by Denise Giardina for Appalachia Rising
Ninety years ago, in 1921, thousands of coal miners marched from Marmet, West Virginia to Blair Mountain in Logan County. They were West Virginians from a variety of backgrounds, standing up against coal companies for their freedom and basic human rights. They tied red bandannas around their necks and marched to throw out local politicians who had aligned themselves with coal companies. They marched because they were dying from unsafe working conditions, because they were being cheated out of their rightful pay. They marched because they were being denied the right to join a union, because their families were living in terrible conditions and dying from ill health, because coal company thugs subjected them to violence, because the companies and state government were taking away their basic civil liberties.
When these brave miners reached Blair Mountain, they found coal company forces and state police arrayed against them with rifles and machine guns. The standoff lasted for several days and ended when federal troops with not only machine guns, but also poison gas, and airplanes with bombs, arrived on the scene. The Battle of Blair Mountain was one of the most stirring and important events in labor history in the United States. For several days it commanded the top headlines in newspapers such as the New York Times. The immediate aftermath was the crushing of the United Mine Workers throughout the region for the next twelve years, but with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, the hope of Blair Mountain was realized. The United Mine Workers of America began the long process of improving the lot of American coal miners.
How far we have fallen in the last thirty years! Coal companies like Massey (now Alpha Energy) have stripped union protection from miners who are dying in devastating accidents. Because of coal company intimidation, basic civil liberties like freedom of assembly are infringed. Coalfield residents are again dying because of the poisoning of the environment from valley fills, slurry injections, and coal ash. West Virginia politicians continue in the pockets of the coal companies, where they attempt to deprive their citizens of their state of even the basic protections that the fed government provides. And mountains across the region are being destroyed. Even Blair Mountain, that most important peak in West Virginia’s history, is not safe.
Our ancestors who marched on Blair Mountain understood some things that we would like to remind our fellow West Virginians, Appalachians and Americans about. The coal miners who marched on Blair Mountain understood that they were not friends of coal. These coal miners deeply understood that the West Virginia coal operators and the international coal industry were not their friends. They understood that they must stand against coal companies.
We are here to announce a new, peaceful march on Blair Mountain in early June, and we invite our fellow citizens to join us. We call for protection for Blair Mountain from mountaintop removal; indeed, an end to all mountaintop removal. We call for protection of our streams and our drinking water. We call for our politicians to protect people and the environment. We call for coal to be deep mined by union coal miners who are protected by their union and by strong government regulatory agencies. We call for West Virginia to become once again the Mountain State, to proclaim the beauty of the summits of the West Virginia hills and to insist that mountaineers are always free. We call for Americans to stand up again for our freedoms and our land, and against those corporations who would destroy both.
The March on Blair Mountain is a unifying rally involving environmental justice organizations, workers, scholars, artists, and other citizens and groups.
Visit appalachiarising.org or marchonblairmountain.org for information. See you in June!
DENISE GIARDINA is a writer who was born and raised in the small coal camp of Black Wolf in McDowell County, West Virginia. Her novels, fictionalizing historical characters and events, have been critically acclaimed and recognized with a number of literary prizes. Her novel Storming Heaven portrays life in southern West Virginia in the period during and preceding the coal mine wars, and culminates in the Battle of Blair Mountain. Giardina is an ordained Episcopal Church deacon, a community activist and a former candidate for the WV state governorship. She is active in social justice issues in the Appalachian coalfields, working for land reform in an area that is largely owned by absentee corporations, demonstrating with striking miners, and speaking out against mountaintop removal. She is currently writer-in-residence at West Virginia State University.