Harlan County, Kentucky, “where miners’ fierce battles against deadly working conditions remain a symbol of union grit and militance … has occupied an outsized place in the American consciousness,” Jeff Kelly Lowenstein writes for In These Times, noting the 1976 documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. But now, “Harlan is also an emblem of the hard times that have fallen on coal country.”
Eastern Kentucky has lost more than half its coal jobs in the last five years, and that “presents young people with a hard choice. Many end up leaving families behind to seek factory work in cities or mining jobs in southern Illinois or Alabama,” Lowenstein writes.
Some laid-off miners “are placing their hopes in a Donald Trump presidency to revive the moribund coal industry,” Lowenstein reports. “Others, like Bobby Simpson, draw on religious faith and a ceaseless work ethic to keep going.” Simpson, who is blind, runs the Cranks Creek Survival Center, “a nonprofit that provided food, clothing and home repairs to area residents for decades” but now has no money. “All agree on the region’s bleak present and dim future.”
“It’s not good,” Chester Napier, 75, a former mine truck driver. “Some of the politicians say they’ll bring the coal back, but the coal will never be back.” Lowenstein’s story is illustrated with stark, black-and-white photographs by Jon Lowenstein.
The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.