Hundreds Expected for West Virginia's Blair Mountain March

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by
The Charleston Gazette (West Virginia)

Hundreds Expected for West Virginia's Blair Mountain March

50-mile re-creation of 1921 union event to begin Monday

by
Paul J. Nyden

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 600 people are expected to begin a 50-mile march from Marmet to Blair Mountain on Monday to protest mountaintop removal mining.

The five-day event comes close to the 90th anniversary of the historic Battle of Blair Mountain, where more than 10,000 union miners marched from Marmet to help organize non-union coal mines in Logan and Mingo counties.

In 1921, the march from Aug. 24 through Sept. 4 was the largest armed confrontation in United States labor history. It ended when federal troops were sent into the area.

This year's event is "to demand sustainable job creation in all Appalachian communities, abolish mountaintop removal, strengthen labor rights and preserve Blair Mountain," the groups Appalachia Rising and the Blair Mountain Coalition said on the march website, www.marchonblairmountain.org.

Monday's opening rally will begin at the baseball field in Marmet at 9 a.m., said organizer Nick Martin. C. Belmont Keeney, who teaches at the Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College in Logan, will be one of the speakers. Keeney is a great-grandson of Frank Keeney, a United Mine Workers official who helped lead the 1921 march.

The march is scheduled to end Saturday with a rally at the mountain on the Boone-Logan county line.

By late Friday afternoon, 595 people had registered to participate, Martin said.

Sixty-two groups support the march, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Kentuckians for The Commonwealth, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Rainforest Action Network.

On Saturday, Appalachia Rising began training participants in Marmet, focusing on safety and how to respond to potentially difficult situations.

There is a possibility that acts of civil disobedience will occur during the march.

On their website, event organizers posted a "statement of risk," saying that participating "is an inherently risky endeavor."

"We will be marching through communities where some residents will not agree with us, we will be marching on hot or rainy days and we will be marching a long way," the group stated. "We will be marching on two-lane rural highways. We will do all we can to ensure that this event is as safe as possible for those who participate."

The march website mentions several "inherent dangers," including potential counter-protests, and the fact that that the march will take place along windy, narrow roads traveled by coal trucks.

Appalachia Rising will "have a team of de-escalators experienced in de-escalating conflict in anti-MTR protests" as well as experienced people "to provide medical support as necessary," according to the website.

State Police Sgt. Michael Baylous said troopers would "monitor this scheduled event as we would any other event, with public safety being our primary concern."

"Should a situation develop which might compromise public safety, then appropriate responses will be taken," Baylous said.

The Kanawha County Sheriff's Department also is preparing for the march, officials there said.

Event spokeswoman Catherine Moore said organizers have been talking to the police.

"They said they would not interfere and are willing to work with us," she said.

Supporters of the event say it will celebrate an important part of the state's history.

"For the better part of the 20th century, no West Virginia school textbook even mentioned the historic March on Blair Mountain," said Gordon Simmons, president of the West Virginia Labor History Association. "Now, they want to bury it, literally."

Massey Energy, which was just bought by Alpha Natural Resources, and Arch Coal have both expressed an interest in operating strip mines on Blair Mountain.

Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition called the march "a chance for people to learn more about the intersection of mountaintop removal and labor rights, a chance to join the movement to abolish mountain removal and stand together for labor rights."

Barbara Rasmussen, director of public history and cultural resources management programs at West Virginia University, said she fears mountaintop removal plans could ruin the historic site.

"Blair Mountain is not a West Virginia issue," Rasmussen said. "It is an American issue. Every person who makes decent wages and has a 40-hour work week, health benefits and a pension owes something to those miners."

"Blair Mountain is one of the state's most historically important places," along with sites like Harpers Ferry, where abolitionist John Brown led an anti-slavery raid in 1859, she said.

"When you wipe out the physical evidence of the past, the past will be forgotten," Rasmussen said.

In March 2009, the National Park Service added Blair Mountain Battlefield to its National Register of Historic Places.

Nine months later - after pressure from coal companies on state agencies - Carol D. Shull, keeper of the National Register, removed Blair Mountain from the register.

Now, the United Mine Workers, Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Friends of Blair Mountain and West Virginia Labor History Association all back a pending lawsuit seeking to restore Blair Mountain to the National Register.

Tonight, the Culture Center at the state Capitol will host "Music Saves Mountains," a concert in memory of the late bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens, to kick off this week's march.

Beginning at 7 p.m., the concert will feature Grammy Award winner Tim O'Brien and various West Virginia artists. All proceeds will go to fund the Blair Mountain March.

Dickens died in April, shortly before she would have turned 76. She had planned to host tonight's event.

The daily schedule of the march is:

  • Monday: Marmet to John Slack Park in Racine, 11.4 miles.
  • Tuesday: John Slack Park to Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College near Danville, 13.5 miles.
  • Wednesday: Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College to Madison, 6 miles.
  • Thursday: Madison to Mifflin Lake, 12 miles.
  • Friday: Mifflin Lake to Blair, 8 miles.
  • Saturday: Rally begins in Blair at 10 a.m., after which people will walk up to the Blair Mountain ridge.

    Saturday's rally will feature environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., as well as singers Emmylou Harris and Kathy Mattea. A number of coalfield residents with direct ties to the 1921 marchers will also share their memories.

More information is available at: marchonblairmountain.org and appalachiarising.org.

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