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At 80, one woman is using her life story to teach people how to fight for justice

Jean Evansmore of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign speaks in Washington on July 19, 2021.
Jean Evansmore of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign speaks in Washington on July 19, 2021. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for MoveOn)

When Jean Evansmore was growing up in West Virginia coal country, her grandfather did two things that would have a profound effect on her life. He showed her how to plant a garden and, by his own example, let her see that just because you were poor didn’t mean you were lazy or stupid.

Her grandfather, Webster Evans, earned between $2.50 and $5 a day in the 1920s if he could blast loose, load and haul at least five tons of coal from the mine where he worked. Today, low-wage workers make about $7.50 an hour.

According to the Poor People’s Campaign, which focuses attention and resources on poverty, about 40 percent of West Virginia residents are poor or low-income. And as in much of the nation, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Since 1979, income for the top 1 percent in West Virginia grew by about 60 percent, while income for the bottom 99 percent fell by 0.4 percent, the group said.

On Thursday, Evansmore will help lead a protest caravan from Madison, W.Va., to Charleston, the state capital. The aim is to pressure Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), whose vote is necessary to repeal the Senate filibuster. Many see the filibuster as an obstacle to getting Congress to vote on bills that would restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act and set the minimum wage at $15 an hour. Passage of both bills would significantly affect the lives of the nation’s working class.

Evansmore, 80, is also one of the chairpersons for the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. That is a branch of a national faith-based activist civic organization founded by the Rev. William J. Barber II. In remaking the Poor People’s Campaign that was started by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Barber has cited poverty, racism and ecological destruction as culprits in the spiritual bankruptcy of the nation. The people of West Virginia know firsthand just how damaging poverty and not having a voice can be.

One hundred years ago, in August 1921, thousands of coal miners gathered in Madison in preparation for a trek to Logan and Mingo counties. Several workers had been arrested for attempting to organize a union in both places.

To reach their incarcerated co-workers, the miners had to cross Blair Mountain. But gunmen hired by the mine owners were waiting for them along a ridge. A gun battle erupted. An estimated 50 to 100 people were killed. The miners lost what became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. But years later during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, reforms were made that eventually would give miners safer working conditions along with better pay and health care.

“What we should have learned from that history is organizing makes a difference,” Evansmore said.

Coal no longer fuels America. But the legacy — and the myth — remain.

Just as the miners in the Battle of Blair Mountain were of different races and ethnic groups, Evansmore, who is Black, hopes the same diversity can be achieved in organizing the poor today.

Her goal now is to teach more people about the fight for justice in the state. She encourages everyone to tune in to city and county council meetings. She writes letters to elected officials and newspaper editors, often expressing her dismay at how out of touch they are with the struggles of everyday residents.

And she protests, carrying signs in opposition to proposed cuts to programs that help the poor — even if only a handful of people join in.

“Because people are told that poverty is caused by some character flaw, a lot of people won’t even admit they are poor,” she said. “People are working three jobs to support their family but barely making ends meet. When you try to explain systemic problems, they say it’s too complicated, and so they don’t even try to push for changes.”

Sometimes, she tells them about how little she knew about economics as a child.

“I didn’t even know we were poor,” said Evansmore, who was raised by her grandparents in Scarbro, a town created by the New River Mining Company in Fayette County. “We were used to eating pinto beans six days a week and chicken on Sunday. The only time we knew something was wrong was when we had to eat beans on Sunday, too.”

But after graduating from high school in 1958, she left the state to stay with relatives in New Jersey. It was a different world — one with well-insulated homes and indoor plumbing, not outhouses.

She eventually enrolled at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Then she got a job with Raytheon, first as a secretary and later working her way up to a buyer in the submarine signaling division. “I sold war materials,” she said. She quit the job and returned to West Virginia in 1985. Then after a few years, she left again and lived with her second husband in Oxon Hill, Md. In 2012, she returned home for good.

“I vowed that nothing would run me out of West Virginia,” she said. “If I didn’t like something, I’d just stay and fight it.”

Her education and those early lessons from her grandfather gave her a sense of independence and confidence. She knew that she could hold down a job — or grow her own food if she needed to. That knowledge — that she could take care of herself — “gave me the freedom I needed to speak out against injustice.”

She is now widowed, a great-grandmother with three children in their 50s. But she’s planting something new these days.

“The Poor People’s Campaign, that’s my baby now,” she said. “That’s what I have committed my life to.”

 To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy

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