Where's the National Outrage on Blair Mountain?

When Walmart recently announced
its intention to build a super-center near the Wilderness Battlefield
in Virginia, filmmaker Ken Burns and a host of Pulitzer Prize-winning
historians denounced the move for its obvious offense to our national
heritage site.

We need that same outrage for another battlefield under assault.

First, imagine if a thin seam of coal was found under the Wilderness
Battlefield, or Union Square in Manhattan or the Lorraine Hotel in
Memphis, Tennessee, and the local governors signaled their intention to
work a backdoor scheme to allow an absentee coal company to blow up and
then strip mine the historic landmarks, for a handful of non-union
jobs, as the rest of the economy sinks.

Now consider this breaking news update today from Ken Ward at the
Charleston Gazette in West Virginia: "Manchin administration officials
moved this week to have Blair Mountain--site of the landmark 1921
coalfield labor battle--removed from the National Register of Historic

Strangely enough, the state officials "found" some landowner
objections that hadn't been considered in the extensive long-time
vetting process.

With the ink still drying since the historic Blair Mountain in West
Virginia was added to the National Registry with great national
applause, after years of debate and research, West Virginia Governor
Joe Manchin's haste in conjuring a landowner dispute over the legendary
range exposes him to a growing caricature of an out-of-touch politician
from last century.

First, Blair Mountain is not simply the site of a famous labor
battle in the coal wars, or the place of the largest armed insurrection
since the Civil War, when thousands of union coal miners and World War
I veterans literally marched and fought to liberate coal camps in
southwestern West Virginia held hostage to the whims of ruthless
absentee coal companies in 1921.

Blair Mountain represents an attitude that is as relevant today as
it was in 1921; that the long-term jobs and safety and health of coal
miners and coal mining communities must be placed above the profit
interests of outside coal companies.

In 1898, the United Mine Workers fought and bled and won an 8-hour
workday. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National
Industrial Recovery Act into law in 1933, granting all miners and
workers the legal right to belong to a union without any repercussions,
"a wave of mountainous proportions" swept through the coalfields of
Appalachia, whose battle at Blair Mountain was finally vindicated.

"Rather than foster the development of tourism and long term
sustainable jobs," says former underground union miner and recently
decorated West Virginia History Hero Wess Harris, publisher of the
definitive book on Blair Mountain, When Miners March, "Joe Manchin and
Randall Reid-Smith, director of the Division of Culture and History,
prefer to disgrace our state before the entire nation by tossing our
proud Union history to the hounds of greedy out of state corporations.
We need both Bill Blizzard and his son, William C. Blizzard, now more
than ever. Fortunately, like Joe Hill, they are both still with us and
fixin' to go on and organize! I hear they are thinkin' it may be time
to march."

That leaves me wondering what it's going to take to get Cecil
Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, to march again on Blair
Mountain, and demand an end to the union-busting job-stripping
community-dividing mountaintop removal operations by non-union

Two months ago in Washington, DC, huddled in the back of a
restaurant with a cadre of journalists, I found myself listening to
attacks on West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin for his support of
mountaintop removal. Noting the gold rush of other governors for green
jobs initiatives, investment funds and loans to attract new industry to
their states, one veteran journalist referred to Manchin as "our
generation's Theodore Bilbo," Mississippi's infamous segregationist
governor who took his narrow-minded populism to the US Senate during
the Depression.

His point: Even if Manchin, like Bilbo, could manipulate the
divisive coal issue to eventually win a Senate seat, his legacy in
Washington, DC would be forever dirtied by his servile deference to
outside coal companies, such as Richmond-based Massey Energy, and their
devastation of Manchin's home state.

Gov. Manchin: The nation knows that mountaintop removal is one of
the most egregious human rights violations in our country. The nation
knows that over 500 mountains in Appalachia, and over 1,000 miles of
streams, have been destroyed.

But I defended Manchin, as I have in the past: I have always
appreciated his sincere doggedness regarding mine worker safety laws
and his long-time commitment to coal miners. As I have done for years,
I also feel compelled to remind cynical journalists that Appalachians
have not only been on the frontlines of the coal wars, but served on
the frontlines of our nation's struggle for Independence, and led our
abolitionist, labor and civil rights movements. That the first
muckraking journalist brave enough to take on corruption in Washington,
DC was legendary West Virginia writer/editor/publisher Anne Royall in
the 1830s.

But I'm done defending Manchin and his pathetic capitulation to the
outside coal companies to destroy the symbolism of Blair Mountain.

It's time for the venerable Sen. Robert Byrd to step in and demand
an end to this nonsense of wiping out Blair Mountain and Appalachia's
great coal mining heritage.

Because the destruction of Blair Mountain is the ultimate sign to
the rest of the nation that Manchin's barking dogs of the coal industry
continue to rule him. Meanwhile, the caravan of the new green jobs
initiatives sweeping the nation--and a sustainable transition from a
coal mining economy to a renewable energy and green manufacturing
economy--is leaving Manchin behind in the 20th century.

While Manchin likes to shine his state's new motto--West Virginia:
Open for Business--the journalists in DC knew that Manchin's refusal to
embrace a transition to a new green economy, while other states in
southern Appalachia continue to grow and flourish and celebrate their
beautiful hills, valleys and historic towns, was the reason Forbes
Magazine had ranked West Virginia at the bottom of its list of states
for best business.

Which side are you on, Governor? A sustainable future, and long-term
jobs and healthy communities for Appalachia, or a blast to the past of
mountaintop removal?

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