Interview with Joe Begley
BROADCAST: 1970 | DURATION: 01:02:43
Interviewing with Joe Begley while Studs was in Blackey, Kentucky.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Seated on the porch of Joe Begley's General Store, he and his wife, Mrs. Begley, Janelle Begley, run. We're in Blackey, Kentucky. Blackey is eastern part of Kentucky, it's mining area. The Cumberland Mountains in view, not too far from the Virginia border. Sitting with Mr. Begley who has been--has your whole life been spent here?
Joe Begley Yes. I'm 52 years old and I've been here all my life. Except a little time in the Navy and I spent about three years in Connecticut working for an aircraft corporation just before World War II. I spent a little time in the Navy in the state of Washington as a torpedoman in the Navy, and then most of my time's all been spent right here. I was born and raised here. To me, I've been all, pretty well all over the United States and as far as I'm concerned, I would pick Appalachia even with all the troubles we have here. Well, I still hope to be with it till the end. And the way stripping's--and operators are strip mining and things like that look like the end is near. We had one of our brilliant lawyers here whose written many books. Harry M. Caudill. And I believe he wrote the book "Night Comes to the Cumberlands". In my opinion, the book was named wrong, but in my opinion, he will write another book and it will be entitled "Death Comes to Appalachia".
Studs Terkel As you're talking, Joe Begley, your town, you're talking about strip mining and the love you have for this area and the dangers to it. Suppose we go back to the beginning, we'll come to strip mining in a minute. How would you describe Blackey?
Joe Begley Blackey, at one time about 45 years ago, and I imagine that would put it back when the big mines first came here. About the time they built the railroad in here. About 12 men was here, and of course they come after coal, along about 1911, probably 1912, that were a little before my time. [car driving by] But Blackey here about 45 years ago was the big coal industry were in here, that was deep mines now we're talking about. And all of Blackey was built up in and around these big mines. [car pulling in] And the people here in the lower end of Letcher County, it's mainly people that's been here for 130 years. The upper end of Letcher County from Whitesburg on up, there's people that came in here with the mines of other nationalities and they're--most of them is not original people. But getting back to Blackey here, they had, for instance, today it's not too big. There's approximately 300 people here, mainly about 100 people in main Blackey. They come off of the [unintelligible] Creek, make up about 300, but 45 years ago there seemed to be a lot of activity here with the big mines and this little town was built up. Along about that time and there were several--most all of it was brick buildings and they had a bank. They had a restaurant, they had a picture show, they had a street, only one street. It's very wide, similar to a western town. You know, a cement concrete street. But the big mines worked out and moved on ahead and it left a lot of people here without jobs and they've survived here, I guess, by a little farming, then a lot of them work for the school system, still some deep mining activity goes on here.
Studs Terkel Just to explain to people "deep mining", you mean people going down into the shaft, you know, way below the earth, into the bowels of the earth. In contrast to strip mining which is mining the surface, we'll come to that.
Joe Begley Okay. Deep mining is good. It's the industry here. We're all in favor of deep mining. There's plenty of coal here. [car driving by] And it should be deep mining. We are against strip mining, augur mining, or surface mining. They're all the same as complete destruction to the hills because a strip miner goes to the top of the hill and on the very top of the hill he takes the whole top off, levels it off. And the overburden, he just blasts it and push it to the outcrop and this will all eventually come into the streams and [unintelligible] and polluting the streams, it's taking all the wildlife. It's ruining people homes, destroying homes, running people out, and it's an ugly, indecent way to get coal. [car driving by] It's cheap, dirty coal, and it's being influenced by our government. Our government owns and operate TVA, for instance, Wolf Creek Dam in this day. That's all owned by the government. Now we don't have anything for strip mining operators. They're usually people coming into Kentucky and I call them sidewinders or rattlesnakes or whatever you want to call them. They come in from other states and they're destroying Appalachia.
