Coal & Quietism

By Don Rollins

For those of us raised in the shadow of King Coal, last month’s Upper Big Branch cave-in was another heart-wrenching, but hardly shocking turn of events. Coal costs. Always has. Water tables get contaminated. Mountains get sheared. Lungs turn brown, then black. And people die.

Generations of Appalachians grew up knowing and accepting these things. Our aunts and uncles and cousins who moved to Cleveland or Akron tried their best to get us to follow. They came home at Christmas, telling stories of an easier life. But most of us held a worldview that pretty much stopped at the county line. We did what we knew; and what we knew was coal. And so we stayed.

My generation was twice-removed from the scourge known as the company town, but Upper Big Branch, with its anti-union ethos and shoddy safety record, conjures up that era. Company towns were just that: whole communities built by coal operators around their coal mines. And they were easily recognized: substandard, cookie-cutter housing; price-fixed company stores; company-owned watering holes; political structures designed and manned (as in men only) by company owners and their proxy hirelings. Miners and their families lived in company houses, drank company whiskey, wore company clothes and lived under the thumb of company government. Save for the church, there was little humanity to be found in those burgs. (For an artistic reference point, see John Sayles’ brutal 1987 film, Matewan.)

Nearly every story about our grandparents came replete with some reference to mines and mining towns. Company towns were the organizing narrative for their lives — huge canvasses upon which our family lore was taught. So it was that we, who left the region as adults, were fairly shocked to learn that similar stories were happening in other places. In West Virginia, Kentucky and southern Ohio, it was coal. But in Texas and Oklahoma it was oil. In Nevada, silver. In northern Minnesota and Michigan, iron. Different regions, different buried treasure. Same family labor lore. The defining characteristic of “company town culture” was neither region nor resource: it was quietism.

Quietism, understood in its early Christian context, is the belief that one should ignore the temporal events and suffering of this world in order to be happy in the next. It’s a deal with God to make do here and be rewarded there. An old hymn, common to both black and white theology and gospel music, “Farther Along”, nails it:

Faithful till death, said our loving Master

A few more days to labor and wait

Toils of the road will then seem as nothing

As we pass through those beautiful gates

Farther along, we’ll know all about it

Farther along, we’ll understand why…

Quietism, secular as well as religious, has been the enabling subterfuge for all manner of American injustice. Its vestiges remain. But quietism, as manifested in American mining, is not what it used to be. Though the heyday of unionism is long gone, those who organized and went to jail — and, sadly, picked up the gun — did not do so in vain. Their vision of humane treatment for workers has impacted both mining and no small portion of the workaday world. (Not even the monolith known as Wal-Mart can escape at least sporadic outcries against unjust labor practices, so ingrained in our collective psyche is relative workplace fairness and safety.) And it’s to Congress’ credit that Massey Energy (the mining company behind Upper Big Branch) is on the carpet for those 29 dead miners. Good indications, all.

But try telling that to the families of the 29 non-union miners who died last month — the ones for whom the Upper Big Branch mine will forever be part of their survivors’ family lore. We can’t say for sure what role anti-unionism and psychological, social or political quietism played in that tragedy, but we know for a fact that union mines are some 50% safer than their non-union counterparts. And we know that the “Careers” tab on Massey’s Website is still operational.

Perhaps one day we will be forced, by a sheer, sad number, to get serious about the human cost of coal. Evidently that number is more than 29.

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2010

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