Goin’ to the Mountain

Inside activists’ five-day, 50-mile march to protect a West Virginia mountain from strip mining.

Peter Slavin

Marchers on June 6, 2011, the first day of the five-day journey. (Photo by Paul Corbit Brown via MarchOnBlairMountain.org)

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BLAIR, WEST VA. – In late summer of 1921, a veritable army of at least 10,000 armed coal miners marched across southern West Virginia bent on ending the oppression they lived under and bringing their only hope – their union, The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) – to fellow workers. At the time, miners were no better than serfs, and could be shot down like dogs if they crossed the wrong person. 

Demonstrators across the road are shouting at us. There's little support for us here. The word is that a lot of locals in area won't show support for fear of their neighbors' reaction.

Some moved south by car, some by wagon, some on foot, and others commandeered trains. Along the way, they confiscated food from company stores and arms and ammunition. It was the largest insurrection on American soil since the Civil War and the nation’s greatest labor uprising – and one almost lost to the nation’s memory. 

Early this month, hundreds of people commemorated the 90th anniversary of the uprising by repeating the miners’ journey. The march was the latest in a series of protests known as Appalachia Rising. On Friday June 10, after five days of marching a total of 50 miles through brutal heat and being turned away at campsites where they had arranged to sleep, activists entered the town of Blair at the foot of Blair Mountain. On its ridges the miners’ army had encountered a much smaller but entrenched force of mine guards, militia, police, and volunteers defending the state and the coal companies, which were allied. The two sides had fought for five days, using machine guns and firing a million rounds, until 2,500 federal troops intervened. The miners, many of whom were World War I veterans, refused to fight U.S. troops, and went home. 

The recent marchers camped the last night on the very ground where the miners had bivouacked in 1921 and turned in their weapons. More than 800 strong, activists marched to the battlefield the next day. Their primary aim was preserving the historic site from encroaching mountaintop removal strip mining (MTR), which threatens its obliteration. (For more on the march’s origins, see In These Times’ story from May, The Blair Mountain Project.”)

We saw the march as a great chance to raise the visibility of this least known of our country’s great historic battlefields, [which is] really the Gettysburg of the labor wars,” says Harvard Ayers, a key organizer and the archaeologist who unearthed a trove of artifacts on the battlefield. But by generating all the interest, we now have a huge list of supporters dedicated to saving Blair Mountain.” 

The march (an accompanying rally drew 1,000 people), by far the largest protest ever against MTR within Appalachia, was unprecedented in terms of logistics. Marchers had to be supplied with food, water, medical aid and port-a-potties in a poor and remote rural area. A fleet of vehicles was assembled to shuttle supplies back and forth. Dozens of marchers volunteered for one of the many roles the enterprise depended upon – such as water delivery, kitchen work, camp security, march marshal, driver, medic, media relations, legal observer and peacekeeper.

Setbacks and problems did not throw the march off stride. When the marchers were evicted from a campground at 10 p.m. the first night, they were shuttled to a pre-arranged back-up sleeping area and onto the march route the next morning. Likewise, there was no place in Blair for supporters coming to the final-day rally to sleep, so they were directed to a state park 10 miles away, then shuttled to the rally. 

As the miners did in 1921, the marchers started just south of Charleston. And as the miners did, the marchers wore red bandanas for identification. Numbering 200 people at first, their ranks grew steadily all week, with people traveling from across the country, as well as Japan, Australia and France. Quite a few people over 50, including retired miners, joined young environmentalists and students. 

They ran into trouble the first night at John Slack Park, where they’d been given verbal permission to camp. A dozen or so people heckled them and a fire truck drove up and down the park perimeter with its siren blaring. They had been there for hours and were turning in to sleep when the chairman of the Boone County Commission appeared and announced camping was not allowed there. Ellie Smith, an Australian marcher, said the eviction did not dampen morale. To her, it showed the march was being effective, so it excites me rather than dampens my spirits.”

The Appalachia Rising website blamed the incident on pressure and intimidation of the campground operator by the coal industry. Coal rules in Boone County, the largest coal producer in West Virginia.

Marchers never even got into their designated Boone County campsites Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Both sites cancelled. Marcher Patrick Morales said that, according to organizers he spoke to, Big Earl’s Campground employees were threatened with dismissal by management if they let marchers stay there. 

