The Older I Get the Closer I Get to the Ground: An Interview with Everett Akers

Photo of old woman standing in the woods speaking to someone behind the camera

courtesy KFTC

Magazine cover with three photos of elderly people

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 2/3, "Older Wiser Stronger: Southern Elders." Find more from that issue here.

"They say the land wasn't given to us by our fathers, it was borrowed from our children. How are they going to live if they can't drink the water or grow any food?. . . You tear the ground and water up, and you 're going against the teachings of the Bible." Everett Akers, an elder member of the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition (KFTC), has joined with hundreds of other Appalachian people to fight the notorious misuse of the "broad form deed," a document used throughout Appalachia to sell the rights to minerals located beneath an owner's land. 

The role of KFTC's elder members is particularly important, as they are the ones who remember eastern Kentucky when waters ran clear and the mountains were not stripped bare. They have also lived through the boom/bust cycles of the mining industry and know well that King Coal is more concerned with profits than with people. Everett Akers at 69 is one of the older members of the KFTC steering committee. A long-time resident of Martin, he has held many jobs and worn many hats; he's been a pinball king, a state representative, a cable television operator, and now he is a self-proclaimed "rabble rouser" for the rights of "the little guy" over the powerful coal companies that have long ruled eastern Kentucky. Akers is officially retired but busier than ever. He and his wife Adis have four children, all of whom have moved away. He says he is trying to make his native eastern Kentucky the kind of place where children will stay to raise their own families. He is currently involved in a class-action suit in federal court to get Kentucky's 1984 broad form deed law enforced. 

Akers traces the beginnings of his ruckus-raising against the broad form deed back to a confrontation with a coal company on his land. In the pinball and jukebox machine business for some 30 years, Akers says, "I picked my money up like a chicken picking up corn — a nickel at a time. 'Bout all I've got to show for it is this little shack here." It was for the protection of his land that Akers did battle. The confrontation stemmed from his experience as a state representative in Frankfort in 1968, when he saw the need to bring Kentucky television stations to eastern Kentucky. Little did he know that the erection of a television tower on his property would land him in the ranks of the KFTC. 

A fiery orator, Akers is often chosen to speak at meetings and rallies. He talks here about his fight with the coal company, the broad form deed, and other subjects of concern to Appalachian people. 


They Made Their Millions Off My Land 

I thought that this was one thing wrong in this area — because people only got West Virginia television news, they didn't know what was going on in the Kentucky legislature. The people here didn't know what representative government was. So we put up a 587-foot tower in 1977 with a dish on it to bring in the three Lexington channels. About then, why, here come Triple Elkhorn Coal Company, 'round the hill, blasting and blowing. They damaged my tower, and they were going to strip mine by one of my guy wires. The land, see, was covered by a broad form deed; we owned the surface, but a coal company owned the coal. 

I sued the company, and they finally said they wouldn't do any more blasting on my property. Instead, they went around the hill, and they went under my tower, deep mining. They said that didn't count. 

Then they enjoined me off my property. They come up here at 9 o'clock at night, and they pulled me out of the bed, took me to Prestonsburg [the Floyd County seat], placed me in the jail, had a trial, and the judge enjoined me off my property. I was convicted of terroristic threatening. Had to pay a $100 fine to the county court. 

They've damaged my house here quite a bit. You can see the cracks in the ceiling. I bought my land here and that property back on the hill to put up a tower and cable system. I bought it and paid for it. I had a good business started, yet they put me out of business and made their millions off my land. 

So I started by fighting against that broad form deed. We've got a law passed now that says they can't strip mine without the landowner's permission, but that's not being enforced. There was a lot of hard work went into getting that bill passed — a lot of phone calls, and a lot of letter writing, and a lot of tagging legislators by the shirt collar and talking to them real straight sometimes. 

When I went down to the legislature in '68 I went down for selfish reasons. I was in the coin machine business, and they were trying to outlaw my pinball machines. My representative was supporting it, so I ran against him and beat him. I passed my pinball machine bill in the House. Then they sent it to a Senate committee, and that's where it died. I didn't run again, but I had a time down there. The hardest work I ever did in my life was the three months I spent down there. You wonder why people want to be in politics so much. 

Of course a lot of it is the idea that they can make money — big money. They can get state contracts, county contracts. And the coal lobby, of course, they've got plenty of money. I'm not saying that they buy anybody, but there were some of our representatives in this area — they're no longer in office — that the coal company picked up in a helicopter every Monday morning and flew them to Frankfort. They wined them and dined them. 

KFTC and the Broad Form Deed

Strip mining did not exist when most of the broad form deeds were signed at the turn of the century. Thinking they could only be used for deep mining, the landowners signed the broad form deeds, never dreaming this would mean giving up their rights to protect their surface lands from widespread destruction. But Kentucky courts have continually allowed mineral owners to do whatever is necessary or convenient to obtain their minerals — coal, oil, and gas. 

Thanks to a strong organizing effort by the members of KFTC, in early 1984 the Kentucky legislature passed a bill that limits the use of this deed. The "broad form deed law," as it is commonly called, states that only those types of mining that existed in the area at the time the deeds were signed are now permissible without additional consent from the landowner. 

One of the first people to benefit from the new law was Elizabeth Wooten of Perry County, near Hazard. A 61-year-old widow with eleven children, Wooten has been fighting for years to keep the mineral owner, Marandco Coal Company, from destroying the 20-acre farm she and her husband bought in 1949. In the fall of 1983 Marandco sued Wooten and her children to keep them from interfering with the proposed strip mine on her land. 

