In the eyes of most pundits, the upcoming primaries in Appalachia -- including western Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia -- will most likely deal a blow to Sen. Barack Obama's ability to transcend the brewing racial quagmire in presidential politics. Didn't Sen. Hillary Clinton score a landslide victory among white voters in rural and Appalachian areas of Ohio? Conventional wisdom says Obama will never have a chance in "redneck" Appalachia, even among the Democrats.
Perhaps. But Appalachia could also provide Obama a historic opportunity to move beyond our racial politics with a truly new vision. Instead of offering worn out ideas for poverty relief, like Clinton, or succumbing to the anachronistic schemes of the dying coal lobby, Obama should shatter these artificial racial boundaries by proposing a New "Green" Deal to revamp the region and bridge a growing chasm between bitterly divided Democrats, and call for an end to mountaintop removal policies that have led to impoverishment and ruin in the coal fields.
Beyond race and rednecks, another dynamic is simmering as an undercurrent among blacks and whites in this struggling region: Obama's urban campaign and youthful environmental activists have failed to make any inroads with labor's last generation in the Rust and Energy Belts.
Truth is, Obama has a lot in more common with Appalachia than he knows, nor he is the only groundbreaking African American figure in the region's history. For starters, Black History Month founder Carter Woodson emerged out of the coal fields of West Virginia, as did Booker T. Washington, the most important African American spokesman of the 19th century. Pioneering black abolitionist Martin Delany walked out of West Virginia to alter Pittsburgh's destiny.
Woodson, Washington and Delany also understood one of the best kept secrets about Obama's adopted state of Illinois: Slavery was legal and incorporated into the state's constitution in 1818. Making an exception for the laborers in the salt wells in southern Illinois, which generated a considerable portion of the new state's tax revenues, the Illinois legislature -- and the American Congress -- willingly overlooked legal slavery in this so-called anti-slavery northern state. Slavery in the guise of indentured servitude and the kidnapping of free African Americans remained in the area until the 1850s.
Despite their glorious calls for emancipation, the Illinois legislature committed one of the most egregious acts in American political history: They declared the economic benefits of the salt (and future coal) industry outweighed the acts of inhumanity and destruction that supported this economy.
With all Democratic Party eyes now focused on the Big Coal state of Pennsylvania, Obama would be wise to ponder his state's darker history and its implications today for the Keystone state and its energy policies linked to the divisive coal industry in the wider Appalachian region.
Woodson and Washington also had first hand experience with the worst kept secret about Obama's state: A vast coal bed stretched across those salt reserves in the hilly and forested region of southern Illinois with its own cursed wealth.
While Obama likes to declare that he comes from a coal state, as if somehow identifying with rural Appalachia, he rarely mentions the fact that the shortsighted economic interests of the coal industry have subjected the bottom tier of Illinois to nearly two centuries of economic helter skelter, racial conflicts and environmental ruin.
"The rape of Appalachia," Harry Caudill wrote decades ago in his classic text on stripmining and poverty, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, "got its practice in Illinois."
Caudill was referring to the first commercial stripmine in eastern Illinois in the 1860s. By the 1920s, plundered for their coal and unable to compete with the non-union labor in Kentucky and West Virginia, the southern Illinois coal towns had turned into deforested and eroded wastelands, and were depicted by one government report as a "picture, almost unrelieved, of utter economic devastation." Southern Illinois lay claim to the highest infant mortality rates in the nation.
Today, stripmining in the central Appalachia coalfields is producing the same results. More than 470 mountains and their adjacent communities have been leveled, despoiled, and economically ruined since Barack Obama first moved to Illinois. The massive machinery and explosives involved in mountaintop removal and strip-mining have gutted the labor movement and dramatically reduced jobs in West Virginia, Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania.
Instead of falling back on his failed Ohio message for the illusory concept of "clean coal," which offers no real sense of job security or regional understanding of that industry's job-stripping mechanization, Obama needs to recognize that it's indeed time to release Appalachia from its stranglehold by King Coal and the region's default economy of low-paying service jobs. He needs to summon the courage of another Illinois presidential candidate: Abraham Lincoln.
"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present," Lincoln told Congress in 1862. "The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."
Disenthralling himself from the rhetoric of change, Obama has a wonderful chance to rise to the occasion, transcend issues of race, and stop one of the most immoral crimes against nature and our society today: He needs to call for an end to the destructive policies of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, demand passage of the Clean Water Protection Act (HR 2169), which has 129 co-sponsors and bi-partisan support across the coal states, and launch a new "Green Deal" to rebuild the region.
Coal miners, more than the Obama activists on the urban campuses, understand one reality: There will be no bonafide movement against global warming until there is a genuine Green Deal to phase out King Coal over the next generation. Until that day, though, job-desperate coal mining communities will be forever at odds with the environmental wing of the Democratic Party.
Like a true uniter, Obama could bring together the ailing mining and mill communities, white and black, with urban environmentalists -- all needed players for a Democratic victory -- for a new vision of economic diversity based on renewable energy initiatives.
Al Gore, like John Kerry, failed to recognize this great cultural divide between labor and environmentalists in Appalachia -- or the rest of the country for that matter. Democrats, in fact, remain in denial over one little bitter detail about the general elections in 2000 and 2004: Despite the state's overwhelming Democratic majority and elected officials, West Virginia has sided with the Republicans in the last two presidential races.
Let's be clear: This does not mean Obama needs to call for an end to coal, as we know it. He simply needs to stop the scandalous and overwhelmingly unpopular war of mountaintop removal in Appalachia and start the process of replacing an old industry and its displaced workforce with a new one based on renewable sources.
In a Lincoln moment for change, Obama could open up a new chapter for the region, by focusing his technologically savvy movement on developing a constructive Green Deal of renewable energy jobs, education and retraining, sustainable communities and reforestation to make Appalachia a model for the rest of the country.
This would not only help Appalachia. It just might save his campaign.