The marchers slept instead at the warehouse,” a former retail space serving as their headquarters. I arrived there the third day of the march. Here’s what I saw between then and Saturday, when the marchers’ mission culminated on Blair Mountain. 

Wednesday: Temperature rising

The warehouse sits on a street in the town of Marmet. Railroad tracks are behind it, and coal trains, some more than a mile long, run past every half hour. Good humor reigns here, though there are but two small bathrooms for 200-plus people and no showers, and people are forced to curl up in sleeping bags with complete strangers lying just inches away. When there’s a call for volunteers to do KP or pull security shifts at night, hands fly up. 

An organizer says there were 25 medic runs today, mostly heat cases. It was reportedly more than 100 degrees. At a meeting inside, organizers acknowledge it’s been a struggle to stay on top of things. 

Tom Rhule, who blogs at Up the Holler,” says he discovered someone had placed boulders on Blair Mountain blocking the road leading to the rally site. He’s notified the state. (A bunch of marchers later removed them.) 

Thursday: The work of the devil’

Shuttling to march starting point on narrow Rt. 94, we pass a house with a sign in bright red paint: Coal Keeps the Lights On.” A passing car carries a streamer, Wife of a Coal Miner and Proud of It.” To minimize resistance, three weeks before the march organizers drove the entire route and talked to people in homes and businesses about the march and its aims or left a flier. Davey, a young man from Asheville, N.C., says that while marching through the town of Madison yesterday he saw plenty of thumbs up, plenty of middle fingers. Felt like 50 – 50.” 

After a long wait at the staging area along the road, the march begins. We go single file for safety. Marshals reprimand anyone who steps inside the white line. A man sits on his four-wheeler with a sign, Thank You.” Charles Bella, a 61-year-old man from Blair, says he’s marching for his paw-paw,” who fought at Blair Mountain. Bella, a heavy-set retired miner carrying a heavy lunch box, is struggling in the heavy heat. On a welcome break, he tells me his grandfather helped organize the original march. I have the rifle he used. Winchester 2520,” he says. I was a strip miner….,” he adds. I’m ashamed that I was part of that mountaintop mining.” He calls it the work of the devil.” The medics check him out and he resumes the march. But he has to quit after a short time. Still, he stays with the march in a medic’s car. 

Outside a roadside store, Donna Shelton, 37, says she supports protecting the battlefield, but also supports the miners. Without coal there’s no jobs,” she says, claiming 500 jobs are at stake. We stop for lunch, trucked in from the warehouse, at the home of Harold and Mary Ann Miles. We sit under trees along the Spruce River. I’m glad to be a part of this,” Mrs. Miles says. The couple offered their place for camping too. She calls it a family tradition.” Her husband’s grandparents’ had let the miners camp there in 1921 and cooked them a meal. A number of hecklers go past in vehicles. One shouts, Why don’t you try getting a job?” 

We enter the town of Oceana. Everyone seems to be out on the porch or in their front yard to see us. The town is full of Friends of Coal and other pro-coal signs – I Love Mountains that Produce Coal,” Welcome to Coal Country,” Mountaintop Removal Bought This Home,” even Strip Yellowstone.” In some cases little kids hold up the signs while their parents stand nearby. A stern-looking woman stands near the road with Coal Miner’s Wife” traced on her face in what looks like coal dust. Down the road eight people, mostly young, demonstrate in favor of coal. The word is do not engage our opponents. We simply keep walking.

The next town, Sharples, shares a look of desperate poverty with Oceana. Most homes are very old and shabby. 

It’s finally cooling down. A sign threatens a Second Battle of Blair Mountain.” A man in front of houses along railroad tracks carries on about the importance of coal and how the marchers need to get jobs. A woman sitting on her front porch with her family gives us the finger. It’s just after 4 p.m., shift change in the mines, and four men in a passing car give us some hard looks. 

A marcher says some hecklers in vehicles are turning around and coming back one or two times. Demonstrators across the road are shouting at us. Maybe 30 people, many of them kids. Signs are everywhere. There’s little support for us here. The word is that a lot of locals in area won’t show support for fear of their neighbors’ reaction.

Friday: The road to Blair

At today’s staging area, three sheriff’s department cars keep watch across the road. The state police have kept order well. At every potential trouble spot they’re on the scene. While we wait hours for all marchers to arrive, two young musicians entertain the crowd, which gathers in a circle. 

