It’s the happiest Saturday of the year here in West Frankfort, Illinois. The town is celebrating the 75th edition of the Old King Coal Festival, a celebration of the local coal mines. There are carnival rides, a large stage with live music, and a parade. A procession of parade floats, classic cars, and fire trucks inches along the run-down and oft-deserted main street. Children scamper into the street, excitedly snatching up the candy being scattered from the floats. The newly crowned Princess Flame waves from her perch atop a bright red convertible.
Squint your eyes a little, and things look the way they used to, back when West Frankfort was the coal capitol of Illinois. In those days, the annual OKC Festival drew an incredible 200,000 people to town.
But the festivities belie the somber truth.
Coal still provides the vast majority of the electricity coming out of America’s wall outlets. Yet coal production here has decreased by 15% since 2008. This is in part due to power plants switching to cheaper sources of energy, such as natural gas. And due to competition from coal mined in countries where labor is cheap. It’s also the result of stricter environmental regulations in the United States itself.
The boom years are a thing of the past. The population of West Frankfort has shrunk from 20,000 to around 8,000. Young people listen to their elders brag about the rough and tumble days of working in the coal mines. But for the young people here today, there is no work.
Casualties of mining’s downfall
Twenty-two-year-old James is watching the parade from a chair in front of his rented apartment, his two tiny dogs seated in his lap. James’ last job, a temporary position for which he had to move all the way to North Dakota, was in the oil industry. Now that he’s back in West Frankfort, the best he can hope to find is a position in fastfood that pays eight or nine dollars an hour. Which might have been a good gig when he was sixteen, but it won’t allow him to support the family he hopes to start.
“I hate not having a job,” he says. “I hate being dependent on my fiancée.” He makes a pinching gesture with thumb and index finger almost touching. “I feel about this big.”
A short distance away stands 84-year-old Kenneth. He and others of his generation were among the lucky ones. Or relatively lucky, anyway. He worked underground for decades at depths of well over 600 feet. While he admits the work was dangerous – “I thank the good Lord I’m still here” – he loved the job and loved his buddies in the mine.
And the pay was good, too, sometimes as much as $50,000 a year. That money trickled out into the rest of the community.
But now, after close to a century of prosperity fueled by coal, an era is drawing to a close. The town now breathes a mix of wistful nostalgia and desperation. Nearly everyone you talk to in West Frankfort has a story about how great the mines used to be and how hard life has become.
Robby, a former truck driver now on disability, stands watching the parade in a white undershirt. He waves to the procession. As if the glorious past itself is passing by. As if he’s waving goodbye to it. He worked for the mines from the time he was 16 years old, he tells me. “Most young folks leave town these days because there’s no work around here anymore,” he says. “If I was young, I’d do the same.”
Betrayed by their own government?
Now you might be thinking: That’s too bad and all, but coal’s time has come and gone. The sooner people accept that, the better.
But folks here see it differently.
To them, coal wasn’t just a job – it was their identity. “We’re coal people,” is something you hear a lot. "It’s what we do."
And what’s more: many of them see the downfall of coal not as an inevitability, but as a political betrayal. One perpetrated by Barack Obama in particular. It’s because he has made environmental regulations so strict, they say, that coal has fallen out of favor.
They have a point. Obama introduced the Clean Power Plan. It was intended to force power plants to make the switch from fossil fuels like coal to cleaner sources of energy.
In recent years, the Democratic Party has voted against coal interests on a number of occasions. The party knew that doing so would cost them votes in mining areas (many miners vote Democratic), but would win votes among environmentally-conscious urbanites. And there are more urban voters than miners. The Democrats don’t need miners any more.
And so: a Facebook page
Last February in an attempt to combat that feeling of powerlessness, a coal man named Bob Sandidge started a protest movement.
Or, better said, he and his wife Kelly simply created a Facebook page. They dubbed it “The Coal Miner’s Movement.” The page received 13,000 likes before the weekend was out. To date, they’ve garnered over 30,000 likes.
They list five points of action on the movement’s own website:
- We want the war on coal to stop.
- We want to be on a fair playing field with all other energy sectors.
- We want investments for clean coal technology.
- We want the people in America to understand all the positives of coal.
- Get rid of the illusion that coal is one of the dirtiest fuels around.
Bob is at the Old King Coal Festival as well. He has a stand, with the slogan “Stop the War on Coal”. He’s getting a chance to address the town from the main stage. I speak with him shortly before his speech.
Bob: “This war is destroying communities, homes, families. We talk to people who are in tears because their husband or son just lost his job.”
“We – like everybody else – are in favor of clean energy,” he continues. “But why isn’t the government investing in cleaner coal-burning plants in order to preserve all these jobs?”
It’s a message guaranteed to resonate in West Frankfort. Many of the miners here see coal as a God-given resource that could potentially support their families for hundreds of centuries to come. They don’t understand why they can’t just keep doing what their parents and grandparents did.
So they join the mine workers’ movement. And what is that movement planning to do, exactly? Will they march on Washington, D.C.? Bob isn’t sure yet. First they need to become a force to be reckoned with in this election year – and get the local politicians to finally listen.
Words of salvation welcome
Miners certainly aren’t what you’d call typical Americans. Still, you could view their fate as an extreme version of what’s happening in the country as a whole. After nearly a century of unprecedented prosperity, economic growth is no longer self-evident. Younger generations wonder if they’ll be able to achieve the same level of affluence as their parents did. Working hard or going to college is no longer guaranteed to earn you a piece of the American dream: the only certainty these days is student debt. The privileges to which people have become accustomed are being dismantled.
And just maybe, that uncertainty about the future is harder to live with than the actual experience of poverty. It’s the forced abdication that has angered many. In any case, many Americans are angry in the town where King Coal used to reign supreme.
Still, there is optimism in the air at the OKC Festival, thanks especially to the protest movement founded by Bob and Kelly Sandidge. That optimism might seem irrational, as market analysts see virtually no future for the coal industry, and concrete plans for making coal great again have yet to take shape. But it’s in the most uncertain of times that people are most receptive to hope.
It’s no coincidence that many of the town’s residents intend to vote for a savior in the form of Donald Trump. Or that Bob Sandidge’s baseball cap bears the slogan Make Coal Great Again.
—English translation by Liz Gorin and Erica Moore
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