Joe Begley These companies and they're--they have the law on their side. We here, if a rattlesnake invades us and we kill a rattlesnake, the law is in back of us. But an operator is another kind of a rattlesnake. He's got the law on his side this time, and it's complete destruction and we don't necessarily blame the operators. We don't have any use for them and they need to go, but we blame the people that's letting them do it to us. And I'm talking about elected officials. Elected official, they should be a man or people that is servants of the people, but it's not like that. It's the other way around anymore. And one of them, [Sanderson?], goes before a grand jury in his local county and his local government failed him, and when he goes to the state and the state government failed him and this type of thing. And then when you realize that the government and those legislators are owning and operating like TVA and the big dam. It's pretty bad. [car driving
Joe Begley I'm glad you mentioned the power. We don't think that--we know for a fact that the crisis is not like that. We know for a fact that in Reno, Nevada, next to a gambling joint, they have a silver slipper there that's lit up by light bulbs and power operated neon lights. And from that one silver slipper, enough power is generated into that one neon sign that it would furnish power to 3400 five room homes to poor people. So there's no such thing as a shortage of coal here. [car driving away] I can see why there might be, when I know for a fact that not long ago at Northampton, Virginia Railroad Yard they were 56,670 ton railroad cars of coal waiting at a dock to be loaded to go into Japan. Quick strip mining coal here. It's a shame that the people in New York State and in Washington, D.C. would say there's a tremendous shortage of coal and we want to keep warm, that they would compromise the few people in New York to completely bury the people in Appalachia to keep warm a year or two. I wonder what's going to happen, at the rate the operator is going here, what's going to happen in a year or so when all this coal is gone. Then what are we going to do and what are they going to do to keep warm?
Joe Begley Yes, it's quicker coal. A strip mine operator can load 150 railroad [tons?] of coal while a deep miner trying to produce 50. [car pulling in] So you see it, and the strip miner has Big Earth equipment and he knows nothing about a coal mine. He's not a coal mine operator, he's a big machine operator. These are highway construction people that's doing this to
Joe Begley Well a deep miner--sure, there was danger. They've got all kinds of danger, but I think [car driving by], you know, we're talking about industry, now we're talking about money. And an operator, deep mine operators, they've always made a good bunch of money. They're not willing to spend some of the profit that they're making to make it safe for a miner. I worked in the mines. I'm afraid of the mines. But when you get in your automobile, you are in much more danger than a deep miner is because in automobiles, you know, you have license to kill. But mines, deep mines, can be made safe. Recently we have some completely safe mines.
Joe Begley No, just very little, but I wanted to find out what they were like, but I'm not saying [car driving by] that I'm going to go along with the deep miners because they've had a hard life, a very hard life. They are working underground and they are working in the dark. They very seldom see daylight and they're--usually have worked awfully hard. They've got all kinds of troubles like Black Lung disease. Some of them can't hear. They all have stomach trouble. Their attitude toward other people is [unintelligible] and dark and backed away. They're--it's because, I think, it's because they work by themselves in a deep mine. They work 8, 10, 12 miles with millions of tons overhead, you see. And it's been dark for them and they've just not met a lot of people. They're good people, they're honest people, but they've--you know, they've had a hard life. They've been butchered up by [slate folds?] and electrical. They've had--they've been electrocuted some and they have broken bones. It's pretty bad and their hearing's bad because of--I guess it's the atmosphere on the inside in a deep mine. So I think now that some of the bigger mines is beginning to see that the little man is the man that they're making them the money and they're providing a better wage. And they're coming up with all kinds of safety precautions that they've never had to do before because I think the general public is on them now. They are seeing what's being done. And I think it's beginning to work out a little better, but we've only mined here in Appalachia about 20 percent of the coal. That means 80 percent of it is still here.
Studs Terkel Deep
Joe Begley Deep in the ground. And what we would like to have is to get rid of the stripping and ban it from the earth forever because it is no good and it's not a decent way for a man to make a living for his family and we need deep mines and we want deep mines. And we support the coal industry, but we don't support strip mining.
Studs Terkel Some of the deep mine coal operators, or as you say, haven't had safety devices, you know, I'm thinking about the dangers down below as well as up above. You're talking--you said something about a miner's life. A miner works in the dark all his life, so when he comes up the few moments he does to see the family, go back into the bowels of the earth again. This colors his view of life too. Does he become sort of fatalistic about it, accepting his lot?
Joe Begley Yes sir, he just seemed like he works under--there's no doubt about it, he works under fear. [car driving by] But he's accustomed to it. He knows that in the end he's going to go anyway and it's kindly a way of life for him. It's a hard life. I don't know if he would admit it or not, but at least when he leaves home, he's not sure that he's going to come back. He's had the life similar to a police officer. You know, a police officer, he has a fear, he dreads it. But he--I don't guess he's afraid of it because he--his job comes before fear. He's got a job to do and he can dread this and still work and load coal. But I think it's--a deep miner is--he's just--it's a kind of--it's a different variety of a person. He's worked. That's about all he knows. And he's in trouble physically and mentally. I mean, there is a mental disability of it. This stuff happened to him. I can't hardly describe that. But he's not an ordinary person the way I'm talking to you.