Joe Stanley, a retired UMWA member, says he’s marched every day despite old injuries. His local did not take a stand on the march but he’s carrying the sign of another local, #1440, that did. He’s one of only a handful of UMWA members here, which disappoints him. 

James Weekley, who organized a similar march in 1999 that only attracted a few dozen marchers and was violently set upon by opponents, has joined us. He’s now 71. I started this and I’m going to finish it,” he vows. 

John Hennen, a history professor at Kentucky’s Morehead State University, says the destruction of Blair Mountain would cut off people’s connection to their history – one of the things that make us…fully human.” 

The march finally begins at 1 p.m., the hottest time of day. At the Sharples post office, there are a dozen counter demonstrators and lots of signs. Someone is yelling, Go home. We don’t want you.” 

Further on, a sign welcomes the marchers. Up the road a woman is applauding us. A bridge bears a sign, Think Coal. Our Life.”

We enter Blair at last. Charles Bella and his family are on hand to greet us. The next house are Friends of Coal supporters. A little girl, no more than three, holds a sign: Tree Huggers Suck.” The neighboring families exemplify the yin and yang of this march. Lunch is in the Methodist Church’s beautiful backyard. People wade in the river and our accompanying musicians jam on the creek bank. The march has become a picnic. 

Dustin Steele, 19, an organizer from coal country, says the march has exceeded all of our expectations” and has been an awe-inspiring experience for me.” He calls the Battle of Blair Mountain the birth of the labor movement in this country.” The UMWA came back under New Deal legislation to organize the southern West Virginia coalfields and went on the help organize the steelworkers and autoworkers’ unions. The battle is seen by some as the beginning of that movement. 

A bystander, Charles Branham, echoes Steele’s words. A former union miner who supports preserving the battlefield and believes in the UMWA, Branham says Without those freedoms and rights we have today, we’d be working for a dollar an hour.”

We move on toward the old ballpark,” now a large field where we’ll pitch tents tonight. There’s a loud counter protest by 20 or 25 people, mostly children, in front of a big house. The road to the ballpark winds past this house, and the peacekeepers take no chances. They link arms so we can walk by unhindered. Some marchers break into song. When the peacekeepers enter the ballpark last, the other marchers welcome them by singing Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” 

After dark, a marcher comments that the hecklers and counter protestors are understandably scared they’ll lose their jobs if MTR is curbed. There are virtually no other jobs in this area, and miners make high wages . 

The night passes peacefully. 

Saturday: Victory…is now possible’ 

After a long rally featuring Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and other speakers, people form up on the road that goes up mountain, marching three abreast, banners aloft. Three young women are watching from a car parked along the road. They say their fathers are MTR miners and they don’t like this march. 

From the head of the march looking down the mountain, the procession is so long I can’t see the end. A man driving by says, This is powerful.” 

Marcher Jeremy Radabaugh of Pennsylvania says coal companies want to blast Blair Mountain for reasons beyond coal: They also want to erase history here, so people don’t know about the battle.” 

A marcher gets in a quarrel about coal with a teenager in a pickup truck and in a taunt, suggests he can’t read. The kid gets furious but the truck goes on. It’s the only time I’ve seen a marcher lose his or her poise. 

High on the mountain at Blair Gap, the scene of fighting in 1921, we stop for a final rally. In a fiery speech, organizer Brandon Nida announces that activists working to protect the battlefield have acquired space in Blair to continue their work. We’re going to be a thorn in these coal companies’ side until they’re out of here,” he declares.

Plans by a large group of marchers to seek arrest for trespassing on another part of the battlefield, which is private property, are called off at the last minute and they head down the mountain on pain of arrest. Organizers say the decision was made to keep the march constructive and unified; mass arrests would be counterproductive. But at Blair Gap — on the mountain’s summit, where the rally is held — the marchers do erect a handsome memorial to coal miners that tells the story of Blair Mountain. As Nida predicts, it is removed, presumably by coal company employees, within a couple days. As has been the case for 20 years, neither side is willing to give an inch over Blair Mountain. 

But by marching in large numbers, says Harvard Ayers, supporters of preserving the battlefield have wrested the momentum from those who would destroy it – victory in the Second Battle of Blair Mountain is now possible.”

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Peter Slavin is a freelance journalist who has been writing about West Virginia since 1995. His work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, Christian Science Monitor and other publications.
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