In the late nineteenth century, North Carolina bet its future on an industry that would eventually collapse. Promoters for the state ardently pursued cotton mills, offering Yankee executives a robust supply of cheap labor coming off the farms and denying workers, all white, the opportunity to form viable unions. The promoters’ strategy bore fruit; at the turn of the century, North Carolina had 600 cotton mills. But as early as the 1920s, the American textile industry had descended into a basket case, and by the 1950s, textile (and furniture) manufacturing had clearly become an economic dead end.
Fortunately, North Carolina was then led by a coterie of leaders who did not indulge in psychological denial. No one will valorize Governor Luther Hodges, a man with a dubious record on school integration, but he and leaders in the business and university communities took an unsentimental look at where their state’s economy was trending. Witnessing deadly tremors in textiles and furniture, they founded the Research Triangle Park to attract new industries powered by the brains of well educated workers. That’s the principal reason why North Carolina grew robustly for the next sixty years instead of joining its traditional industries into decline.
West Virginia has had no such clairvoyance. Dependent for generations on the industry of coal mining, their already-poor state has only gotten poorer and more desperate. Where North Carolina was one of the fastest growing states over the last half century, West Virginia has been one of the only states to see its population decline. The state has done almost nothing to position itself for a post-coal future–instead clinging to the coal fields with the tenacity of a desperate man. No one has been more fervent in their pro-coal actions than Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat.
Even though coal employs barely any West Virginians (just 3%), Manchin has made it his primary mission in office to prop up his state’s dying signature industry. It’s extraordinarily misguided and a study in denial. Manchin should learn from another Southern/Border state, our own, in how to grow through the decline of industries that once employed vast numbers of the state’s residents. But despite this example being readily available, Manchin has fought for coal year, after year, after year, with deadly consequences for the climate.
It’s bad form to question a person’s motives. But one can only note that Manchin has made millions of dollars investing in coal companies. I make that observation not to impugn Manchin’s integrity but to draw another contrast with North Carolina’s leaders. Just as Manchin is invested in his state’s dying industry, Governor Hodges was literally a textile executive, managing 29 mills across the world. Yet Hodges didn’t allow his deep roots in the mill world to blind him to his state’s need to modernize.
North Carolina is hardly a progressive paradise. But in comparison to Joe Manchin’s West Virginia, it deserves to be proud of its far-sightedness in embracing industries that actually had promise. West Virginia’s government failed its people by digging into a raging defense of coal. Joe Manchin is the epitome of that intransigence. To do right by his people, he should look southward toward the Tar Heel State.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.