Joe Begley Black Lung here is--I think that's some of--most of our trouble here. We have probably thousands and thousands of men that has Black Lung. [car driving by] One of the things here, and I'm glad this was mentioned, the people here in Appalachia is poor people. Now I'm going to talk about the miners and all, and they've been poor people for 130 years. Some of us--some of them is illiterate people. We've not had--they don't know their rights. And just recently we beginning to get legal aid to the poor people. They had to teach these people and to show them that they do have legal rights. And this has been a tremendous help, but when people, you know, here in Appalachia, they is not like--we're not talking about a man from the East Coast. The East Coast been up there for 350 years. They've had good schools up there, they've had medical facilities, and they've had extremely good doctors. People in Appalachia for 130 years has been their own doctor. They've had a hard life and they've tried to survive. They've made their own medicine, what few books they've gotten. There's--in a roundabout way, the education system here is not what it ought to be. And in my opinion, I'm gonna say this, I think it, I'm entitled to think anything I want to. I think the people in Appalachia has been dominated by coal industry so long that deep miners, the older ones, the retired ones that don't--that has Black Lung that's had a tremendous time trying to get this Black Lung. They really can't see that they've been dominated, but in the Black Lung thing, they're all seem to--they're breathing's bad. They're in real bad shape, but they haven't been able to define the difference between Tuberculosis and TB or Black Lung.
Studs Terkel Emphysema.
Joe Begley Emphysema. And we need--in this part of the country [car pulling in] we haven't got reliable institutions that can take X-rays or laboratory clinic to really determine what this man--what stages of Black Lung he has. This is something that is going to have to come. He has to be represented by legal aid and that costs money and if he doesn't have the money, there's some of the things that he's just not going to reach. [unintelligible]
Studs Terkel Something else I thought you were mentioning there, Mr. Begley, talking to Joe Begley in front of his general store on the porch, Highway No. 7 goes through. [car driving by] We see the mining camp that is the town of Blackey. A customer just passed by. [laughing] I was thinking she's very funny. But come back, Mr. Begley, the old miners. They ever question the operators? Did they ever question the operators, the old miners, you know, who have Black Lung? [car driving by]
Joe Begley I think most of them accept that. I don't think the union, I'm talking about UMW, United Mine Workers of America, has backed their men up financially. The Black Lung victims is being paid by federal government, taxpayers' money. And I don't think they recognize the union. The UMW should be doing something about these men. They've paid their dues in all these years and now they're being neglected by their union. And their union says that the government should pay these people. I know that somebody should pay them. But I think the thing that caused their disease, ought to be doing something about it. I think that the deep miner maybe ought to recognize. And this Black Lung condition is still going on [car driving by] and the operators has caught this disease. It's still influencing this thing right on and on and on. But they're doing it, in my opinion, to some extent that the government and taxpayers ought to be paying this.
Joe Begley We're talking about now deep mines, mechanical mines. With all the technical machinery that they have now, it's eliminated. For instance, I imagine a machine now can load 16 times more coal than a man could. And mechanics, new modern ways of mining has, you know, gotten rid of a lot of deep miners. They've lost their job and for the first time here recently, we haven't had deep miners on our side. I'm talking about anti-strip miners. The deep miners just didn't want to take a hand in it because when you mention mining, that's them. And they rather not do anything about it. But I think now they're realizing that strip mining is--they have coal now running after years all over and the mines is down here and--[voice in background] ok, excuse me just a moment.
Studs Terkel Sure. While Mr. Begley was answering a phone call, I'll just ask him one thing, it'll be something about his home. Mr. Begley just returned from answering a call, here's another victim, a man sitting here on the porch of Mr. Begley's General Store. We're talking about strip mining. You describe about where you live and what's happened there.
Austin Well, where I live, they have this big road goes about 600 feet, you know, above it. They cut these big trees around the hill, and then this dirt all goes over then the trees to hold it for a certain period of time. And then after these trees rots out, water gets behind it, all slide down, cover your home up. And that's almost all of these augur jobs, they call them, strip mine jobs.
Austin They just pull out and leave. You don't even know--maybe you don't even know who the company's name is. [car starting] They operate under so many different names, you know, you just can't keep up with them. After they pull out and leave [car driving away], you must [unintelligible] get in a lawsuit, you don't even know who to law to start with.
Studs Terkel I think because we came down the big highway, first the Mountainside Parkway, then the other highways, 15. [car driving by] We see roads and we see greenery. We don't quite see where the slag is, right behind. Right behind.
