Sunday, August 26, 2012

Little known American History

"I am not a good American...I prefer to form my own opinions" - George Carlin

This from Alan Grayson:

This weekend marks the anniversary of the most brutal confrontation in the history of the American labor movement, the Battle of Blair Mountain. For one week during 1921, armed, striking coal miners battled scabs, a private militia, police officers and the US Army. 100 people died, 1,000 were arrested, and one million shots were fired. It was the largest armed rebellion in America since the Civil War.

This is how it happened. In the Twenties, West Virginia coal miners lived in "company towns." The mining companies owned all the property. They literally ran union organizers out of town - or killed them.

In 1912, in a strike at Paint Creek, the mining company forced the striking miners and their families out of their homes, to live in tents. Then they sent armed goons into that tent city, and opened fire on men, women and children there with a machine gun.

By 1920, the United Mine Workers had organized the northern mines in West Virginia, but they were barred from the southern mines. When southern miners tried to join the union, they were fired and evicted. To show who was boss, one mining company tried to place machine guns on the roofs of buildings in town.

In Matewan, when the coal company goons came to town to take it upon themselves to enforce eviction notices, the mayor and the sheriff asked them to leave. The goons refused. Incredibly, the goons tried to arrest the sheriff, Sheriff Hatfield. Shots were fired, and the mayor and nine others were killed. But the company goons had to flee.

The government sided with the coal companies, and put Sheriff Hatfield on trial for murder. The jury acquitted him. Then they put the sheriff on trial for supposedly dynamiting a non-union mine. As the sheriff walked up the courthouse steps to stand trial again, unarmed, company goons shot him in cold blood. In front of his wife.

This led to open confrontations between miners on one hand, and police and company goons on the other. 13,000 armed miners assembled, and marched on the southern mines in Logan and Mingo Counties. They confronted a private militia of 2,000, hired by the coal companies.

President Harding was informed. He threatened to send in troops and even bombers to break the union. Many miners turned back, but then company goons started killing unarmed union men, and some armed miners pushed on. The militia attacked armed miners, and the coal companies hired airplanes to drop bombs on them. The US Army Air Force, as it was known then, observed the miners' positions from overhead, and passed that information on to the coal companies.

Miners display a coal company bomb
that was dropped on them from a company plane

Coal company machine gun bunker

The miners actually broke through the militia's defensive perimeter, but after five days, the US Army intervened, and the miners stood down. By that time, 100 people were dead. Almost a thousand miners then were indicted for murder and treason. No one on the side of the coal companies was ever held accountable.

The Battle of Blair Mountain showed that the miners could not defeat the coal companies and the government in battle. But then something interesting happened: the miners defeated the coal companies and the government at the ballot box. In 1925, convicted miners were paroled. In 1932, Democrats won both the State House and the White House. In 1935, President Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act. Eleven years after the Battle of Blair Mountain, the United Mine Workers organized the southern coal fields in West Virginia.

The Battle of Blair Mountain did not have a happy ending for Sheriff Hatfield, or his wife, or the 100 men, women and children who died, or the hundreds who were injured, or the thousands who lost their jobs. But it did have a happy ending for the right to organize, and the middle class, and America.

Now let me ask you one thing: had you ever heard of this landmark event in American history, the Battle of Blair Mountain, before you read this? And if not, then why not? Think about that.


Alan Grayson


Debra She Who Seeks said...

Didn't John Sayles make a movie called "Matewan"?

Doug said...

That's a nasty piece of history. It's not hard to understand why the government would bury it.

Leslie Parsley said...

As much as we like to blame everything under the sun on the guv'ment, they haven't buried it. You might, however, have a hard time finding mention of it in American history textbooks.

I'm actually familiar with this, just as I am with the Ludlow Massacre, both of which are equally horrendous. But, oh jadedj, thank you for posting this reminder. The pictures are terrific; hadn't seen the one of the bunker - right out of WWI & II but on our own turf. Yuck. Sharing this on Faceless Book.

the yellow fringe said...

I had never heard of this before. Googled it and wow. Pictures, many accounts, and the fight goes on. The state along with mining companies fought the listing of it on the National Historical Registry, the fight took a nasty turn in 2007 when the state accepted false documents from mine operators that the local land owners wanted it de-listed, the names on the list no longer were owners of land in that area. As near as I could tell by the one rather unclear account I found, it is still listed, the mines lost. However the Mines continue still trying to rub it out by applying for the right to mine at the very spot where the monument/marker is.

jadedj said...

D S W S---I had to Google it, and you are correct. What I found interesting is it initially opened in Australia. ??? WTF ???

Doug---I've read of other labor/corporate confrontations of the time, but nothing quite as extreme as this.

Leslie P---Guilty by omission, maybe?

