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PO Box 1070, Frankfort, KY 40602  Phone 502.875.2428, Fax 502.875.2845

Reflections on The Life And Work of Earl Wilson  Posted: November 18, 2006
Reflections On The Life of Earl Wilson

Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, set out to write a book of memoirs and instead wrote a book of prayers. In it, she captured the essence of Earl’s lifelong vocation as an activist for justice in its many forms and facets:

Lord, help me not to be a taker but a tender,

Lord, help me not to be a whiner but a worker,

Lord, help me not to be a getter but a giver,

Lord, help me not to be a hindrance but a help,

Lord, help me not to be a critic but a catalyst for good.

I first met Earl back in the early 1970’s, when he was working in Louisville with Dan Hendrickson and Sally Maggard at the Council of Southern Mountains and I was a naïve young 18-year old staff person for the CSM Bookstore in Berea. In the intervening decades, our paths crossed at various movement gatherings, but it was not until 1998 that I had the privilege to work closely with Earl. During that year, Earl was Chair of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, formerly the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition. In that position, Earl played an important role in securing permanent protection for the highest mountain peak in the Commonwealth – a mountain that contains a northern forested ecosystem found nowhere else in the region and which for many residents of the area is a cultural resource of great historic and emotional value.

When Jericol Mining Company filed a permit application that included point removal of one of the ridges on Black Mountain, members of the Harlan County chapter of KFTC contacted the Kentucky Resources Council to request our advice and assistance. After presenting a range of legal options, a decision was made to seek the designation of the higher elevations of Black Mountain as off-limits to mining, using a mechanism created by Congress in 1977 in the federal Surface Mining act. I authored, and Earl was the signatory to that historic petition.

The year-long process that followed resulted in permanent protection of the upper elevations of Black Mountain, but it was not an easy process. At least five different coal private interests were involved in the mountain, from a coal company that desired to expand a deep mine lower on the mountain to companies that owned other coal and timber interests, and who could, through cutting of that timber, have greatly damaged the mountain habitat even if we were successful in preventing coal mining.

The process of multi-party negotiation is never easy, and is often understandably uncomfortable for grassroots organizations. Working through the process and maintaining consensus was time-consuming, sometimes contentious and even bitter, but ultimately successful, since through a complex negotiation permanent protection of the northern forested ecosystem was provided from both strip mining and timber removal. Throughout that process, Earl was a voice of reason and calm, keeping a focus on the goal and giving me encouragement when my frustration at trying to corral and maintain consensus became almost maddening. The protection of Black Mountain will always be an enduring part of his legacy as an activist.

Earl understood that change does not come about without hard work. He worked tirelessly, always checking his ego at the door and caring more that the goals be achieved than who received the credit. He understood that the day belongs to those who show up, and who keep showing up. He understood Frederick Douglass’ admonition in the 1857 treatise on “West India Emancipation” that

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.

Earl understood that, and gave of himself throughout his life, working for justice in its many facets – racial, economic, environmental, social. And we are the better for his efforts and for having known him.

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, inviting the reader to walk with him in his struggle with pancreatic cancer, said “when we reach the gate, I will have to go in first – that seems to be the rule – one by one, by designation.” Earl has gone before us, too soon, and no doubt is already helping to organize the first chapter of the Cherubim and Seraphim Union Local #1.

Until we next see Earl, in a time and place that knows no illness and no leavetaking, let we who had the privilege of his friendship and his time, go forward with hearts full, and do justice to his life by redoubling our own efforts to create peace and justice.


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