The Blair Mountain Project

Activists want to protect the site of a deadly labor struggle—and stop mountaintop removal coal mining.

Melinda Tuhus

Miners turn in their weapons on Sept. 4, 1921, following the Battle of Blair Mountain, the culmination of the largest armed insurrection in the United States since the Civil War.

From his trail­er home in the old coal camp of Sun­beam, W.Va., Ken­ny King has been work­ing for the past two decades to pre­serve near­by Blair Moun­tain in Logan Coun­ty. He wants it list­ed on the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places and, ulti­mate­ly, pro­tect­ed as a nation­al his­toric park.

What’s so impor­tant about a moun­tain most Amer­i­cans have nev­er heard of?

It’s part of our her­itage, our his­to­ry,” King says. It was [the site of] the biggest armed insur­rec­tion since the Civ­il War.” In the sum­mer of 1921, 10,000 coal min­ers – includ­ing King’s grand­fa­ther– fought a pri­vate force of strike­break­ers sup­port­ed by mine boss­es for nine days for the right to join the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UMWA). In August that year, min­ers – incensed by the mur­der of some of their sup­port­ers ear­li­er that month and the mass fir­ings of pro-union min­ers – marched about 50 miles from the town of Marmet, near Charleston, the cap­i­tal, to Blair Moun­tain. They were met by an anti-union sher­iff sup­port­ed by a pri­vate secu­ri­ty force. More than 100 peo­ple – most­ly min­ers – lost their lives before fed­er­al troops arrived.

Accord­ing to a historian’s account on the Friends of Blair Moun­tain web­site, The U.S. Army and Air Corps ulti­mate­ly crushed the rebel­lion with­out fir­ing a shot. The union sur­ren­dered rather than fire upon Amer­i­can sol­diers, mak­ing clear their patri­o­tism.” Although the coal­fields weren’t orga­nized until the 1930s, when, helped by the Roo­sevelt admin­is­tra­tion, the UMWA wel­comed most min­ers into its ranks, the Bat­tle of Blair Moun­tain became a ral­ly­ing cry for labor as it fought to orga­nize work­ers in all major industries. 

I want to pre­serve the his­to­ry and the lega­cy of all those guys who were fight­ing,” King says. The biggest threat to his dream is moun­tain­top removal (MTR) min­ing, which would lit­er­al­ly blast apart the moun­tain. He says two min­ing com­pa­nies – Arch Coal and Massey Ener­gy – have applied for up to six per­mits, and already been grant­ed oth­ers, to begin oper­a­tions on the for­mer bat­tle­field. There’s one active [MTR site] mov­ing clos­er to the bat­tle­field,” King says, There’s anoth­er the state … has already approved that will com­plete­ly wipe out the south­ern end of the battlefield.”

On June 6, labor and envi­ron­men­tal activists will begin a five-day march from Marmet to Blair Moun­tain to com­mem­o­rate the 90th anniver­sary of the min­ers’ rebel­lion. They’ll call for the per­ma­nent pro­tec­tion of the moun­tain, an end to MTR and strength­en­ing labor rights and sus­tain­able job creation.

King says many of the groups sup­port­ing the march were involved in last September’s Appalachia Ris­ing events in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., dur­ing which activists demand­ed an end to MTR. That’s a prob­lem for the union most close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Blair Moun­tain: UMWA, which sup­ports MTR. The UMWA absolute­ly sup­ports the des­ig­na­tion of Blair Moun­tain as a nation­al his­toric site,” UMWA Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor Phil Smith said via e‑mail. We believe the focus of preser­va­tion efforts at Blair Moun­tain should be the … sto­ry of cor­po­rate excess and greed… [The moun­tain] should be remem­bered for rea­sons that bring all peo­ple who live in south­ern West Vir­ginia togeth­er, not dri­ve them apart. In many respects, this march serves the lat­ter purpose.”

After read­ing Smith’s com­ments, King remarks, All they do is come out with these state­ments say­ing they sup­port the nom­i­na­tion, but there’s nev­er been any real action tak­en.” He says that the UMWA isn’t try­ing to stop Blair Moun­tain from being destroyed because it hopes to union­ize those worksites.

King says he’s hap­py to have the sup­port of 60 nation­al and region­al envi­ron­men­tal groups (includ­ing 350​.org, Rain­for­est Action Net­work and Appalachi­an Voic­es) and that orga­niz­ers are also reach­ing out to labor unions across the coun­try to join the march. They expect 400 marchers and up to 1,000 peo­ple at the ral­ly on June 11. As of May 5, the West Vir­ginia AFL-CIO is back­ing it, along with a num­ber of locals around the state. 

In near­by Raleigh Coun­ty, Deb­bie Jar­rell, the daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter of coal min­ers and an anti-moun­tain­top removal activist, is help­ing to spread the word about the march. She con­demns the way coal com­pa­nies have treat­ed the moun­tains and the local res­i­dents, includ­ing miners. 

They like to blame envi­ron­men­tal­ists and the reg­u­la­tions for the decline of the labor force in the min­ing indus­try, when in fact the coal com­pa­nies them­selves are respon­si­ble for that because moun­tain­top removal or strip min­ing employs far less peo­ple,” Jar­rell says. It’s real­ly affect­ing a lot of work­ing-class peo­ple [by] elim­i­nat­ing liv­ing-wage jobs.”

Melin­da Tuhus is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist with 25 years of expe­ri­ence in print and radio, includ­ing In These Times, The New York Times, Free Speech Radio News and pub­lic radio stations.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH