Coalfield residents mourn loss of Judy Bonds

January 4, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Word came late last evening that coalfield activist Judy Bonds had died.

Jeff Biggers has a moving tribute on The Huffington Post:

A little more than a decade ago, sitting on the coal dust-swept front porch with her grandson–the ninth generation of their family to reside in Marfork Hollow in West Virginia–Bonds was outraged to hear her 7-year-old grandson describe an escape route should a nearby massive coal waste dam break and flood their valley. “I knew in my heart there was really no escape,” Bonds told an interviewer in 2003. “How do you tell a child that his life is a sacrifice for corporate greed? You can’t tell him that, you don’t tell him that, but of course he understands that now.”

Forced by an encroaching strip mine to move from her family’s ancestral land, Bonds spent the next decade as a full-time crusader (and coal miner’s daughter) to bring her grandson’s message of central Appalachia’s role as a national sacrifice zone from the devastating impact of mountaintop removal strip mining to millions of Americans across the country.

When her activism won her the 2003 Goldman Environmental Prize, Judy said of her work:

When powerful people pursue profits at the expense of human rights and our environment, they have failed as leaders. Responsible citizens must step forward, not just to point the way, but to lead the way to a better world.


In an e-mail message to supporters, Coal River Mountain Watch’s Vernon Haltom said last night:

It is with great sorry that we mourn the passing today of Julia “Judy” Bonds, Executive Director of Coal River Mountain Watch. Judy was more than a co-worker, friend, and mentor: she became family. She inspired thousands in the movement to end mountaintop removal and was a driving force in making it what it has become. 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.”

Here’s part of a talk that Judy gave a few years ago at an Appalachian Studies Association conference:

Feel free to share your memories of Judy in the comments section …

24 Responses to “Coalfield residents mourn loss of Judy Bonds”

  1. Jim Sconyers says:

    I never met anyone I admired more. What a fighter – and inspiration!

  2. Patricia Ansley says:

    I met Judy at Michael Shnayerson’s “Coal River” book signing at Taylor Books. I was deeply impacted by Judy Bonds, Bo WEbb, Larry Gibson, Maria Gunnoe, the Sylvester Dustbusters and more. However, Judy and I became friends that night and sharing her vast knowledge with me and her feisty stand against MTR taught me more than a lifetime of research could. After our initial meeting, I went home and wrote the following song. I want to post it as a tribute to Judy. She loved it well.

    ©2008 Patricia Anne Ansley
    Use by permission only

    (v) I knew a path when I was younger

    That took me up to a place I loved the best

    And when my soul was filled with hunger

    There I would go for a quiet place to rest

    (c) I’d lay my head on a cold grey stone

    And on the mountain, cry myself to sleep

    My tears were silent, my tears were plenty

    My heavy sadness washed right out of me

    (v) I left these hills to seek my fortune

    But their memory called me back home

    No words will ever convey my sorrow

    When I saw my beloved mountains gone

    (c) I laid my head on a cold grey stone

    And on the mountain, cried myself to sleep

    My tears were silent, my tears were plenty

    My heavy sadness washed right out of me

    (b) I found my favorite well-worn path

    Hoping for relief

    Instead I found the mountain’s epitaph

    Its words filled my soul with grief, it said

    (v) “They took our trees and left us naked

    Then they butchered these hills in front of me

    They took my mother, sister and brother

    And pretty soon, they’ll be taking me.”

    (c) I laid my head on a cold grey stone

    And the mountain cried my soul to sleep

    Her tears were silent, her tears were plenty

    Her heavy sadness washed all over me

    (c) I laid my head in a cold grey stone

    And the mountain cried my soul to sleep

    Her tears were silent, her tears were plenty

    Her heavy sadness washed all over me

    (f) Her tears were silent, her tears were plenty

    Her heavy sadness washed all over me

    Note: Dedicated to all those brave souls willing to stand and fight for what they believe, know and love. To the memory of the majestic mountains that have stood for millenniums with their streams, flora and fauna. And to all the history they have witnessed; evolution, Native Americans, pioneers, settlers and proud West Virginians These wild, wonderful mountains are now being blasted into non-existence by greed and corruption. God bless us all. God help us all.

  3. Liz Judge says:

    We lost a true hero and inspiration. A courageous fighter for what is right.
    Judy often said that we have to “fight harder.” She inspired us to fight to stand up for the health of our fellow Americans and for future generations in the fight to stop toxic and poisonous pollution like mountaintop removal mining.

    I was listening to one of her speeches last night and these words of hers struck me: “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 I reflect on the loss of a true leader.

  4. Pat McGinley says:

    Judy’s passing is a great loss for her family, her many friends and coalfield and other oppressed communities in West Virginia and around the world for whom she was a shining example of empowering others by speaking truth to power.

