Harlan Miners Speak National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners
Coal Mining Health and Safety in West Virginia
Harlan Miners Speak, first published in the hunger-ridden November of 1931, is important for two reasons. It reminds a now affluent middle age of the horror of the Great Depression and preaches to the rebels of the Wood-stock generation a powerful sermon on this country’s capacity to punish and repress dissent. An American saga emerges from its pages.
Harlan County, Kentucky, is the geographical heart of troubled Appalachia. Its name has passed into legend for the cruelties of its overlords and the bloody and protracted struggle of its underclass to free themselves and to secure at least a tolerable standard of living. To this day newspaper references to the county generally designate it as “bloody Harlan.” Harlan Miners Speak tells us how it acquired that somber sobriquet.
There is probably no lovelier place than the Appalachian heartland, a wrinkled maze of steep, rock-capped, timbered hills. Harlan is different from the huge territory north of it because an unusual terrain feature, the Big Black Mountain, shoulders boldly across it. The Big Black, like the lesser Smokies, rises to 4,400 feet and looms in dark majesty above the hills nearby.
The Big Black is significant for more than its beauty. Three thick veins of superb metallurgical coal run through it and with the beginning of the twentieth century the hill beckoned to industrialists and their hungry furnaces and power plants.
The county—and the region around it—stumbled into tragedy by processes conventional American history has all but glorified. The territory was the home of scattered bands of Cherokees, Shawnees, and Choctaws who warred against ever-encroaching white settlers from the East. The first cabin builder was Elisha Wallins, and he and those who followed him brought the simplistic, Calvinistic, and ferocious backwoods mores and culture into the shadows of the Big Black. They cleared patches for corn, tobacco, beans, and squash, set up their whiskey stills, and preached the old-time fundamentalist religion.
The hill people saw little need for schools and built practically none. When land agents from Philadelphia and New York began buying Appalachian minerals in the late 1800s they dealt with an illiterate people who virtually gave away the riches of the Big Black and its foothills. On Jone’s Fork some tracts were “sold” for ten cents per acre. A mountaineer thought he had driven a shrewd bargain when he deeded 1,000 acres of Black Mountain land to a Mellon for $500.
There was little for the mountaineer to buy with his little hoard, but this soon changed as railroads were driven up the valleys early in the twentieth century. Half a hundred “coal camps” sprang up in Harlan alone and in each of them the company store occupied the most prominent place. Its displays of enticing wares soon separated the mountaineers from their “coal money.” When the money was gone, men and boys signed up as miners. From scores of counties in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Alabama, and West Virginia came thousands of other highlanders to join them, and Harlan’s mining era began.
For a brief while during and after the First World War, wages reached a decent level, but by the mid-Twenties, Harlan faced serious trouble. There were too many miners and orders declined as hydroelectric plants and the oil industry attracted coal’s customers. Coal had long been sick when the stock market crashed in 1929.
Coal prices commenced a relentless erosion. Miners had never been much for joining, and unionism had taken little hold. The United Mine Workers of America, the principal “brotherhood,” was—as it still is—unimaginative and ultraconservative. Its fumbling organizing efforts were undercut by the miners’ knowledge that a UMW representative seldom talked to a miner before he had seen the boss. The Great Depression found the miners divided and leaderless, while the operators were tightly united in the Harlan County Coal Operators Association.
In the coal glut of the 1930s mining companies fought desperately to stave off bankruptcy, and always they resorted to the same weapon—cost cutting. Economies could be effected in only three areas: reduce electric power consumed by machinery, lower prices for the machinery, and lower wages. They were helpless to enforce either of the first two, so they embraced ever-diminishing wages as their salvation. From $5.00 a day in the middle Twenties, pay scales were systematically slashed to about $1.25 in 1931-32.
Both the “Report” and McAteer document the madness which engulfed the hapless county. Though the market was awash with steadily cheapening coal, the companies could survive only by selling more; so they slashed wages and ordered their half-starved miners to the pits. The workday rose from eight hours to ten, twelve, and even fourteen. The men were put on “piece work,” in which they were paid 30 cents or 35 cents per ton produced, reimbursing the company out of that pitiable sum for all the costs they incurred in the process. They were hired on condition that they do all their buying in company stores, where prices were routinely double those in the nearby towns. Desperate miners entered the pits before daylight and emerged after dark, bone weary and gaunt with hunger. In their deteriorating shacks they found wives nearly always pregnant, and swarms of hungry children. The appalling “grub” on which they subsisted was potatoes, pinto beans, cornbread, and “bulldog gravy” made with flour, salt, water, and a little grease. Milk, butter, and fresh meat and vegetables became receding memories.