Joe Begley What Austin was talking about there was the operators avoiding coming near the highway. What they are doing is wrong and the operator knows that it's wrong and if he can avoid the highways [car driving by] where people can see what he was doing, that's what they try to do. [car driving by] But we've had so many counties now, they're beginning to get into the place and such a demand for coal, they don't give a damn who sees them. And it's really bad. You take Knox County, we have a representative in Washington, D.C. That's his county and that's Carl D. Perkins. Knox County is almost completely destroyed by strip mining. In my opinion, there's no hope of industry coming there because I can't see why industry would want to come to something that's already torn down. The pollution in the area's on Yellow Creek and on Lost Creek and on Ball Fork. And all over not Knox County, it's beyond anything that you've ever seen. It's complete destruction. That's typical all over here. Austin has talked to you about the operator working our place out and we've been into the Reclamation Commissioner's 350, which is a joke to us. That's supposed to be a commission that reclaims the land. He's talked to you about the operator working a place out. In a couple of years, he dissolves. He's moved out and he's gone. And the people here done--and then it comes in on them. The whole mountain comes in on them, runs them out of their homes, destroys their garden. They don't know who to go to now to get damages.
Joe Begley Right, right. You know people, when it's raining, they avoid living in their home. Bill Sexton and Carly Emmett Sexton's already moved out. Bill Sexton told me that he hadn't slept in his home for three weeks because he stayed with his neighbor. He was afraid to stay in it because it was raining and the big slides were coming in, and he didn't know with what they were going to cover him up.
Studs Terkel You know, I think of something else, Mr. Begley. You spoke of automation and one machine to do the work of oh, many men. What happens to the men who were displaced by the machines, the deep miners and the others? Where are they now? What happens to them?
Joe Begley Well I think we have--I believe here in the four counties--I work in a poverty program and have been for five years. And we have about 90,000 poor people, that's people that is under 3600 dollars a year. We have some people here that nobody's claimed, not even the government, and I'm talking about dirt poor people. I don't know how many of these people are, but I think, in my opinion, they are some of the people that you are talking about. Miners that's been cut off from their job and these are people that there's no federally funded program for them. [car driving by] There's no way that we can figure out how to reach them except I foot some of the bill and my neighbors foot the bill and our community foot the bill. This a little community here [car driving by], for five years we've made a tremendous effort to build it up, to paint the houses, to build some houses for poor people to see that they get some of the things that they're entitled to. [car driving away] We built bridges and many things like that. And that is one of the reasons that we're against strip mining. [car driving by] Strip mining tries to tear down while we've been building for five years here.
Joe Begley Right. I think that the people here for 130 years has been beaten down by injuries so many times, we formed a group here, Citizens League, to protect the surface rights. To keep the gas company, we're doing the same thing as the strip miners were, but not as much, so we had to leave the gas company and go onto the strip miners. But I ask the people and they come to me and they say, "Mr. Begley, we've been beat down so goddamn many times. What the hell's the use to stand up and fight now?" We need to win some battles [car driving by], and I think we beginning to win some battles. And we've got some--I think we've got some battles that we're going to win that we haven't reached yet. I don't know if this thing here in Appalachia can be settled without violence or not. I hope it can, but when I read American history and I know what's happened and the massacres that's going on, we're prepared for it. We're not afraid. We're going to fight strip miners to the end, to a dead end. This is hard to say. This is something that I've been taught not to do in school. I was taught to recognize the American flag, to pledge allegiance to serve in the Navy, and do what I--do my part. But now that I'm 50 years older and these things is being produced by our Constitution and our local government, they've got the attitude of bulldozers. And I just don't believe poor people is going to sit still and take this. Now a man can't run scared. If he does, he might as well end it now anyway. And we're prepared to do--we want to do it legally and politely. That's what the Constitution of this United States says. That's all it says. Do everything you can [car driving by] and if you're in trouble, legally and politely. And then if you can't get justice, why, these are the ways to do it. I'm not going to rule violence out. I don't want violence. I preach not violence. We've got people that want to be violent. They've got a reason to be violent. But when I see them--when I see the deer go and when I see the beaver go and I see the fish go and the game go and the streams go and they are chopping at the hills. And I know--the last thing is now they're beginning to chop at the last thing here, the hills and the people. And when all of this can happen in my 52 years, you know, you begin to wonder just where is the end. And what are we going [car driving by]--how are we going go about doing this? We've went--we've written millions, hundreds of thousands of letters. We've asked people to write them. They're interested, they come from all over the United States. There is little organizations like ours all over the United States with about the same kind of complaint. We know what's happened in Vietnam. We've got--we're fighting people in Vietnam that we don't even know. I was in the Navy in the Tonkin Gulf 25 years ago with the Navy, and Ho Chi Minh and all his people was our friends. The Japanese was our bitter enemy. Today my son fights in Vietnam, he's fighting the very same people that was a friend to me and against something else. You know, you--we're confused. I'm confused. I don't know if--I just really don't know what's happening here. It's a terrible time.
