May 21, 2013
The Battle of Blair Mountain
Posted on Jul 16, 2012
By Chris Hedges
Denise Giardina, in her lyrical and moving novel of the mine wars, “Storming Heaven,” has union organizer Rondal Lloyd wonder what it is that finally makes a passive and cowed population rebel.
“Who can say why the miners were ready to listen to me?” he asks. “They broke their backs and died of roof falls and rib rolls and gas, their children went to bed hungry, and died of the typhoid, their wives took the consumption, they themselves coughed and spit up. True enough. They stayed in debt to the company store, they had no say at the mine or freedom of any kind, they could be let go at a moment’s notice and put out in the road, or beaten, or shot. All true. But it had always been that way, and they never fought back. Everything had always been the way it was, we were all pilgrims of sorrow, and only Jesus or the Virgin Mary could make it right. So why did they listen this time? Why did they decide that Jesus might not wait two thousand years for the kingdom to come, that Jesus might kick a little ass in the here and now?”
“Hell, it aint got nothing to do with Jesus,” the character Talcott tells him. “Half of em dont believe in Jesus. They just stood all they can stand, and they dont care for it.”
Sound familiar? It is an old and cruel tactic in any company town. Reduce wages and benefits to subsistence level. Break unions. Gut social assistance programs. Buy and sell elected officials and judges. Fill the airwaves with mindless diversion and corporate propaganda. Pay off the press. Poison the soil, the air and the water to extract natural resources and leave behind a devastated wasteland. Plunge workers into debt. Leave them owing more on their houses than the structures are worth. Make sure the children will be burdened by tens of thousands of dollars lent to them for an education and will be unable to find decent jobs. Make sure that everything from hospital bills to car payments to credit card fees exact increasing pounds of flesh. And when workers stumble, when they cannot pay soaring interest rates, jack up rates further and deploy predators from debt collection agencies to harass the debtors and seize their assets. Then toss them away. Company towns all look the same. And we live in the biggest one on earth.
“It is freedom or death, and your children will be free,” Mother Jones told the miners. “We are not going to leave a slave class to the coming generation, and I want to say to you the next generation will not charge us for what we have done; they will charge and condemn us for what we have left undone.”
Hatfield was acquitted of murder charges in January 1921. The decision infuriated the mine owners. And Hatfield became a marked man. After his acquittal of murder, coal bosses had him charged with dynamiting a coal tipple. When Hatfield and his young wife, as well as a friend, Ed Chambers, and Chambers’ wife, walked up the courthouse steps in Welch, W.Va., for the new trial, the two men were assassinated by Baldwin-Felts agents standing at the top. The assassinations set off the insurrection and triggered the Blair Mountain rebellion. The coal owners hastily organized militias and recruited units of heavily armed law enforcement officers. They hired private airplanes to drop homemade explosives on miners encamped on the mountain. Billy Mitchell, one of the early advocates of air power, volunteered the Army’s 88th Squadron to carry out aerial surveillance for the coal companies.
The armed miners, many of them veterans of World War I, fought militias and police, who were equipped with heavy machine guns, for five days. The militias and police held back advancing miners from a trench system that is still visible on a ridge top. The Army was finally ordered into the coal fields in early September 1921 to quell the rebellion. The miners surrendered. By the time the battle ended, at least 30 of those defending the mine owners had been killed along with perhaps as many as 100 rebel miners. West Virginia indicted 1,217 miners in the rebellion, charging some with murder and treason. There were acquittals, but many miners spent several years in prison. The union was effectively broken. In 1920 there had been about 50,000 United Mine Workers members in West Virginia, and by 1929 there were only 600. The union did not reconstitute itself until 1935, after the Roosevelt administration legalized union organizing.
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