Citizens March to Protect Hallowed Ground on Blair Mountain
For five days in June, a total of nearly 800 citizen activists, including Sierra Club volunteers and staff, marched 50 miles through West Virginia from the town of Marmet to the town of Blair, site of a huge mountaintop removal mining controversy.
The march, part of a weeklong protest to protect Blair Mountain, commemorated the 90th anniversary of a 1921 march undertaken by coal miners in their fight to unionize and live & work in decent conditions, and the ensuing Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed insurrection on American soil since the Civil War.
The Sierra Club has been working with local, regional, and national allies to protect the Blair Mountain battle site and end mountaintop removal on Blair Mountain and throughout southern Appalachia. No mining has yet taken place on the historic battlefield, but it is fast being encroached upon. Below, mountaintop removal operations above the town of Blair.
Photo courtesy of iLoveMountains.org
The Sierra Club has just filed a petition to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to make Blair Mountain off-limits to mining. Take action by writing to Randy Huffman, Director of the WV DEP, letting him know why it's so important that we preserve our natural and cultural heritage on Blair Mountain.
The anti-union forces won a decisive victory, and United Mine Workers' membership plummeted over the next several years. But the battle raised awareness of the appalling conditions faced by miners in the West Virginia coalfields, and ultimately led to a stronger labor movement across the United States.
The battle site on Blair Mountain, below, is as close to sacred ground as there is for the United Mine Workers of America. In April 2009, after coal companies announced their intention to blow up the mountain to get at the coal seams within, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But in a controversial move, the National Register abruptly removed Blair Mountain from the list that December. The Sierra Club took action against this move on June 2 of this year. Below, the portion of Blair Mountain where the 1921 battle took place.
On June 8, residents of West Virginia's Coal River Valley and their allies rallied in front of the EPA's offices in Washington D.C., below, thanking the agency for its support and urging for more stringent coal regulations from Congress and the EPA.
Meanwhile, the marchers, singing songs like They Will Never Keep Us Down by Hazel Dickens, followed roughly the same route as the miners in 1921. They arrived at Blair Mountain on Saturday, June 11, where an estimated 2,000 people gathered for a rally, below, to protest further destruction of the mountain and restore protections for the Blair Mountain Battlefield.
Throughout the day, speakers, celebrities, musicians, scholars, artists, union workers, and other participants called for an end to mountaintop removal mining, strengthened labor rights, and a clean local economy for Appalachia. Among the speakers was Robert Kennedy, Jr., who told the crowd that Big Coal, while forever offering prosperity to West Virginia, had left a legacy of devastation and poverty.
Several hundred people then marched two miles to the top of Blair Mountain, above and below, where they picketed for the protection of the mountain and erected a memorial for the fallen miners of 1921.
"I'm honored to have been a part of the march and to have helped out in the organizing of the event," says West Virginia Sierra Club organizer Bill Price. "The core organizers from Appalachia Rising did an amazing job. Sierra Club staff involved on the ground included Sierra Student Coalition coordinator Kim Teplitzky and SSC organizers Lindsey Berger and Alexis Boxer, and Pittsburgh-based Club organizer Randy Francisco (who took vacation time). Former intern Whitney Byrd was also very involved.
"Among the Sierra Club volunteers involved were Gwen Jones and Jim Sconyers from the West Virginia Chapter, and Drew Foley from the Cumberland Chapter. Sierra Club President Robin Mann joined us to march the final leg up to the top. Club organizer Marie Bergen and Aaron Isherwood and Jessica Yarnell of the Environmental Law Program deserve credit for working on the action alert and legal end of the campaign to preserve Blair. Regina Hendrix from the West Virginia Chapter was the first person to talk to us about Blair many years ago.
"Over the week a core of about 250-300 people marched each day in extreme heat (102 degrees one day) and to the taunts of some people. Those taunts and name-callers aside, it was heartwarming to see the support along the way. From the man sitting on his 4-wheeler with a sign that simply said 'thank you' to the lady who handed out cans of RC Cola, we were lifted by the simplest forms of gratitude while we marched forward. I was very pleased by the amount of encouragement from the local communities.
"The pressure and obstacles from the coal industry were definitely present. Campgrounds along the route one way or the other became unavailable, which meant having to shuttle marchers back and forth from Marmet each day except for the final night. Special thanks to the Cumberland and West Virginia Chapters for donations that helped to pay the additional expense.
"But there were signs of change, too. The Mayor of Madison, the County seat of Boone County (the #1 coal producing county in West Virginia) filled up our water supply tanks from the town reservoir free of charge. Local, county and state police made sure we were all safe and were always respectful to us. Children at a school all came out and waved as we went by. Most important was the number of local people who came out and marched with us during a portion of the march. I do believe this event was a game-changer in many ways."
Photos by Jordan Freeman, from his video Final Days of the March on Blair Mountain, unless otherwise noted.