Studs Terkel Sitting with Joe Begley on the front porch of his general store in Blackey, Kentucky. This coal camp town is now being strip mined. Well the question, Mr. Begley, is how did you, yourself, get this way? The steel you have, this knowledge of putting two and two together. How'd this all come about in your life?
Joe Begley Well, I'm trying to determine the good from the bad. And when you work for the good and you are influenced by somebody else for bad, that's what I say. At one time back in 1958 for a little while there, I guess what you asked of me, what started out. In 1958 for a year or so there, I believed in something 100 percent. And at the same time, I was against it 100 percent. I think that--I think maybe that is the trouble, that man is trying to determine what's happening, you see, and he's confused a little bit. But then after a year or so, then I saw that with all of the pollution, with all of the destruction [truck driving
Joe Begley Yes. I think most of our people is pretty solid here in the lower end of this county in Blackey and around Blackey. We have the League. We brought it about. I think we had 127 people that signed with us in the name of the Citizens League to protect their surface rights. That means that [car starting] they come from families which, in my opinion, would be about 350 people. I think if you took a poll here, a vote, that it would be unanimous against strip mining.
Joe Begley Some people here, they've worked for the coal industry so long [car driving by] that they're just a little bit afraid to, you know, to say too much. They'd rather kindly avoid the issue, but I noticed we know a lot of the--a few of the men. A very few people who work on these strip jobs are local people, very few of them, not very many at all but very few. The ones that do is ashamed of what they are doing. And they've indicated it by many times. And a lot of them that work on strip jobs, they just don't talk to me. You know, they'll avoid me because they are for me, but they're not going to say
Joe Begley Every one of them that we've had--each and every one of them has admitted it to the other men that it's a job. They did the job, but they've got families, you know, but they're ashamed of what they're doing. They'd rather be doing something else, but these operators ought to be building highways if we need highways. And I'm not completely convinced that we need too many highways, but it's another way of making a living. It's indecent, it's savagery, it's butchery, it's any way you want to call it. When I look ahead, and I try to look ahead, and that's why, you asked me a little bit ago, I started, why I got in. It takes many reasons, our little fellows, school children. I think [car driving by] the books that they're reading is not what they ought to be. You won't find the March of the Cherokee, 1890, in a school book. And I can remember the kill of the buffalo in the West, that was bad. Now people say that's bad, it shouldn't have happened. What I'm looking for and what I'm trying to do is to do it legal. I'm trying to put the influence in local, state, and federal government, and I'm trying to come up--have them to look at the problem and try to come up with a device. I think we've got one of the best constitutions in the world, but it's not being enforced. [car driving by] And it's not being implied onto other states and I'm looking for those people to have a law that can stop complete destruction before it happens or at least want it to happen, and I think this is a thing that we need doing. The people is--has to go what our legislators do and what the people in Washington, D.C. do. And this is--the laws of the land doesn't fit the needs of the people. It's been demonstrated all over the United States. I think Kent State would be an example of that [car driving by] and in San Francisco and in Detroit. If things doesn't happen, this country is going to go up in flames. They're going to really tear it down, loot, and burn and that's bad. We don't want that. We believe in law and order. I believe in law and order. I was a police officer for four years. I will--I didn't do it to be a troublemaker. I did it to be a peacemaker. [car driving by] I had no trouble at all. I went along with people who was in trouble. Somebody's got to go along with people that's in trouble. If they don't, they'll always be in trouble. And it takes very little effort, but it's got to be from all of us.
Joe Begley That's right. I just don't think that they've--I think we've outgrown and the population of people is coming. And I think our court's just bogged down. I think we need to--I know we got men
Studs Terkel You know what impresses me about you, Mr. Begley, and I'm very overwhelmed. That's you being here in the general store in Blackey, Kentucky, eastern Kentucky. It's you know what's going on all over the world and you connect it all. You connect it all with human needs. There's something that you were saying about this committee to protect surface rights. Do you mind explaining that? Is it true that in Kentucky, a company can have mineral rights [cars driving by], that a farmer can own the land but the top can be destroyed and he won't have any right about it?
