In celebration of the life and work of Appalachian activist Julia “Judy” Bonds, mountain music, stories and even the chants of a Native American blessing echoed throughout the room at a memorial service Saturday at Tamarack.
Bonds, a key leader in building resistance against mountaintop removal coal extraction from a local issue to a national movement, passed away Jan. 3 from cancer. She was laid to rest Jan. 5 at a private funeral in Rock Creek.
At Saturday’s public memorial service, more than 300 friends and relatives paid tribute to Bonds, including singers Kathy Mattea, Shirley Stewart Burns, T. Paige Dalporto, Andy Mahler, and Jen Osha. Speakers included Bonds’ daughter Lisa Henderson, authors Denise Giardina (“Storming Heaven,” “The Unquiet Earth”) and Jeff Biggers (”The United States of Appalachia,” “Reckoning at Eagle Creek”), 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Maria Gunnoe, and other prominent activists in the movement to end mountaintop removal.
Many speakers pointed out that, while Bonds’ influence spread across the country and even the globe, she was truly an “everywoman” who dug deep into her inner resources to endure physical and verbal assaults and death threats from those who opposed her activism.
“This women educated herself,” said Lisa Henderson, Bond’s daughter. “She became a volunteer at Coal River Mountain Watch while she worked several minimum-wage jobs. She was made fun of in her community, shunned by many neighbors. She armed herself with a protest sign, the truth and the purest of intentions.”
Bonds was thrust into activism when she saw her grandson standing in the creek by their house, surrounded by black water from a slurry spill, his fists full of dead fish, Henderson said.
“We knew that somehow, somewhere, we were being poisoned also,” she said.
Bonds joined Coal River Mountain Watch to fight the mountaintop removal and sludge dams threatening her family and community, participating in demonstrations such as the 1999 re-enactment of the march on Blair Mountain. Bonds would eventually become executive director of the group.
In 2003, Bonds won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. She has appeared in several documentaries, books, and numerous magazines such as People, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Utne Reader, and O.
In 2009, Utne Reader named Bonds as one of their “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World,” along with such luminaries as the Dalai Lama. The story of her passing was covered across the country, from the Washington Post to the New York Times.
Bonds’ greatest gift, according to many speakers, was galvanizing others to become leaders in their own right.
“I’m proud to say that these days in my bio, they say I’m a singer and an activist, and that is in no small part due to Judy,” said Kathy Mattea.
Bonds encouraged and advised Mattea in developing her own abilities as an activist and speaker, Mattea said.
Maria Gunnoe, Bonds’ fellow Goldman Environmental Prize winner, described how Bonds helped her find the pride to stand up for her heritage.
“She helped me to be proud of being a hillbilly, something I was taught to be ashamed of,” Gunnoe said. “Judy was the first person who looked me in the face and said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being a hillbilly — being a hillbilly is a good thing! We’ve survived everything there is to survive.’”
Several speakers fondly recalled one of Bonds’ favorite T-shirts: “Stop Mountaintop Removal/Save the Endangered Hillbilly.”
Bonds’ vision was clear and simple, often cutting through the complicated political rhetoric, Gunnoe said.
“We need clean water and clean air and we need friends and love around us, and that’s what Judy taught us,” she said.
The memorial service also served as a call to action. Shouts of “fight harder!” — one of Bonds’ last messages to fellow activists before she died — filled the room.
Larry Gibson of Keeper of the Mountains Foundation rallied attendants to focus their energy on their activism.
“You know, we have gathered here today to put to rest a warrior, but we haven’t gathered to put to rest an issue,” he said.
Many speakers celebrated the recent Environmental Protection Agency decision to halt the Arch Coal Spruce No. 1 mine.
“I think Judy had no small hand in that,” Coal River Mountain Watch’s Executive Director Vernon Haltom said.
He then recalled how Bonds not only spoke with the EPA, but inspired many of the other citizens across the nation who contacted the EPA about the decision.
“But I think, as Judy would remind us, it’s just one mountain,” Gibson said. “We have more to save; we have to save the baby humans.”
Bo Webb of Naoma, a longtime Coal River Mountain Watch volunteer and friend of Bonds, said his goal is that the memorial service continue to inspire Bonds’ friends and relatives to live out one of Bonds’ favorite quotes: “You are the ones you are waiting for.”
“Judy’s passing from this mortal world shall serve as a call to rise,” Webb said. “Her work will not be finished until we finish it for her. Although Judy has physically left our earthly world, let us acknowledge her spirit to live within each of us. Let us fill the void in our hearts with Judy’s strength of mind to fight on. Let her death serve as inspiration to hundreds of thousands of Appalachians and activists throughout our nation to unite in solidarity to demand the abolition of mountaintop removal.”
Bonds’ family has asked that, instead of flowers, people donate to support the ongoing work of Coal River Mountain Watch, on the Internet at www.crmw.net or by mail at P.O. Box 651, Whitesville, WV 25209.