The Blair Mountain Project
Activists want to protect the site of a deadly labor
struggle -- and stop mountaintop removal coal mining.
By Melinda Tuhus
In These Times
May 16, 2011
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
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.
[moderator: Friends of Blair Mountain may be found here:
"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
"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."
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