Joe Begley A broad form deed. A broad form deed was manipulated 90 years ago by skillful attorneys from the East Coast, Pittsburgh mainly. They came down here 90 years ago, a little more, 90 to 100 years ago. And the people--and they got here. The people here wasn't educated people. They didn't have good schools like they had on the East Coast, and industry sent those lawyers down here to manipulate for them. And they bought the rights of what they called natural gas and timber. It mentioned nothing about--it mentioned a little deep coal, but it didn't mention anything about stripping and bulldozers and all of that [car driving by]. But this broad form deed is old and ancient and it's no good. It was bought--it was obtaining goods under false pretenses. And in eastern Kentucky and maybe one other place in a [unintelligible], this thing exists. [customer asking question] That short one out there in that box is all I have and right there on the porch. Right on out, toward the door.
Studs Terkel A customer there. This is Begley serving a customer there. You were saying about the broad form deeds. And so they had these lawyers out manipulating and getting rights that the farmer wasn't aware he was giving away. Is Right.
Joe Begley that Right. We've had [pressed?] into all of these broad form deeds or all we can know about that's been signed by an "X". That meant that the landowner didn't know how to read nor write. And it was very easily deceived. I have a broad form deed here that was written in 1890 and it completely took everything that landowner had. And it explains it in that five page broad form deed, and I'm surprised that the man that bought that, the company that bought that, why he didn't say just as soon as they signed an "X", you people--well he bought you out here lock, stock, and barrel. But now the children and the grandchildren of these broad form deeds [car driving by] recipients, they didn't know. They thought they owned the land. Most people think they own the land here, and they've even wrote the song "This Land Is My Land". We've got a broad form deed and it's a legal device that says it is not your land. And long as it's like that, it's going to be trouble here.
Joe Begley Yes. A lot of young people leave here. And they go away and they get an education. They has no reason to come back here. What are there here for them to come back for? The out migration here is what has really hurt us. If we had that migration of people back all at once, we couldn't handle them here. But we've got trade schools, vocational training schools here for young people. I can see the need of a vocational training school. I went to one of them myself. But who are we training people for? We're training people for New York City and Detroit and all over the country. We need these skillful people back here. All we do need, in my opinion, is some small industry. But to get small industry here has been one of our problems. We've been--we are talking about domination here again, and I think maybe that this is why we don't get small industry here. [car starting]
Joe Begley Most--it's one company, but there's several mining industries here. You know, something like Southeast Coal Company, Bethlehem Steel, [unintelligible], Island Creek Coal Company. They're all, you know, mining institutions.
Joe Begley I think most of them were, but we're not in a typical--one of the old deserted pull-out mining towns. Black--in the upper end of the county, and I'm talking about McRoberts and Fleming-Neon, Jenkins, and places like that. They've moved on up into the upper end of the county. And then we have some big mines that's going back in toward Harlan County in the way of the head of Leatherwood and Linefork.
Joe Begley Most of them--I think most of them work for--in the school system. Many of them work for a railroad company. Many of them work for the state highway department. A few in the gas company now. We've got a new gas field here that our governors tell us that we don't have any gas in this state, but we've got statistics on it and we do know that we do have a tremendous gas field here. That's why we're going for a tax extraction law. A tax extraction law is a severance tax. A severance tax has been--is the only salvation for Appalachia. A severance tax, we would ask for five and ten cents on a ton of coal and natural gas that would be taken out of Appalachia for 130 years now. Over 5 billion dollars has been taken out in natural resources and not a penny of it's come back
Joe Begley At five and ten cents a ton. They ought to be willing to pay that. They've always paid 40, 50, 60 cents a ton to the union, UMW union, and I can't see why that they can't pay it to the county in which the mineral was taken out of. We're not in favor of it going back if we get it and I'm hoping that we will. If we get our severance tax, it would mean 1,200,000 dollars a year to Letcher County Fiscal Court. Peoples already lost that tax here by broad form deed. You can see why we don't need a broad form deed, and you can also see why we don't want our minerals to go back [car driving by] to the General Assembly in Frankfort and be divided up by 120 other counties.
