A place mired in poverty, a culture of guns, conservative religion, poorly educated people, an angry and embittered populace.
These are common words used by journalists and writers to describe West Virginia. What may surprise some readers, however, is that I am referring to media interpretations of West Virginia in 1921, not 2016. In 1921, journalists explored the hollows of Appalachia in order to explain what caused roughly 10,000 coal miners to launch the largest armed uprising on United States soil since the Civil War. Reporters emerged with a portrayal of an isolated, backward, feuding mountain culture standing in the way of progress that the coal industry would inevitably bring. A decade later, during the Great Depression, a representative from FDR’s Federal Emergency Relieve Administration called West Virginia, “the foulest cesspool of human misery this side of hell,” and described a region of hopeless hillbillies helpless in the wake of the recent economic collapse.
In the 1960s, sociologists and VISTA workers looked to the “culture of poverty” theory to explain Appalachia’s enduring economic hardship and the supposed “fatalism” of its residents. The Saturday Evening Post even wrote an article on West Virginia entitled, “The Strange Case of West Virginia,” in an attempt to understand why the state could be so poor while the rest of America experienced growth. In 2016, in order to find some comprehension to the popularity of presidential candidate Donald Trump and to chronicle the collapse of the coal industry, a new generation of reporters and writers are exploring the mountains and looking for answers. It seems that every generation or so, someone is traveling to West Virginia and trying to explain it.
As a historian and native of the Mountain State, I have read many of these portrayals with interest. Very few, if any, new conclusions are ever offered. There are standard (and poorly researched) references to Scots-Irish cultural traits, talk of guns, religion, poverty, fatalism, loyalty to the coal industry, and anger mixed in with a quaint description or two of pretty mountains. Very little historical context is offered and the analyses rarely scratch beneath the surface.
A more authentic and complete narrative of West Virginia can be found in the upcoming documentary film Blood on the Mountain. The film explores how state governments and their regulatory agencies can be controlled by large corporations, the crucial role of absentee land ownership in preventing economic diversification in West Virginia, and how local education has been manipulated to shape regional attitudes against labor unions and climate science. Above all, the film chronicles the rise and fall of organized labor in America through the struggles of West Virginia workers. From the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, to Hawk’s Nest, the largest industrial disaster in United States history, to the Black Lung Movement, and the decline of the United Mine Workers in the late twentieth century, Blood on the Mountain reveals the enduring power structure established by the coal industry as well as the native mountaineers who have consistently fought against it. Far from a culture of backward, inherent traits with fatalistic attitudes, we see a century of conflict and rebellion in the mountains during which workers and activists scratched and clawed for basic human rights while the rest of America, and especially organized labor, benefited from the coal produced and the hard fought battles won. This story is vital for all Americans to understand. The declining influence of organized labor has coincided and contributed to the disappearance of middle class America. As recently as 2012, unionized workers earned an average of $10,000 a year more than their non-union counterparts, but union membership in the workforce has been on a steady decline for decades. Fewer union workers means lower salaries, fewer full time positions, and more part time workers. All of this results in a middle class drifting towards extinction.
The impact is also not without significant political ramifications. The lack of powerful unions has stifled worker influence in the workplace and within the Democratic Party. Thus, many blue collar workers have shifted their party allegiance to Republicans. On the left, the absence of a powerful organized labor force combined with the shrinking middle class has contributed to the resurgent appeal of socialism and anarchism. Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician with openly socialist values since Eugene Debs, who visited West Virginia during the Mine Wars. Anarchism, which merited some support during the Industrial Age, has now resurfaced in the recent Occupy Movement and may be influential in other grassroots leftist organizations. What the present age and the Industrial Era have in common, aside from the appeal of these ideologies, is the that unions had very little influence in America and the middle class barely existed. This is no coincidence. Nor is it happenstance that in the decades after World War II, when labor unions enjoyed their greatest influence, the middle class also saw its highest expansion and the appeal of radical ideologies on both the left and the right diminished.
As Blood on the Mountain accurately demonstrates, and as many writers unfortunately omit, no place symbolizes the cultural, political, and economic climate of Appalachia as much as Blair Mountain. As the site of the largest challenge to coal industry and corporate power in West Virginia, Blair Mountain may well be the capstone of the opening and closing chapters in the history of King Coal and organized labor in America. My great grandfather, Frank Keeney, who was president of the United Mine Workers in West Virginia and one of the principle leaders during the Mine Wars, said that the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain was to “reestablish the Bill of Rights” in Appalachia. This was labor’s Gettysburg. But unlike the heralded warriors at Little Round Top, the miners fought and died for their constitutional rights and were labeled “red necks” for their trouble.
The conflict over Blair Mountain today pits historic preservationists, unionists, and environmentalists, who want to preserve the battlefield and memorialize labor history, against an industry who desperately wants this history erased from memory. As such, the battlefield continues to be emblematic of coal industry influence and political corruption. Despite its historic significance, state regulatory agencies have issued surface mining permits on the battlefield and no state or national politician will publicly speak on behalf of its preservation. When the battlefield was briefly placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, the powerful coal executive Don Blankenship threatened to sue every member of the State Historic Preservation Office. Coal companies then pressured state and federal agencies to delist the battlefield from the National Register. In 2009, they submitted a petition of landowner objections to the listing of the battlefield with forged signatures of dead people. State regulators and the U.S. Department of Interior accepted the coal company petition and delisted the battlefield. Although the delisting and fraudulent petition have been ruled “arbitrary and capricious” by federal Judge Reggie Walton, Blair Mountain remains delisted by the Keeper of the National Register and coal companies still intend to destroy the site.
The fate of Blair Mountain will be, in many ways, a sharp indicator of what is to come for the region and the country. Will we embrace climate science and renewable energy? Will we learn the lessons of West Virginia’s battles and organized labor’s significant role in a capitalist society? Will we allow our heritage to be destroyed and our history manipulated in schools? Will we combat political corruption? Will Appalachians finally look to economic diversification or cling to an extraction economy which has consistently failed to bring prosperity for over 100 years? Those who wish to understand why Appalachia and, America for that matter, stand at such a crossroads would do well to watch this film. Blood on the Mountain is no elegy for hillbillies, it’s a protest anthem for red necks.