The towns fell into squalor as painters and trash collectors stopped making their rounds. Hospital staffs were pared, and the captive population wallowed in poverty and disorder.
In their indigence and disunity the miners and their families slipped into abject peonage. Not since the Middle Ages has a population been so dependent on its barons. Babies were born in company hospitals run by company doctors and nurses. As they grew up they attended company schools taught by teachers chosen by company managers. The only employment was in company mines. They traded in company stores, walked on company streets, and carried “scrip” (a form of company money) in their pockets. When they died a company undertaker carried their bodies to a company graveyard and the company supplied a modest tombstone.
As their homes deteriorated, their clothes turned to shreds, and their faces became pinched with famine and reddened with scurvy, the camp people became objects of detestation rather than pity. The operators scorned them as trash—as contemptible as the black strikebreakers they sometimes imported from Alabama and Mississippi. As starvation and outrage drove the miners to mutiny, the companies recruited an army of “thugs” to “preserve law and order.”
There was little hesitation in choosing between penniless coal diggers and their ragged women and children on the one hand and a huge industrial complex marshaled by Fords, Mellons, Insulls, Rockefellers, and lesser barons on the other. Judges, sheriffs, prosecuting attorneys, legislators, the governor, and the state attorney general closed ranks to protect property against the propertyless. Kiwanians and Rotarians, the Chamber of Commerce, the churches and their fanatically “patriotic” preachers and priests, all were as one in their resolve that the order built by coal would be preserved regardless of its cost in human suffering.
The Soviet Union was then just fourteen years old and America was in the grip of a prolonged anticommunist hysteria. Unlike the McCarthy years, the earlier red-baiting era had few voices to challenge the Ku Kluxers, the fascists, the racial bigots, the anti-evolutionists, the frightened industrialists, and the bankrupting businessmen who sought a scapegoat. In Harlan the scapegoat became “the reds”: Anyone who wanted union labor, improved working conditions, and some check on the power of money was a communist.
Out of the turbulence of the Anarchist movement had come a law against “criminal syndicalism.” The statute became a crown of thorns pressed down with unspeakable cruelty on the brows of the county’s 11,500 coal miners.
Under John L. Lewis the UMW of A, too, was viciously anticommunist. It had a thirst for dues from miners who were too poor to part with even $2.00 a month. It consistently failed to support miners in the east Kentucky field when they struck for higher pay—though those non-union miners had launched more than one sympathy strike to show solidarity with the UMW. The union was supremely undemocratic, operating under emergency rules that permitted Lewis to appoint “provisional” district officers. This labor dictatorship had little appeal when it returned, with tacit industry support, to launch a new membership drive.
The drive was a counter to organizing efforts undertaken by the National Miners Union in January, 1931. An offshoot of the American Communist Party, the NMU struck horror into the heart of the Harlan County establishment.
Under the banner of “industrial democracy” the NMU organizers went to work along the smoke-darkened hollows, in the hunger-pinched camps, along the dusty tunnels of the mines, and wherever the haggard wives of coal diggers got together. The result was a surge of enlistments in both the NMU and its ladies’ auxiliary.
The companies and their allies reacted by creating a police state which, for all practical purposes, ignored both the Constitution and statutes of the United States. Sheriff J. H. Blair (a distant relative of this reviewer) appointed as deputies the scores of gunmen imported by the companies. They wore the badges of public lawmen but their salaries, jackboots, uniforms, motorcycles, and submachine guns were supplied by the coal association. Led by a subsidiary of United States Steel, the coal men fought a brutal battle against the NMU—and later the UMW—that lasted a decade and cost unnumbered lives.
Blair was elected with association money in 1929. Circuit Judge D. C. “Baby” Jones had found a wife and ideological inspiration in one of the county’s major coal families. Commonwealth Attorney William Brock’s obsession was communist “literature,” which he was rabidly determined to keep out of the hands of the miners.