Studs Terkel You're really talking about robbery, aren't you? You're talking about burglary, land breaking, sort of, you know, housebreaking, land breaking, aren't you? In a way, this is what you're talking about. Yeah I'm thinking, Joe Begley, as we see here, it's a beautiful day in late September. It's green. And you spoke of your love for this community, this region. So I suppose you go back to your memories. When you first remember this region, what was it like? Well, just your own free association, memories of this region.
Joe Begley This, to me, was a national park. Undisturbed. Like many of them are now these days. There was no litter here, the streams were pure. The timber was green. There were many kinds of timber. There was all kind of wildlife. People--there weren't as many people as we have now. It's big enough here for people if we can preserve it, not let it be torn down. But, to me, I guess this--I've talked about greedy people and I guess this is where I would be a little bit greedy. [car driving by] The hills, to me, was something that God put here in the beginning. And they've been here for I imagine four million years. And they weren't put here to be torn all to hell by bulldozers and modern equipment. We are talking about a water--natural water basin here. I hate to talk about it like that because in 25 or 30 years from now, and I can see it, the rest of the United States is going to be polluted so bad that they going to need Appalachia for a natural water basin to furnish clear drinking water to the people of the rest of this United States. But we're going to have to yield probably to that later. I don't believe in destruction. I don't know--I can't see timber, I just--somebody called me a conservationist. I don't know who on Earth wouldn't be a conservationist. I can't see destruction, the wildlife. I'm not only talking about wildlife. Wildlife is gone, I saw that go. I'm--we're talking about human beings. I'm seeing those people go. The out migration here is an indication of it. And I can see at the rate the operators and destruction are piling in on us now, I can see in a year and a half or two years things is going to--we're making our last stand. We're making the same stand that George Armstrong Custer made against the Indians at the Big Little Horn.
Joe Begley Right. My grandmother was Cherokee Indian and she talked, tried to tell me what they--what those people were like. She could remember her folks are telling her about our soldiers. Federal soldiers are marching 15 or 20,000 Cherokee people out of here into North Carolina, into Georgia, scattering them out. Now she's tried to tell me about this.
Joe Begley That's right. It's not in the textbook. And then, you know, the massacres. There was a massacre at the Big Little Horn and a few days after that 170 survivors, Indian survivors of the Big Little Horn, soldiers regrouped and they went in and and they killed every last one of the 170 or 75 people. [car driving away] A few days ago at Attica, New York State Prison, the same thing happened again. They had another massacre there. And that's why that I mentioned before that [car driving by] we need to work with the law. We're law abiding people here. We always have been. But, you know, people can just be pushed so far and we don't know what we are doing. I thought I did. [car pulling in] I think under certain circumstances none of us know what's going to happen or what we will do. But we want to do it, we want to survive. We want our people to live here. We like it here. We've been here all this time and all we want is just to be left alone. And we welcome people to come, we want them to come here, this is a big land and we want to keep this. But if we tear down the very thing that we're going to have to survive on [car driving by], you can see we do have trouble here.
Studs Terkel One last thing, Mr. Begley, I know this is during the day when you're very busy at the general store here. But your thoughts--you connect everything past and present from this back porch here in Blackey, eastern part of Kentucky. People come in and out. It's just, you saw your ancestors pushed away and massacred and you, in a sense [car driving away], see it happening now too in more subtle ways. The bulldozer instead of the gun is doing it.
Joe Begley Yeah and the Black people, the Black Lung victims, the colored, the Negro people, the white man, the poor people. I can see a few people left in Appalachia and I can see we've got 12 minerals here. I could name them. We are familiar with them and we know that this is a precious pearl here. These old mountains, these big mines, they're named. Like Jewel Ridge, Blue Diamond. Where do they get--where are these names coming from? They know that this stuff is here. And they sure that they can get them without destroying everything. They can be deep mined. They can put our people to work. There's room for industry here. These people that's doing this should be looking. If they've got men qualified to automize, to put men out of work, by God, they ought to have some of those same people to put men back to work. To
Studs Terkel To work. That's one last thing. We're in--I'm in border country now. This is Kentucky border country, near the Virginia border, not too far from the Tennessee border. You mentioned Black people. [car driving by] And the oppression people in big cities have is that border country people, you know, would be anti-Black or racist, would be--now you're implying something else here, aren't you? About poor people.
