In the past 90 years of American history, much has changed, but in the coal fields of southern West Virginia, so much more remains the same. A native of this great state, I care deeply about our people, about our economy, and yes, about our environment – especially the beautiful and biodiverse mountains that have sustained people for thousands of years. And I have risen up, one of 300 others, to march to preserve our heritage, our history, and the heart of what it means to be a mountaineer.
Ninety years ago in the late summer of 1921, in the midst of great oppression, terrible working conditions, and a lack of national support, 10,000 striking coal miners marched 50 miles from Marmet, W.Va, down to Logan County in support of their working class brethren. They were met at Blair Mountain by state police, coal company “thugs,” and mercenaries – all organized by the coal companies to put the strike down.
The governor declared martial law as the army arrayed against the working men positioned machine guns along the ridge lines. A federalized national guard was called in and in rented planes, even dropped bombs and poison gas on the battered miners. More than a million rounds were fired, with hundreds killed or wounded, but it wasn’t until the US Army was called in on the ground that the miners gave up.
Their argument wasn’t with Uncle Sam; in fact many of them were proud veterans of World War I and could not fathom fighting with the country they loved. And thus the rebellion was put down, and the largest insurrection in US history outside the Civil War came to an end. This happened less than 90 years ago.
Blair Mountain and its people under threat again
Today, Blair Mountain is under threat again, this time from mountaintop removal coal mining, and the historic battlefield and crucible of the American labor movement is on the brink of eradication. Today’s coal barons would like nothing more than to bury this history forever and to wipe clear the bloody story of their industry in our state. Much as they rape our land today, blasting the tops of more than 500 mountains and burying the headwaters of the eastern US in rubble and toxic waste, they would put to rest our sacred past.
But this is not the end of the story – more than 300 people have risen up in the face of strong opposition to reenact that march this week. While we don’t have rifles and won’t hijack a train to get there – our goal is to fight the status quo that is destroying the town of Blair. We march to Blair Mountain to secure its rightful place in West Virginian and American history.
We want to have the entire battlefield region put on the National Register of Historic Places. And we want to foster a true dialogue about what a sustainable Appalachia looks like – one that has safe, deep coal mines, but also clean energy industries such as wind, geothermal, and biofuels – the technologies of the future. But as we march with the ghosts of the Blair Mountain dead, the forces that put them down appear no less vibrant.
We will not be stopped by King Coal
On Monday night, the first night of our week-long march, the county commissioner of Boone County, with a dozen sheriff’s deputies and state troopers at his side, forced us to leave a public park which had been previously negotiated as our camp ground. At 9:30 pm, as many of us were beginning to bed down, they showed up, and with the force of what was surely King Coal pulling the strings, they forced us to leave or face arrest.
So we left, for we will not let our march be stopped in Racine, or Madison, or anywhere in Boone County. Each night since, we have been denied sanctuary as well. But we march to Blair, and will meet our fate there. We know that the 1,500 or so townspeople who call it home are waiting for us to join them in their struggle to save their town and history.
We want these hardworking men and women of the southern coal fields to know: We march not only to preserve our past, but to secure and create our future. We march for us, but also for the children of those state troopers and Boone County sheriffs arrayed against us today. It is their history we are fighting to save as well, and the future of their children we want to safeguard.
And we will not forget the motto our state adopted in the throes of the Civil War 148 years ago – Montani Semper Liberi – Mountaineers are Always Free.
Jon Gensler is a native of Huntington, W.Va, and is a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and the Harvard Kennedy School. He is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and plans on returning to West Virginia in the near future to help build a clean energy economy.
Jon and 300 others will be marching to the top of Blair Mountain on Saturday, June 11. See their photos here.