[Marxism] West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jan 30 09:26:27 MST 2015

NY Times, Jan. 30 2015
A Deep, Dark Fight for Dignity
James Green’s ‘The Devil Is Here in These Hills’

West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom
By James Green
Illustrated. 440 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press. $28.

The story James Green has to tell in “The Devil Is Here in These Hills: 
West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom” is among the 
best and largely forgotten American stories. It’s about property rights 
versus human rights, about hard men and women and about violent 
conflict. It’s a tale about a working-class insurgency that’s as piney 
as an Appalachian ballad.

One of those ballads, by Blind Alfred Reed, who lived in West Virginia, 
posed this question in 1929: “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”

Mr. Green is a professor of history emeritus at the University of 
Massachusetts, Boston, who specializes in American labor. His best-known 
book is “Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor 
Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America” (2006). He’s 
not a stylist. This book, like that one, is a bit pokey. But his 
dead-ahead sentences get a dirty job done.

In “The Devil Is Here in These Hills,” Mr. Green opens the aperture 
wide. He lays down a brief history of coal mania in America, one that 
dates to before Thomas Jefferson, who wrote about the fuel in “Notes on 
the State of Virginia.” Capitalists from outside West Virginia, he 
notes, really began to exploit the state’s coal when trains cut through 
its hills in the 1870s.

Mr. Green soon tightens that aperture. The bulk of his book is about two 
mine wars that took place in West Virginia in the early 20th century, 
stories rich with strikes and evictions, blacklists and machine guns, 
armed marches and aerial bombardment and blood on frozen ground.

If you you’ve seen John Sayles’s evocative film “Matewan” (1987), you 
know a bit of this material. Mr. Green fills you in on the rest of what 
he terms “the largest working-class uprising in the nation’s history.”

Almost from the start, there was fundamentally a master-slave 
relationship between the coal-mine owners and the miners, a substantial 
number of whom were black or recent immigrants from Italy and other 
countries. Most miners were forced to live in company towns, to shop in 
company stores, to use company scrip. Few coal towns had elected 
officials; private police forces kept crude order.

Mine safety was an afterthought; an eight-hour workday was a distant 
dream; wage theft was frequent. Many West Virginia men went abroad to 
fight in World War I and returned to wonder why the freedoms they had 
fought for, including the right to speak freely and to congregate, 
weren’t available at home.

Union men began to filter in. Mine owners, and the local government 
officials in their sway, dealt with them harshly and accused them of 
being Bolsheviks and anarchists.

One of the best things about “The Devil is Here in These Hills” is that 
it brings to life many of the great, gruff, leonine union leaders, 
including John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America 
from 1920 to 1960, and Samuel Gompers, the first president of the 
American Federation of Labor.

Eugene V. Debs, a founder of the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the 
World) and a five-time Socialist Party candidate for president, also 
comes alive in these pages, as do many lesser-known union leaders. The 
most outsize presence is that of Mary Harris Jones, known as Mother 
Jones, who spent more than two decades, off and on, agitating in West 
Virginia mine country. She told miners to act like men, “not like 
cringing serfs.”

She did not bring the kumbaya. After the murder of one striking miner, 
she told a crowd of mourners to get their guns, find the perpetrators 
and “shoot them to hell.” She spent time in prison for her fiery 
exhortations in West Virginia. “If she was the miner’s angel,” the 
novelist Mary Lee Settle has written, “she was the owner’s devil.” 
Owners called her the Old Hag.

Mother Jones brought press attention to West Virginia. About her, Mr. 
Green writes: “Acting largely on her own, one woman had done more than 
the nation’s top union leaders to alert reformers to the suppression of 
civil liberties in industrial America.”

“The Devil Is Here in These Hills” builds to its great set piece, the 
second of this book’s two mine wars, which played out in part in Mingo 
County, including Matewan, where there was a shootout in 1920 between 
miners and the hired men of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency.

The next year, in Logan County, some 9,000 armed miners swept down from 
the hills to confront several thousand men under the leadership of a 
sheriff named Don Chafin. On Chafin’s side, there were 10 machine guns 
and 67,000 rounds of ammunition. This was the largest armed rebellion 
since the Civil War.

Federal troops arrived before many men had died. (Numbers here are 
uncertain. Mr. Green cautiously declared that “at least 79 men” died in 
the state’s two mine wars.) Both sides claimed victory. Union membership 
sank, however, until the right for the miners to collectively bargain 
was guaranteed in 1933 under the New Deal.

“The Devil Is Here in These Hills” is a good book that should be made 
better before it appears in paperback. Mr. Green and his editor need to 
go to war against cliché, to borrow the title of Martin Amis’s essay 
collection. This book has more than any I can remember, and I have a 
long memory for this kind of thing.

“Leaps and bounds,” “in a huff,” “howl of protest,” “feeling the heat,” 
“hue and cry” (twice) — I could keep going for paragraphs. These are 
termites that eat away at credibility as well as sensibility. This 
language needs to be, to borrow three phrases from Mr. Green’s book, 
nipped at the bud, with an iron fist, so as to work wonders.

More information about the Marxism mailing list