohvec.org) who retired September 2016 after 24 years with the organization. Her latest endeavor, Green Shepherd, LLC, offers consulting and other services to environmental and social justice non-profits.