Blair Mountain Marchers Come from Far and Wide
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Supporters from across the country and around the world are participating in this week's March on Blair Mountain, with a few traveling to West Virginia from Australia, Japan and France.
Other protesters hail from Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, California and Alaska.
March spokesman Brandon Nida said a little more than 300 marchers were on the road Thursday. He said about half of the protesters participating in the event are from outside Appalachia. Two marchers are from Australia, two more are from France and one is from Japan.
"It's been a really good mix of a lot of people," he said.
Nida said the march has been a "West Virginia-driven event" from the beginning, however.
Two groups, the Friends of Blair Mountain and Appalachia Rising, formed the Blair Mountain March Coalition to organize the march.
The Friends of Blair Mountain is a group committed to preserving the land. Appalachia Rising is an anti-mountaintop removal organization with representatives around the East Coast.
Nida said group leaders started brainstorming a commemorative Blair Mountain march a few years ago, but organization efforts didn't formally begin until January of this year. At that time, 30 to 40 volunteers were working full time to get the march together.
Protesters are emulating the infamous 1921 march to Blair Mountain, when thousands of coal miners from Boone, Fayette, Kanawha, Mingo, McDowell and Logan counties planned a march to Logan and Mingo to free jailed union members.
The group never made it there. State Police dispatched by Gov. Ephraim Morgan, along with volunteer militiamen and coal company employees, met the miners at Blair Mountain, where the two sides clashed. Several people died in the conflict, but no exact death toll was recorded.
These modern marchers are pushing for the preservation of Blair Mountain, which could be surface-mined by the coal companies that now own it. They also are calling for an end to all mountaintop removal mining, more unionization at West Virginia coal mines and "safe, sustainable jobs" for the area, according to a press release.
The coalition used social media such as Facebook, Twitter and the photo-sharing site Flickr to rally support and keep participants up-to-date with march arrangements. Supporters are now using those sites to declare themselves as "virtual marchers."
The group also set up www.marchonblairmountain.org, where staffers have posted regular updates on marchers' progress.
Nida said the coalition has raised more than $30,000 to cover its expenses. He said the group has raised $10,000 of that in the last day or so.
The money has come pouring in from around the globe via the Internet, Nida said. He said supporters also have donated money as marchers pass through their areas, giving a couple dollars here and there. He estimated the march has raised more than $500 that way.
All protest participants are working on a volunteer basis, he said.
Other financial supporters include UMW Local 1440, based in Matewan, which donated $500. Appalachian Voices, an environmental group working in central and southern Appalachia, and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a Huntington-based environmental group, also contributed money to the protest.
The march began on Monday morning, with between 200 and 300 people attending the kick-off rally in Marmet. Organizers chose Marmet as a starting point because that's where the original Blair Mountain marchers began their trek.
The headquarters has become much more than an organizing spot after the march began. Unable to secure sleeping accommodations along the march route, organizers have shuttled marchers back to the group's Marmet headquarters every night.
Boone County officials asked the protesters to leave John Slack Park in Racine on Monday night, and camping arrangements at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College and Big Earl's Campground, a commercial campground near Julian, also fell through.
Nida said the marchers haven't let those malfunctions bring them down.
"We're West Virginians. We've had to learn how to be flexible and adapt. We're not going to be halted on this. We make lemonade out of lemons," he said.
He said it takes between two and three hours to transport everyone from headquarters to the route. The march rented three 15-passenger vans to bus the protesters back and forth to the march route and also has access to five regular vans and supporters' personal vehicles.
He said some marchers sleep at the headquarters while others have made different arrangements. Some protesters have hotel rooms in Kanawha City.
The march headquarters features a full kitchen where volunteers prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for the marchers. Protesters have breakfast before returning to the march route, eat lunch on the road and sit down to dinner after they return in the evening.
Nida said menu options have been simple because it must feed a large group of people. He said the kitchen staff tries to give marchers high-protein foods to keep them strong on the road. Marchers have
been treated to chicken salad, hummus, beans, bananas and oranges.
The march also provides portable toilets, pulled on trailers, for protesters to use.
Nida said about 50 organizers stay behind in Marmet every day, constantly communicating with marchers through citizen band radios and satellite phones.
There are 20 medics on the road with the marchers. Those include doctors, nurse practitioners and trained emergency medical technicians, Nida said. He said the medical professionals have only dealt with minor injuries so far, like mild dehydration and foot blisters.
Marchers also have encountered counter-protesters along the way. On Monday, for instance, a group of people dressed in miners' work clothes assembled at John Slack Park as the marchers were preparing to head back to Marmet.
Nida said most community members have been supportive, including some who showed up on all-terrain vehicles with poster boards that read "Thank You." One group of schoolchildren left their classroom to sing for the marchers, he said, and a man in Hernshaw gave marchers a bouquet of flowers.
He said he's not really surprised by the positive feedback.
"A lot of the underground miners know mountaintop removal has taken their jobs," he said. "People here are extremely intelligent and know what's going on."
Nida said the march is also drawing more supporters are the protest goes on.
"People are coming in a little more each day. On the rally day, it's going to be over 1,000," he said.
The marchers plan to reach Blair Mountain by Saturday. There, protesters will hold a rally in the community of Blair, according to a press release.
The rally will feature some big names: Country singers Emmylou Harris and Kathy Mattea are scheduled to perform and environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Appalachian writer Denise Giardina are scheduled to speak.
"It wasn't that hard to get them on board," Nida said.
He said the celebrities were happy to help when they learned about the march and what the protest was trying to achieve.
Protesters marched over eight and a half miles Thursday, going from Madison to Sharples. Nida said they planned to stop around 7:30 p.m. when they would again be bussed back to the Marmet headquarters.