Larry Gibson 1946-2012: Paul Corbit Brown Remembers

Photo by Paul Corbit Brown of him and Larry Gibson at the week-long June 2011 March on Blair Mountain, c. 2011. 

This is a guest post written by my friend photographer and activist Paul Corbit Brown, with the selection of the photos, some editing and arranging by me. The cliche is that a picture is worth a thousand words, and Paul Corbit's are worth many more.

  • The first section explains his thoughts on the above picture he took of of the Larry and him, and memories it evokes. (I had how he had caught the image, thinking maybe he used a shutter delay, a cable release or some other piece of camera gear.)
  • The second section tells about the day he got to spend with Larry on Thursday, September 6 at Larry's home on Kayford Mountain. 
  • The next three sections intersperse Paul Corbit's email to Jeff Biggers (published in the latter's eulogy) with what Paul Corbit wrote about "In the days to come..."
  • Next is a short video  Paul Corbit took of Larry September 6 (which I hope to be able to embed at a later date.) 
  • The last four sections are pair photographs Paul Cobit took of Larry at his home on Kayford Mountain with Paul thoughts on each.  The first of these was taken in May, the others on September 6.
All words, photographs and the video are used by permission of Paul Corbit Brown. I first published this  September 10, 2012 at 2:15. Our conversation about the above photo took place September 12, 2012.  The most recent revision was on September 17, 2012 at 9:26 am.  Other posts in this series Larry Gibson 1946-2012 are indexed here.


How I took the top picture and what it means

I just hold the camera at arm's length and press the shutter with my thumb. It's not the best photo, but I cherish it...This photo was taken at the March on Blair. When I do these kinds of photos, I usually just hold the camera straight out in front of me, but there were so many people there, I thought shooting from above would isolate the two of us. I remember thinking that as a photographer, I have pictures of everyone else and everyone else together, but I'm usually not in the pictures. I wanted to have a picture to remember being with Larry on this march because I felt like it was a really important event and his friendship has always meant so much to me.

Larry and I had a lifetime of conversations on Thursday

Somewhere in the middle of a very serious discussion, he suddenly stopped, punched me lightly in the arm to make sure I was listening, and he said, "Paul Corbit, you know what the real problem is? I'll tell you. I'm short and good looking' and you're just too damn tall. And there's really nothing we can do to fix it." Larry always knew how important humor is to friendship and to keeping someone's attention.

Looking at this photo of us together on the March for Blair will always remind me of him saying that even though the photo was made over a year ago.

To say... [Larry] had an enormous impact on all of our lives wouldn't be enough.

To say he was a hero wouldn't be enough. To say he changed our lives wouldn't be enough. To say has was deeply loved and will be missed wouldn't be enough. But let me tell you what was on his heart just days ago.

He stressed that this fight was never about him or his mountain alone. It was, and is, about all of us and our shared future. It is about the thousands of young people that he called his kids. It is about those not yet born.

It wasn't about Larry Gibson and a mountain. He wanted to be a voice for all people and the mountains and homes they love. He wanted to speak for Justice and to inspire those too frightened to speak. And even those who called Larry an enemy and wished to do him harm, he spoke of them, still, as "His People."

In the days to come...

It is only natural and appropriate that we will ask ourselves, “What would Larry want?” or “How can I best honor Larry?” There are a multitude of answers to these questions, but I believe one answer will always come to the top: We must Speak. Each of us must find our voice and we must Speak, Speak, Speak. We must rise up with a mighty voice and we must Speak until our truth has been heard. We must speak from the tops of our mountains and through the corridors of power. We must speak and never let up until our Truth has been made manifest and Justice has been firmly established in our homes, our communities, our air and our water. This is the greatest honor we can bestow upon Larry, Judy and all those that have come to illuminate Truth and shine a light upon our path.

 Rest in Peace, Larry

It was only appropriate that you should be on your mountain when you left this world. You can rest assured that we who you left behind will not rest until we finish the work you so passionately and courageously began.