    May others be empowered and have the courage to continue her work and may God bless her and her family.

  5. Mari-Lynn says:

    I first met Judy Bonds when we interviewed her for THE APPALACHIANS. Judy was so proud to be Appalachian, so proud of her heritage. She was the first person to tell me about MTR and pressed me to make a film about it. She was my inspiration for COAL COUNTRY. Judy reminded me often that I, too, was Appalachian and that I had a responsibility to tell the stories of our people. She was a true force of nature. She inspired thousands to stand up for their beliefs and changed our lives forever. When I think of Judy I am reminded of Mother Jones, “pray for the perished and fight like hell for the living.” In Judy’s memory we will fight on to save our beloved Appalachia. It is what she would expect us to do and it is our commitment to her memory. I was blessed to walk this path of life with Judy Bonds and I will keep her memory in my heart forever.

  6. Judy was one of my most treasured of friends. Although we were fighting for mountains two thousand miles from Appalachia, Judy came to to our canyon “holler” to teach us how to stand strong, to speak for the land and all of God’s creation, and not to cower before those with corporate power and money. Judy’s last speaking engagement was here, in Silverado California. She was an ispiration to all of us “treehuggers” in California! We will mourn her passing and always love and miss her, but we will also know that she is where she longed to be…in the hands of her lord.

  7. Rob Perks says:

    No person has done more than Judy Bonds to stop the senseless destruction of her beloved Appalachians — America’s mountains. Her relentless optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable political odds gives me hope to this day. Thanks to her, and the thousands of people fighting to put a stop to mountaintop removal, we will prevail. Judy’s legacy lives on. But, my oh my, how we will miss her every day.

  8. ed442 says:

    Amen, Rob.
    Let us pick up Judy’s torch and never let it burn out.
    I will miss Judy tremendously.

  9. davecooper928 says:

    Judy was a fierce fighter for the people, the culture and the land of Appalachia, as well as a huge inspiration to me personally, and she changed the course of my life. I admired her tenacity and her grit. She was tough and fearless.

    Judy was also a strong early supporter of the mountaintop removal road show, and I was honored when she came on several road show trips with me, in addition to the hundreds of other speaking engagements she has done over the past decade.

    I’d like to quote Judy talking about the road show in 2003. These quotes were taken from an early version of Jeff Barrie’s film “Kilowatt Ours”

    “What we’re gonna do is … let America know what’s happening in West Virginia … We’re not going to be your sacrifice for cheap energy any longer!”

    Speaking at the KFTC Flyover Festival near Hazard, Kentucky in 2003:

    “I’m not saying what we need to do, I’m saying what we’re gonna do … we’re gonna come together, and we’re gonna beat this. We’re gonna travel across America – and the people that they consider to be ‘ignorant hillbillies’ are going to educate America about what’s going on!”

    I think the work that Judy and so many others have done on the MTR speaking tours across America have indeed made mountaintop removal a national issue. Judy had the vision and the determination to make it happen.

    Goodbye Judy, you will be greatly missed.

  10. rhmooney3 says:

    Some words from Judy Bonds in 2006:

  11. dennis mchale says:

    We as humans know when our spirits meet a true good spirit. That’s Judy. To see and listen to her cry’s for sanity you say amend, 1st low in whispers and then high in full strong voice that shakes the rafters. That’s Judy. When she told us connect the dots, death of the ocean and death of the planet and senseless plunder of our ancient mountains is criminal, she taught us. That’s Judy.

    The vision of Judy is commando camouflaged britches a Stop MTR t shirt carrying a skanky, baby crap colored mason jar full of poisoned earth’s nectar-as she slams it down on the bought and paid for king coal politicos’ tidy and cutely arranged table. Then with force of a category 5 hurricane demands: “Stop poisoning our water”. After which even in the full room of clambering humanity- a pin can be heard. That’s Judy. When the mouth piece of king coal starts with; …’Well you know’… and everyone knows he’s bringing out the jobs card; Judy cracks him along side his head and along side our sensibilities with, “There ain’t no jobs on a dead planet”. That’s Judy.

    Jewish folks have a myth that there are 15 righteous persons on the Eaarth always, to ensure evil does not rule the day, Judy was one of ’em, I’m thinking.

    Thru my foggy glasses from teared up eyes I’m thinking: “that Judy Bonds-she’s a corker”.

    I’m fully Blessed to have know’d ya.

    Dennis McHale

  12. Judy Bonds….Mother of a movement to love Appalachia…its mountains, its streams, its teaming life, and the people and their culture. Judy Bonds has exhaled her last breath from the land she loved. May that breath’s prayer bring renewed life to those of us who have loved her, admired her, and drawn so much strength from her.

    Two images of Judy Bonds flash through my mind as I try to pray.

