CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I remember when Martin Luther King said, "Where the blacktop ends, that's where the Negro neighborhood begins."
In the 1960s King's criticism was apt because local, white-dominated governments so neglected African-American neighborhoods in the South that most streets and avenues on the wrong side of the tracks were nothing more than a dusty collection of cow paths. As a former network television news correspondent responsible for CBS coverage of King, I recall the time and King's words vividly.
An abrupt ending of fresh pavement on W.Va. 214 precisely at the Kanawha-Lincoln County line in Alum Creek renews for me the aptness of King's words about roadway discrimination. And if he were around today, King would have absolutely no trouble recognizing that, like blacks in his ministerial bailiwick, the citizens of Lincoln County generally and Alum Creek particularly are being treated as second-class citizens by their state and local governments.
This is not something that is new. Residents in the eastern end of Lincoln County have complained repeatedly to the West Virginia Division of Highways and Lincoln County Commissioners about how damaged and unsafe their road is. Year in and year out accidents on the roadway cause deaths, injuries and property damage that can no longer be tolerated. Yet a petition signed recently by hundreds of suffering citizens and submitted to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Paul A. Mattox, Jr., Secretary of Transportation/Commissioner of Highways is being ignored. For the citizens who signed the petition to pave their lifeline, the official intransigence is yet another slap in the face, another reminder that their concerns about the road they depend on for travel to and from churches, businesses and homes are not taken seriously.
Not everyone in positions of power, though, is ignoring the cries of Lincoln County residents. Sen. Jay Rockefeller is intervening for Lincoln Countians by pressuring DOT's Mattox. But, it seems, Rockefeller is the only one. And although the senator is cursed by local people over his recent remarks against coal companies, they are praising him for his efforts on their behalf. After Rockefeller urged Mattox to meet resident's demands that their road be paved, Mattox finally moved, but only minimally. He ordered a short stretch of W.Va. 214 paved on the Kanawha County side, leaving the most egregious, potholed and patched section on the Lincoln County side wide open to accidents and possibly more deaths.
Sen. Rockefeller's office is urging roadway residents to renew their action by demanding that new funding, freed up when Congress passed the Transportation bill recently, be used to finish paving the highway. So far, though, DOH is not signaling that it will comply with any renewed citizen demands. In the interim, the citizens are living with what they call the "callous" promise that DOH might consider paving the Lincoln County side sometime next year, maybe.
And Martin Luther King's words are ringing in their ears.
Rabel, of Lincoln County, is an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and author, formerly of NBC News and CBS News.