As jails filled with political prisoners, a few people paused amid their own troubles to consider the agonies of Harlan County. The chief of these was Theodore Dreiser, then widely acclaimed as the author of An American Tragedy. He conceived the idea of a National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners. Without power to intervene directly and effectively for victims of homegrown tyranny, the committee could nevertheless publicize their plight and strive to arouse demands for justice and lawful procedures.
The failure of Dreiser’s first effort confirms the distrust of conventional liberals by today’s New Left. He telegraphed a plea for assistance to Senators La Follette, Norris, Shipstead, and Couzins, Harvard Law School Dean Felix Frankfurter, college presidents, editors, and clergymen. Each had impressive credentials as spokesmen for liberal causes. Each was invited to accompany Dreiser to Harlan to investigate the disorders and determine what, if anything, could be done to protect American citizens from hunger, disease, unlawful imprisonment, and murder. All who replied were sick or had prior engagements.
But a few courageous souls did join him: John Dos Passos, Charles Rumford Walker, Adelaide Walker, Bruce Crawford, Samuel Ornitz, Lester Cohen, and Melvin Levy. In the hills they talked to coal operators, public officials, merchants, miners, wives of miners, newsmen, and some personages who defy categorization. Their “testimony” was preserved in shorthand and from it emerge the tales of corruption, suffering, and brutality that were published in the “Report” under review. They are without parallel in US history.
The NMU had enrolled 8,000 of the county’s miners. Some gunmen recruited from the Coal and Iron Police of Pennsylvania had killed as many as five “union sympathizers,” generally by shooting them in the back. Scores of miners had been indicted for criminal syndicalism, but only one deputy had been charged. He was accused of the murder of an organizer by shooting him between the shoulders, but a jury of company executives and their clerical employees acquitted him.
Twenty-eight gunmen were brought in on a single day, July 25, 1931. Most came from “bloody” Breathitt County and were callous killers. The standard payoff for a killing was $50.00. Sixty-five uniformed deputies roamed the county and 200 others worked as undercover agents spying for hints of discontent. Some of these spies infiltrated locals, were elected to office in them, and turned their records over to the police.
Arrests occurred in wholesale batches. Commonwealth Attorney Brock asserted that the mere possession of an NMU membership application form or a copy of the Daily Worker was per se criminal syndicalism. Arrests “for literature” were made routinely, as were searches of houses and persons. Individuals who were found with “unpatriotic literature” or who were charged with speaking favorably of the NMU were seized, beaten, and imprisoned.
Judge Jones ruled that to advocate or join a labor union was a syndicalist act and a felony. Hand-picked grand juries ground out stacks of indictments against labor organizers, NMU members, reporters who wrote articles criticizing “constituted authorities” or supporting the miners, and persons “aiding and abetting” such offenders. The indefatigable Judge Jones declared it treasonous to operate a soup kitchen for striking miners and their families and three of these humble facilities were dynamited by deputies who also shot down two men who had “banded and confederated” to cook the food.
But the judge, sheriff, and commonwealth attorney were men of mercy. After a miner had cooled twenty or thirty days in the filthy jail on a diet of gravy, cornbread, and beans, he was generally offered his freedom on a pledge to go straight, work hard, and forget about union membership. Some, though, were compelled to leave the county or became informers under threat of rearrest.
Two investigating reporters were shot by snipers. A lawyer who came to defend incarcerated miners was met by the mayor and a carload of lawmen who informed him he could not enter the town. When he slipped in after darkness he was arrested, taken to a mountain top, and beaten. The lawyer, Taub, testifies in the “Report” that the lawmen were accompanied by a coal company lawyer and by Herndon Evans, a local newspaperman. After he had been beaten into semiconsciousness, he recalled that Evans demanded, “Well, Taub, why don’t you make us a speech on constitutional rights? It is the last chance you will ever get to make a speech in Kentucky….”
And what happened when punishment of these outrages was sought in the state capital? The governor refused to see Taub and the attorney general murmured, “There is nothing I can do.”
Others did much, however, in the years that followed the publication of Dreiser’s compilation. The NMU, off to such a promising start in 1931, withered and died. Its demise was due in part to the establishment’s rigorous countermeasures, but another circumstance contributed even more. In 1932, the NMU took a delegation of miners to New York to a labor convention. There they were horrified to discover that communism is atheistic. They rushed home to denounce the NMU and switched their allegiance to the United Mine Workers. Lewis became a folk hero in struggle that lasted through the agony of a bloodstained decade and saw the last mine in Harlan sign a contract in 1941.