Good idea about Facebook btw.

yellow fringe---Continued into the 21st Century. Un-believable. The greed just gets worse.

the walking man said...

Yep I knew about Blair Mountain and where the term redneck (though it's origins date back to 17th century Scotland) came to mean in America.

I am not sure what is more disturbing the massacre or the use of American military against American citizens to uphold corporate interests. Posse Comitatus had been breached before (the Bonus March on DC) but as egregious as that was MacArthur had to cement his rep somehow so why not kill some veterans. This was purely a management/labor dispute and there was no way the country was going to experience a coal shortage when the northern mines could just speed up the coal.

Remember the Upper Big that coal boys no matter what, just run the damn coal.

Chimp said...

I had never heard of this battle. To me, it also shows that we are never far from total fascism. After WWII we hated the Germans and Japanese for their cold blooded killings and yet today, Americans are hated throughout the Arab world for their cold blooded killings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. All in the name of oil corporations. No Different than when the troops fought for the coal mining companies.

Chimp said...

Also, because the US government is afraid that American troops will NOT fire on Americans during Martial Law, the US has signed treaties with Canada and Mexico and other countries to use their troops during the next American revolution.

Ol'Buzzard said...

There have been a couple of history and PBS programs on this. James Lee Burke (very early in his career wrote about the West Virginia miners.)
the Ol'Buzzard

jadedj said...

w m---My grandfather was a WWI vet and despised MacArthur. He was one of the Bonus Marchers, and had damned good reason to. The words Goddamn and S.O.B. were always used in the same sentence as MacArthur by my Grandfather. He was a happy fellow when MacArthur got sacked by Truman.

Chimp---America is not squeaky clean when it comes to violent intentions.

Ol'B----James Lee Burke is one of my favorite authors. I will definitely look look it up. Thanks for the tip.

Harlequin said...

great post.
i had not heard of this event, either, but i am more reflective for having read it. it gives perspective to more than history.


I knew the history I saw the movie and I'm still pissed about it.

Tom Harper said...

Nope, I hadn't heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain before reading your post. It certainly wouldn't be in a high school history text since, you know, it's too negative, paints an unflattering picture of America's Job Creators, etc.

I've read two "alternate" history books -- "Lies My Teacher Told Me" and "The People's History of the United States" -- and I don't remember reading about it in either of those books either. It might be in there; I read those books a long time ago.

jadedj said...

Harlequin---History is dictated by the victors, as someone I cannot remember said.

YD G---I love a good pissed off remembrance ;-)

Tom---I have read those two books as well and can't recall these events either (yep, a long long long time ago).

Professor Chaos said...

gee, for some reason, my high school history books never mentioned this story.

jadedj said...

Professor---You evidently had the same books I had.

Murr Brewster said...

I did, because I have been researching coal mining in West Virginia for a novel. The unions are a mixed bag now. In recent decades, union members have been kept out of mine work. Massey Energy would come in and close down a mine, only to open it six months later and rehire only non-union people.

Now, the mountaintop removal mines employ far far fewer men, and the unions still support them (as opposed to underground mining that is more labor-intensive) because some of the retirement benefits are tied to the amount of coal produced in the state. It's kind of a mess.

The Battle of Blair Mountain is a central theme in Denise Giardina's excellent novel, "Strange as This Weather Has Been."

jadedj said...

Murr B---Thanks for all the good information to which, admittedly, I've not payed too much attention until I read about the Blair Mountain travesty of justice.

It just so happens that I am headed to the library tomorrow and I will look up "Strange as This Weather Has Been". And now, I have your novel to look forward to as well.

The Plashing Vole said...

Very pleased you posted this. I knew some of it: my colleague's two Lithuanian uncles were killed there. But there's a lot here I didn't know.

jadedj said...

The Plashing Vole---Murder is what I call it. Murder by the face of greed.

squatlo said...

About twenty years ago a friend of mine sent me a novel called "Storming Heaven" by Denise Giardina, because she thought it would mean something to me since I was involved in our union local's strike at the time. Grayson's version left out the mustard gas attacks the company goons unleashed on the miners.

Another similar conflict took place not far from my home town in east Tennessee in 1891, and it's known at the Coal Creek War. Involved striking miners in the mountains near what is now Lake City, and it brought down a Tennessee governor. He used convicts as forced labor to keep the mines open, and the national guard was used to defend a stockade around the mines. Hundreds of miners were arrested, dozens killed.

Great post!

jadedj said...

Squatlo---Thanks for sharing these first-hand accounts with us. I am sure there are other labor/management incidents of a horrendous nature we've never heard of in class...many, many more.

Unions and labor are those who sweat are the real builders of this country...despite what the 1% would have us believe.