This past week history came alive again in the hills and hollows of West Virginia through a successful march to Blair Mountain, WV organized by a coalition of community members, environmentalists and labor rights activists and historians. Appalachia Rising: March on Blair Mountain is a turning point in the movement to end mountaintop removal coal mining and the ongoing struggle for economic choices and diversity in the coal-poor regions of central Appalachia, and one that deserves our attention.
In 1921, over 10,000 miners marched from Marmet, WV on their way to Mingo County to organize a union amidst the horrific working conditions in the coal mines. They were stopped at Blair Mountain on the Logan County line. A five day battle ensued in which over a million rounds were fired and it was the second largest armed insurrection in American history next to the Civil War. The battle was an initial setback for the union, but it was that battle that helped bring us the eight hour work day and collective bargaining rights, and its history is vital. Outrageously, that same mountain, Blair Mountain, is now in jeopardy of being blown up and destroyed forever for coal by way of mountaintop removal mining.
This past week, three hundred of us walked the same footsteps as those miners did, ninety years later, to call for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining, a just and sustainable economic transition in central Appalachia and to save Blair Mountain by returning it on the National Register of Historical Places and making it into a National Park rather than another mine in an already ravaged county. On the last day, we marched and rallied twelve hundred strong.
We walked and worked our way through an onslaught of obstacles, and let me tell you, there were many times that we could have turned back, or stopped because the coal industry came at us with the might and brute it is famous for. But we did not. We kept walking. We could have fallen apart into the demoralizing tangle of stress and interpersonal communication tensions brought about by sleep-deprivation and difficult conditions, but we did not. We kept walking. Every single resting place was taken away by us due to politicking and coal company intimidation on our march. Every single place the organizing body had secured for us to sleep for the week fell through. So did we quit? Did we give up in exhaustion or internal collapse? No. We kept marching.
I just marched in 90-100 degree weather with 200-300 brave and tolerant people through unbelievable conditions. We walked past organized groups of people yelling at us to go home, and get a job, and unfortunate slurs that do not need to be repeated, yet did we give up? No. We did more than just keep marching, we marched with our hearts open and heads held high and stayed committed to our agreements of nonviolence. We marched with our hearts open and honestly, received far more support than opposition from the communities we walked through. We often walked in a solemn and proud single file down narrow and windy roads while people walked from the hollows out to watch us go by, to take our photos or offer water, to sit on a four-wheeler with a sign that said simply “thank-you,” and to join us.
We walked and we worked and we let our sweat consecrate our shared intention of ending mountaintop removal coal mining, creating a diverse and sustainable local economy in the region, and honoring the history of those who have always expressed our shared need for dignity, honor, respect and justice by protecting Blair Mountain. That was why we walked. And that is why we did not give up and are not going to give up. At the end, once we made it to Blair, over 1,000 more people joined us. Kathy Mattea sang for us and Robert Kennedy Jr. and locally impacted residents spoke at the bottom of the mountain, and then together, we marched up to the very top of Blair Mountain in the heat, where we made it be known, that history is alive, that this mountain deserves to stand, as do all mountains, and that this region is ready for a more sane economic future.
We marched together as locals, labor organizers, environmentalists, college students, elders, artists and all with a common, yet multi-facetted cause, and despite all odds, we made it. While the long-term work for central Appalachia continues, we will now always have our organizing efforts “before we marched to Blair Mountain, and after we marched on Blair Mountain.”