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Examiner
  • Ted Stillwell: Battle of Blair Mountain brought about good in the long run

  • The Labor Day week marks the anniversary of the most brutal confrontation in the history of the American Labor movement, “The Battle of Blair Mountain.”

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  • The Labor Day week 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 early September 1921, armed, striking coal miners battled scabs, a private militia, police officers and the U.S. Army. One hundred people died, 1,000 were arrested, and one million shots were fired. It was the largest armed rebellion in America outside of the Civil War.
    This is how it happened. Back in the 1920s, West Virginia coal miners lived in “company towns.” The mining companies owned all of 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 the tent city, and opened fire with machine guns on all of the men, women and children.
    By 1920, the United Mine Workers had organized the northern mines in West Virginia, but were barred from organizing the southern mines. When southern miners tried to join the union, they were terminated and run out of town. To show who was boss, one mining company even placed machine guns on the roofs of buildings.
    In Matewan, W.Va., when the coal company goons came into town to enforce eviction notices, the mayor and Sheriff Hatfield asked them to leave. The goons not only refused, but they tried to arrest the sheriff. Shots were fired and the mayor and nine others hit the ground dead. 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 of murder, so they put him on trial for allegedly dynamiting a non-union mine. As the unarmed sheriff walked up the courthouse steps to stand trial, company goons shot him in cold blood.
    This led to open confrontations between miners on one side, and police and company goons on the other. Thirteen thousand armed miners assembled and marched on southern mines in Logan and Mingo counties. They confronted a private militia of 2,000, hired by the coal companies.
    President Warren G. Harding threatened to send in troops and even bombers to break the union. So, many miners did turn back, but others continued on against the militia. Then, the company goons started killing unarmed union men on the sidelines and the coal companies hired private airplanes to drop bombs on them. In the meantime, the Air Service of the U.S. Army (as it was known until 1926) observed the miners’ position from overhead, and passed that information on to the coal companies.
    The miners actually broke through the militia’s defensive perimeter, but after five days the U.S. Army intervened, and the miners stood down. By that time, 100 people were dead and hundreds wounded. Almost 1,000 miners were then indicted for murder and treason. No one on the side of the coal companies was ever held accountable.
    Page 2 of 2 - 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 both of them at the ballot box. In 1925, convicted miners were paroled, and in 1932, Democrats won both the state house and the White House. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law 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 the many casualties or those who lost their jobs, but it did have a happy ending for America and the right of the middle class to organize.
    Reference: Howard B. Lee, “Bloodletting in Appalachia: The Story of West Virginia’s Four Major Mine Wars and Other Thrilling Incidents of Its Coal Fields.”
    Examiner columnist Ted W. Stillwell will be the guest speaker before the senior group of the Susquehanna Baptist Church at noon Thursday.

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