Joe Begley I think here we've got a variety of people. With modern communications and with people coming to the aid of people that's in trouble, we've got all kinds of people from many [car driving by], many parts of the United States. We have--I imagine we have something like a half a million people that's in or stood in Appalachia and what's going to happen to Appalachia. People from the outside now is beginning to realize that it is a small place. There's a small population of people here. And they realize that things is going to happen here and we--they are coming. They are looking at us. And I think eventually that we can get to where we can see a little light. But it's not in the immediate future. But we certainly don't want to sit down and we've only got one way to go. We've got a short time to get there. Our destination is short, in my opinion. And if a man is 50 years old or if he's got grandchildren and he hasn't done something about the environment, he's waited too damn long. And now is the time, it's now or never.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Joe Begley Right. That's exactly what's happening and then we just--and it's multiplying on us, it's a cancer. And we are fighting it with Aspirins and that's no way to cure cancer and we've got to do something beyond what we're doing.
Joe Begley We have--I don't know. I can see a coalition in the government. I think people is beginning to get [car driving by] together now. I don't know when this will happen, but I know since we've [car driving by]--our short time of approximately eight or nine months, we've managed to pull poor people together. We are approaching it at many angles. We're approaching it through meetings, through songs, through people like you. News media, radios, any way that we can do something for our people and our poor people especially. We're looking. We don't know the answer. We're looking for
Joe Begley No sir, I appreciate you coming down here. You was a stranger to me before you came here, but we've been able to talk here. I said a lot of things that I believe in. [car driving away] I hope, I think if we're wrong, if our group of people is wrong, the whole world is wrong. And I certainly appreciate you coming down here. I've been glad to aid and assist for the benefit of the people in Appalachia. I certainly have no intentions of doing anything and wouldn't want to offend anybody or anything that would hurt them. Because that's not our attitude. We want to help them. And that's what we've been working drastically hard at it. We are getting people to join us now. And I think we're all American people and we just want to stay that way.
Joe Begley What I was referring to was the laws of the land doesn't fit the needs of the people. For instance here, we've been working hard to build this little community up and some of our neighbors wanted to develop some jobs and we was trying to develop some for them and we wanted to put in a laundromat and a car wash. The thoughts were that we could do it in a way that wouldn't pollute the streams by buying the right kind of soaps and detergents. But our health officer here condemned it and the state right off the bat. Yet they let these strip mining operators and the deep mines. There's a tremendous amount of acid polluting the streams completely. And I can't see why that little people would have such trouble with the laws when the influence from big mining industry and all these big strippers, why that they would want to crack down on the little people and let people like that go. A few weeks ago here, this stream here at North Fork Kentucky River is almost completely polluted. There's about 10,000, 11,000 miles here that's that way. But a few of our boys, local boys here, were fishing and a conservation officer got them for fishing without fishing license. I sell fishing licenses here at the store and these were my neighbor boys and I went to the county courthouse and I just happened to run into the game warden. He's a good friend of mine. And I asked him, I said, "I hear you got some of our boys--young fellows for fishing without fishing license and wrote them some citations." And he said, "I did." I said, "Did you write any citations for these big mines, the big mining industry or these strippers?" And he looked at me and he dropped his head and he kindly grinned a little bit and he said, "Mr. Begley." He said, "I'm going to tear all of these up and let's just forget about it." [laughing] So this is, you know, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. These [fathers?] said he was fining young people. They don't have the money to pay fines. The court would have got it. It hurts people and as long as we have these kind of conditions [car driving by], we always going to have poor people. When this government spends 9 billion dollars here trying to feed people, food stamps and vouchers is not going to do it. This is costing taxpayers money and we need--all we need is better standings. [car driving by] We need the laws of this land and we need some enforcement down here. We need our legislators to look at what's happening
Joe Begley I can see our courthouse, our local court here and I imagine it's in all of the nine counties in Appalachia. They seem to be similar. All of our court officials is, in one way or another, in the coal business. Our county judge, our county court clerk, our sheriff, elected officials. And this way things is--the poor people is just not got--they're beat to start with. For instance, we had a young fellow here. His land was being destroyed by strip miners and he went to one of the attorneys here. There's only one attorney and that's Harry Caudill that's with the poor people [car pulling in] and not with the big industry. And this boy went to an attorney here and he told him, he said, "Young fellow." He said, "You've got a good case, but you can't win that case." So, you know, he's that way, young fellow defeated to start with.
Joe Begley Right. And this same young fellow just got back from Vietnam. He got all kinds of citations for killing people [car driving by] that he didn't even know. And he came back here and he runs into this sort of thing. What's this young fellow--what's his attitude going to be? He's getting a new education and he's getting it the hard way. It shouldn't be like that. A lot of young people is seeing it like this. They see it as an end. You know, if I challenge that, I'm going to have to go all the way and this is, you know, hard for American people to think