Three decades have passed since the thugs were disarmed and Judge Jones and Sheriff Blair passed from the scene. For two years during World War II Harlan had Kentucky’s highest per capita income. Then in a new postwar depression scores of mines folded. The union dropped its members by the thousands. With a hundred million dollars in its coffers and as much in its welfare fund it abandoned the hospitals it had built for its crippled and sick. It never loaned a cent to jobless miners but bought a bank and made funds available to some of a new generation of non-union, labor-hating operators.
The New Deal and the Great Society have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into central Appalachia to combat its poverty, but the old ills persist. Headlines proclaim that the Nixon Administration fails to enforce the new mine safety law. Disabled miners picket pits in protest against UMW pensioning policies. A federal judge enjoins such action and dynamite blasts mining machinery. A watchman guarding a coal auger is shot from ambush. The hunt for persons implicated in the murder of UMW rebel “Jock” Yablonski continues and it still centers in Harlan County and in Tennessee.
The number of persons on relief has increased by 35 percent in the last year. Coal prices have doubled in eight months, but wages are up only slightly. Outmigration has reduced the population of Harlan from 76,000 to 30,000 since 1950.
“Criminal syndicalism” no longer sends miners to jail. In 1968 a couple of young antipoverty workers were indicted under the statute after a nocturnal raid on their home turned up a book by Mao Tse Tung. In due time, a federal court declared the law unconstitutional.
Dreiser’s report and Harlan’s turbulent history illustrate how merciless and successful power can be, the tenacity with which the poor can struggle for escape and betterment—and how success in the fight for freedom can lead to new failures and disappointments.
That the callous unconcern for human welfare that brought horror to eastern Kentucky in the 1930s still haunts Appalachia in what John Kenneth Galbraith has called the “affluent society,” is illustrated by J. Davitt McAteer’s monumental Coal Mining Health and Safety in West Virginia. This carefully researched study is not history from a painful, bygone decade, but deals with the present-day suffering of the dust-blackened, battered men whose exertions give us the basic raw resource of hundreds of products ranging from electricity to synthetic fabrics to aspirin. In spite of innumerable Congressional hearings and reports, periodic editorial trumpetings, Presidential proclamations, and, from time to time, the enactment of highly touted safety laws, the grim carnage continues in the coal pits.
McAteer’s work outlines the methods by which coal companies are permitted to treat coal lands as practically valueless until the coal is actually mined. This tax cheating keeps the tax base at rock bottom, depriving mining communities of schools, so that the average West Virginia miner has completed only 8.8 years in the classroom. His lack of education drives him into the pits and keeps him there. And in the mines death stalks him at every turn. The chances are one in six he will be seriously injured in a given year, one in 240 that he will be killed. And if his bones are not crushed by blundering machines or falling slate from the roof, it is a practical certainty that in ten or twelve years underground his lungs will fill with fine dust consisting of particles of coal, slate, and silica, and by age fifty or fifty-five he will be a wheezing, coughing human derelict whose miseries medical science cannot relieve even for a single moment by day or night until he reaches the grave.
These statistics tell the story of coal’s attitude toward its workmen: In 1904, 45,492 miners were employed in West Virginia and 140 of them were killed on the job. In 1968, there were 41,573 miners and 150 were slain.
In 1948, a miner’s chances of getting killed were one in 453. In 1968, his chances were one in 273.
And outside the mine, as McAteer makes clear, the miner inhabits a drab community, little improved since 1931. He breathes air polluted by burning slag heaps and drinks water polluted by unsealed mines. His union affords no discernible assistance in efforts to improve his environment or render his hard life more tolerable. He does not suffer—as his father did—at the hands of Harlan-style gun thugs, and various welfare programs and improved wages give him better and more food. But coal is still the black brute of American industry and the young flee its domain. West Virginia’s population declined 7.2 percent in the decade before 1960 and has dwindled by 2.2 percent since.
These two books should be read and carefully pondered by those imperturbable optimists who believe the age of computers and space travel has brought affluence and progress to all Americans.
There remain, after all, the coal miners of Appalachia.