On Monday around 600 people began a five-day march to commemorate one of the most important moments in the US labor movement, at a time when a historic landmark in the fight for workers’ rights is being threatened by mountaintop removal coal mining. The marchers intend to travel by foot from the town Marmet, West Virginia to Blair Mountain, site of the 1921 “battle of Blair Mountain.” This historic workers’ uprising from ninety years ago remains the second-largest armed rebellion in the history of the United States, surpassed only by the Civil War.
The workers’ rebellion began in August of 1921, as West Virginia coal miners were fighting for the right to unionize and demanding better working conditions from coal companies. Company officials responded by hiring armed thugs who were ordered to violently intimidate union organizers, and in some cases evicted mining families from their houses despite lacking legal authority to do so. When a police chief sympathetic to the miners’ demands was murdered on August 2nd, it sparked a rebellion against the coal companies.
Over the summer of 1921 at least 10,000 coal miners joined an armed rebellion against mining companies and a citizen militia assembled by officials from West Virginia’s Mingo County. The workers used the double peaks of Blair Mountain as a stronghold that could be defended with relative ease. Roughly twenty to fifty people were killed in gunfire that erupted between miners and the militia, and which continued for a days. The battle ended when the US army sent in troops to stop the rebellion, and miners surrendered because they were not willing to fire on US soldiers.
Though few people today would condone the use of violence employed by both sides in the battle of Blair Mountain, it remains a historically and culturally important moment in the US labor movement. The rebellion may not have led to immediately tangible gains for mine workers, but for decades it served to inspire coal miners and other workers fighting for the right to unionize.
Yet today Blair Mountain, the most important landmark of the rebellion, is being threatened by the very industry miners marched against in 1921. Coal companies have proposed to literally blow up the mountaintop to reach underground coal seems through the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining. Mountaintop removal is a particularly destructive form of mining, which involves blasting away the face of a mountain with explosives to reach the coal underneath.
Environmental groups and many local residents argue mountaintop removal would destroy a historic and archeological significant landmark at Blair Mountain. It’s for this reason that hundreds of people have joined a reenactment of coal miners’ historic march to Blair Mountain—though of course minus the armed rebellion element. “I’m doing this to preserve the history and culture Blair Mountain represents,” said marcher Joe Stanley, a retired member of United Mine Workers of America. “If we allow them to destroy Blair Mountain, we’ll forget the actions done by brave men that led to strengthening the labor movement and creating the middle class.”
Environmental nonprofits like the Sierra Club are urging the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to preserve Blair Mountain as a historically important site. Doing so would preclude mountaintop removal or other very destructive activities from taking place there.
By drawing attention to the special place of Blair Mountain in the history of the labor movement, participants in this week’s march hope to persuade government agencies to protect the site for future generations. During the week hundreds of people are expected to join the 600 who set out today on the way to Blair Mountain. The march will end on Friday with a rally where the speaker lineup includes environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and retired union member and community organizer Chuck Nelson.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/nationalmemorialforthemountains/4534741523/sizes/m/in/photostream/