Video: Larry Gibson, Almost Heaven

Here's the link on facebook until an open source link is available.
Now, I'm not in a big hurry to leave here, but I'm pretty close to heaven when I'm here.

 Larry with "Dog"

I made this photo on May 26, 2012. I had spent the day working on Larry's solar panels. I remember asking him if I could do a photo of him before I left. "Sure," he answered, "What do you want to do?" I asked him if he minded doing one with him beside "Dog's" grave. He looked at me a bit questioningly, but went along with it. I only made a couple of images then we returned to his porch to say our farewells for the day. He was a bit quiet and I was worried I had made some horrible mistake in asking for this. At some point, his eyes filled with tears and he said, "Thanks for doing that. Nobody ever asked to take a picture of me with him since I buried him. I really miss that dog. We went through a lot together. He was a good friend." Thank you.

A man and an icon

Larry asked me to talk with him about his idea of going to the UMWA rally against Patriot Coal on the following Tuesday in Charleston, WV. It was a long conversation, but the essence of it was that Larry was well aware that he had become an icon with his green shirt and cap, and he was aware that this icon was often an inflammatory presence with folks in the coal industry. While Larry was always opposed to coal, not just MTR, he was NEVER opposed to coal miners.

Larry was truly a man of the people and he always wanted to speak for what was fair and just. A lot of folks could (or would) never understand this about him. He always believed the people of Appalachia deserved better than merely the choice between poverty or destroying Appalachia with the devastation wrought by the extractive industries. He felt that he should go to the rally but he would, for the first time, not show up in his green shirt. He said he had made a promise to himself that he would not, under any circumstances, talk about MTR or mining in general. He wanted to be there in support of the workers, people who he believed were his own (and he was theirs).

He felt Patriot Coal was preparing to cheat the miners and he was firmly convinced that if they succeed in stripping the miners of their health cards and pensions, a domino effect would ensue through other industries- I think he's right. And so the photo is significant because he was prepared to step out as Larry Gibson, a man FOR the people, rather than merely the anti-MTR icon he had become. He never wavered in his conviction that MTR and coal in general should be abolished, he simply didn't want the politics of that to interfere with his concern that the miners deserved to be treated fairly by the company that had profited so greatly from their lives and the health they sacrificed for their jobs.

Hell's Gate Reprise

This photo has been made so many times, by so many photographers and visitors that it's quite possible a penny for each photo made might be combined to actually buy Kayford Mountain. But nonetheless, it was a ritual, a meditation, for many of us when we visited. It's both fascinating and chilling to see the changes in the landscape behind him over the years. They will spray their hydro seed and paint it green to cover their greed, but that won't replace the mountain, nor will it replace the ecosystem that existed there before the mining began. A few kinds of grass and a few scrubby trees won't replace a real hardwood forest and the nearly 1,000 species of plants that existed on that mountain before it was destroyed. I once commented to him that they were pulling out the threads in the fabric of Life and I asked him how long it would be before they realized we are all wearing the "Emperor's New Clothes." He looked at me for a moment and answered, "Probably not until it's too late, but we have to keep trying."

Larry on top, with clouds

Seeing him here, if one doesn't know what is really in front of him, it's easy to imagine he's at the top of the mountain. It's beautiful and haunting because once you learn what's on the other side, you begin to look suspiciously at the presumed "top" of every other mountain. I wonder how Martin Luther King's speech would have been different if he had been to the top of this mountain and seen the other side...

These were the last photographs I made of Larry Gibson as he walked upon this earth.

I am certain there will be more [on this post]. Words usually come to me in the middle of the night and I have learned to roll over and grab something to jot them down, otherwise they evanesce with the morning light. In the meantime I hope these photographs will help us remember him, his life, his message, his friendship, his courage, his passion and everything we shared together.

I know we all wish we could have just one more walk on the mountain with him.