    One image is that of Judy the fiery activist. Short in stature, Judy is like the shepherd-boy David armed with 5 smooth stones and a sling. Her face is set like flint, jaw set, eyes glistening, eager to battle the coal company Goliath that dares destroy her beloved mountains and abuse her community. Judy whirls and slings her stones as hammer-shot words of sorrows and angers and facts and truths. Like the biblical Deborah, Judy’s inspiring courage leads the charge. Deborah, a mother of Israel; Judy, a mother of the mountains and its inhabitants, a keeper of the covenant, a lover of God and God’s people (Judges 5).

    The other image is that of Judy, eyes twinkling with joy and laughter, arms embracing and hugging, words consoling and inspiring. I have never spent any time with Judy that I haven’t been freshly inspired, envisioned, emboldened, encouraged, and appreciated. To be with Judy is to feel valued. Judy Bonds is other-centered, non-egocentric, honest, and generous of heart.

    Judy was a woman of deep faith in God. She was not a “churchy person” nor did she wrap herself up in pieties or heavenly chatter. Judy’s earthy, robust faith placed her feet on the ground, her sleeves rolled up, her hands working the ground for God’s truth and justice. She openly loved God by decrying the despoliation of creation, in God’s name. She trusted God for strength, for truth to prevail, for “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Judy Bonds was a prophet of our time. To use Walter Bruggemann’s theme in his work, “The Prophetic Imagination,” Judy called people out of spiritual numbness and hopelessness at their plight in the face of coal industry abuse. And then, she envisioned the people to fight injustice for the promise of a renewed land of peace and wholeness.

    Let us now pick up Judy’s mantle and carry it onward.

    Allen Johnson
    Christians For The Mountains

  13. Kate Russell says:

    I feel very privileged to have had worked for the end of mountaintop removal with Judy. Her fiery spirit will never leave me.

  14. Vanessa Salinas says:

    I met Judy when she came to Alaska to help us educate the community about the impacts of coal mining on the land, air and water. She was a great activist, passionate and down-to-earth. A true caretaker. We will miss you Judy, your work lives on.

  15. Noah says:

    I met Judy on Kayford in 2005 I have since come to consider her a dear friend and an inspiring comrade. With a raised fist and some whiskey on my lips a salute from the big easy.

  16. Amy Potts says:

    I met Judy in West Virginia where I went for my spring break to write about Mountaintop Removal and take pictures of the area as well as the protest outside Governor Manchin’s office for the Marsh Fork Elementary School. I could tell how passionate she was about protecting the mountains and the people she cared for. Though I may be from Georgia, my ancestors lived in the mountains of Appalachia and it pains me everyday to think of what goes on. I hope that we all remember her and what she fought for, for we must now continue the fight.

  17. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Thanks, Mari-Lynn … how about we try a shorter url there?


  18. Mari-Lynn says:

    The tribute from Jordan Freeman and Mari-Lynn Evans to Judy Bonds is at

    Thanks, Ken.

  19. Micajah88 says:

    Ms. Bonds is in peace now. May God bless her with open arms….

  20. Bob Kincaid says:

    We have lost a colleague and a comrade. We have lost a friend.

    We are diminished by Judy’s death, but we are not defeated. She joins Mother Jones among the stars, but a piece of her is left within all of us she touched. When Mountaintop Removal is stopped, as stopped it WILL be, we will take Judy’s spirit with us into the future, as the Children of Israel carried Joseph’s remains out of Pharaoh’s bondage and into a land of milk and honey.

    “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
    Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
    For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
    Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
    From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
    Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
    And soonest our best men with thee do go,
    Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
    Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
    And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
    And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well
    And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
    One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
    And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

  21. Missy A says:

    We have lost a valient warrior in the fight against MTR. I have a lost a wonderful and caring friend who never stopped fighting no matter what. I will miss you Judy.

  22. Met Judy and Bo Webb in January 2005 in Marsh Fork when I was in seminary. She carried genuine spiritual pain within her regarding the mountains as well as the abandonment she faced from many around her. I was so sad that the faith community by-and-large deserted her, save for one very old, very brave nun. Our class prayed for her when it came time to depart for Kayford and Mr. Gibson’s land. I remember her weeping, very gently, in a way that can only be described as relief. I guess I didn’t realize just how great of a woman she was until much later. I am truly sad for her passing.

  23. I met Judy on the front lawn of the Mountain Justice house in Knoxville. WANLove was working on our play, “Zeb Mountain’s Complaint” that we later toured to Knoxville. I remember the pile of traveling boots on the porch and inside the crew of activists generating media about Mountain Top Removal.

    People know it now, but still we need more to understand. What price would any human put on a mountain, a mountain stream, a hollow where people live?

    I had hoped to see her at Appalachia Rising this fall in DC but instead we were told she had cancer. I won’t stop fighting, Judy!


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