"They thought I was a poor widow woman who couldn't do a thing," she says. But she had just joined KFTC, and with the group's help she was able to fight back. The Wootens and their KFTC attorney, Joe Childers, argued in court that the company had no right to strip mine the property. And in September 1984, Circuit Court Judge Calvin N. Manis ruled in the Wootens' favor. Basing the opinion on his own experience as a coal miner in Perry County in the 1940s, Manis ruled that strip mining was not practiced there at that time, and that therefore the new broad form deed law prohibits strip mining on Wooten's property. 

On hearing the decision, Wooten exclaimed, "Thanks to the KFTC and the good master above, I think we're making some success." Despite the victory, Wooten is back in court because Marandco Coal is challenging the constitutionality of the new law. 

While lower courts have made rulings favorable to landowners in individual cases, state officials have refused on an administrative level to enforce the law. Mining permits are routinely granted to coal companies with nothing more than a broad form deed to prove their right to mine. This has put the burden on the landowners to defend their property in court. 

The broad form deed struggle is only one of many the KFTC has fought in the last three years. People in over 60 Kentucky counties work through the organization to address long-standing problems of land and mineral use and ownership, unfair property tax structures, poor community services, and more recent problems, such as water loss and contamination. The problems are universal; they affect Kentuckians of .all ages. 

— K.L., J.S. 

Justice Will Come 

There's no justice when it comes between the people and the coal. You find the people who work for the state Natural Resources Cabinet in Prestonburg later are working for the coal companies. In fact, they were when they were with the state. Anything the companies want, they get, and the little fellow hasn't got a chance. 

We've had a lot of people like the Mayo family that have made millions out of taking the coal away with the broad form deed. They built mansions and throwed money around like a drunken sailor — money that they got from the poor people that they robbed for 80 cents an acre. Now, 85 percent of the coal in the ground is owned by out-of-state corporations, and isn't taxed much, or at all. 

They take their money, but they don't leave anything in the mountains. It's the same with all the corporations. We have to keep up the roads that get tom up by their big coal trucks. The road to Ashland is like driving on a washboard. It tears your car all to pieces. Of course, we could tax the coal in the ground. If you want revenue, tax the people who own the coal. They've taxed the poor landowner to death. If you need more money for schools, tax the people who own the wealth. In eastern Kentucky we would have collected billions of dollars over the last hundred years if they had taxed the companies like Diamond Shamrock who own this coal. 

There are a lot of people around here who feel like I do, but they need to be united. It's a big job; they've got us intimidated to the point where we're afraid to speak up, and rightfully so. Your family can't get a job if you speak against them. They've got the people of eastern Kentucky in slavery, like the colored were enslaved in the South. There ought to be an Emancipation Proclamation for the people in eastern Kentucky from these big coal corporations. And I say that it will come, maybe not in my lifetime, but I say that justice will come. 


When the Coal's Gone, What Have We Got? 

The older I get, the closer I get to the ground. It's basic stuff. Of course, it won't be long before I fertilize it a bit. When I see St. Peter at the Golden Gates, I want to make sure he knows that I've been working hard to right these wrongs. 

We need more environmental protection. When our land's gone, how are we going to live? How are our animals going to live? When the topsoil's gone, it takes 100 years to put back one inch of it. When the water's gone, with all this acid and pollution and sulphur from mining. . . . I say 50 years from now a jackrabbit will have to get him a Clorox bottle to carry water across Floyd, Pike, and Johnson counties. 

It used to be, if you didn't have food, you could grab a gun or a fish hook. You could get a mess of fish out of the creek. You can't do that now; it's so polluted the fish can't live. The 'possums and the foxes come down at night and eat my cat food. They can't make it in the mountains. The companies have bulldozed all the timber out. 

When I was a boy, timber was a big thing around here. If they had had environmental protection then, if they had planted one tree every time they cut one, we would have a big forest now. Now, they didn't do that and what have we got? We've got the coal. When the coal's gone, what have we got? 


Keep Hollering and We'll Make It 

Well, I tell people I'm going to live 30 more years until I dry up like a June bug, and I want to raise as much ruckus as I can every day. Every now and then, I go down the road to see the fellows in the legislature, to raise a little hell, you know, and the KFTC keeps me pretty busy. 

Really for me, life is practically gone, but I'd like to see a better country than what I came through. And I would like to see my people, instead of going to big cities, come back home. 

I'm very interested in schools — not for my own benefit, my children has picked up the education they'll get. But it's a shame and a disgrace to have the children of this part of the country grow up without a decent education. This is the reason we have no industry in eastern Kentucky. And it's the reason people don't speak up. The cure for eastern Kentucky is education. Not tossing a ball at the hoop, but reading, writing, and arithmetic. Floyd County schools are some of the worst in the state, and the state is one of the worst in the nation. Then we have people like our superintendent, who says, "Well, somebody has to be last." I think the people has got to be educated. 

Sometimes you doubt yourself, but all you have to do is keep working. You can't just quit. I think if a man works, he ought to work on his community, on his section of the country, to make a better Floyd County, a better Kentucky, a better United States. I think that it's happening now. We will speak up more and more. In the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition, we've got 1,100 members. I remember a year ago we had less than 500. I think we should make it 2,000 this year. If each member brings in a new member every year, and as long as folks keep hollering, why, I believe we'll make it.