Last night we lost a true hero, Judy Bonds of Marfork, West Virginia. Judy—the executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, Goldman Prize recipient, and friend and partner of Earthjustice—was a courageous leader in the fight to protect Americans and future generations from the poisonous pollution and destruction of mountaintop removal mining.
She was an inspiration to many in this movement, a fearless voice for her fellow West Virginians, and a righteous fighter. She fought for the health of her neighbors and all Americans, she stood up against toxic pollution, for justice, and against the greed and destruction of rich and powerful corporations. Through her persistent fight, she opened many people’s eyes to the environmental injustices of mountaintop removal mining. "I don’t mind being poor, and I don’t mind being made fun of, but I draw the line at being blasted and poisoned," she said. She had a way with words and was a powerful orator and organizer.
"Fight harder" was often her advice to others, and despite meeting obstacles, challenges and even threats, she kept up the fight and managed to fight yet harder. She inspired so many of us to join in the fight, and even more of a gift, she made us believe that if we join together, if we really try, we can make a difference and we can win.
Today, thousands of coalfield residents and Americans all around the country mourn her loss. Writer Jeff Biggers posted this great tribute to her on Huffington Post, and documentary filmmakers Mari-Lynn Evans (of Coal Country) and Jordan Freeman put together this great video tribute. On the Facebook and Twitter universes, thousands of people are crying out and posting messages in her memory.
On Coal River Mountain Watch’s website, co-director Vernon Haltom wrote a message about Judy’s impact:
I can’t count the number of times someone told me they got involved because they heard Judy speak, either at their university, at a rally, or in a documentary. Years ago, she envisioned a “thousand hillbilly march” in Washington, DC. In 2010, that dream became a reality as thousands marched on the White House for Appalachia Rising.
Judy endured much personal suffering for her leadership. While people of lesser courage would candy-coat their words or simply shut up and sit down, Judy called it as she saw it. She endured physical assault, verbal abuse, and death threats because she stood up for justice for her community. I never met a more courageous person, one who faced her own death and spoke about it with the same voice as if it were a scheduled trip.
Ultimately, Judy did all any one person could conceivably do to stop mountaintop removal. One of Judy’s last acts was to go on a speaking trip, even though she was not feeling well, shortly before her diagnosis. I believe, as others do, that Judy’s years in Marfork holler, where she remained in her ancestral home as long as she could, subjected her to Massey Energy’s airborne toxic dust and led to the cancer that wasted no time in taking its toll.
Judy will be missed by all in this movement, as an icon, a leader, an inspiration, and a friend. No words can ever express what she has meant, and what she will always mean. We will tell stories about her around fires, in meeting rooms, and any place where people are gathered in the name of justice and love for our fellow human beings. When we prevail, as we must, we will remember Judy as one of the great heroes of our movement. We will always remember her for her passion, conviction, tenacity, and courage, as well as her love of family and friends and her compassion for her fellow human beings. While we grieve, let’s remember what she said, “Fight harder.”
In many of her passionate speeches, Judy quoted a Native American proverb to remind us that we’re the ones that we’ve been waiting for to stand up for our fellow Americans and future generations and stop poisonous, toxic pollution like mountaintop removal mining. She inspired us ("You are our hope for the future and our hope for the yet to be born!") and she challenged us ("I want you to arm yourself with knowledge, arm yourself with the truth. Everyone has a place in this movement. Find your place.").
In a 2007 speech to an audience of youth, Judy pleaded:
I’m begging you: Take back the earth, Take back your future. No progressive movement has ever been successful without the youth being involved and without the youth leading, in roles of leadership. You have to become the leaders. We’re in a climate crisis now, an energy armageddon. And I think my children, and that is every one of you, deserve clean air, clean water AND energy. Your children will know whether or not you acted and one day they will look at you and they will ask, "Why didn’t you do something when you could? What were you thinking?"
I want you to notice nature, how geese are in flight. They form a ‘V’ in a leadership role. And when that lead goose, when he gets tired of flapping his wings, he drops to the back. And the next goose comes up front and becomes the leader — without stopping, without fussing, without whining. He or she becomes that next leader. And that’s what we have to do. We have to move in those positions.
This thought strikes me today, as we reflect on the loss of a true leader, someone who dedicated her life to the fight for a better future for her homeland.
In Judy’s memory and spirit, let’s pledge ourselves to fight harder.