For October’s Appalachian book, I went with WVU Press’s Never Justice, Never Peace, by Lon Kelly Savage and Ginny Savage Ayers. Ayers took up the mantle for this book from her father, who sadly passed before the project was finished. She used his manuscript and research and masterfully pieced the book together.
The authors look closely at Mother Jones’s role in the miner strikes at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in West Virginia. As I read, I couldn’t help but compare that situation, which played out in 1912–1913, to today’s tension-filled political climate. I realized, while listening to NPR report from Wolfe County, Kentucky, a couple weeks ago that the US is in one giant mine war. The coal barons (our too-rich politicians) sit in their huge house on the hill saying, “If only you work as hard as me, you can reach this dream.” In reality, though, they are sucking our country dry while also controlling our (in)ability to get ahead in life. Our misfortune literally equals their fortune. As one journalist wrote, over a century ago, “The same coal barons, with whom party loyalty is an iridescent dream, and trade loyalty an axiom, are again lining up for the legislative advantages by which they monopolize the necessities of the people” (189). They’ve spent an astounding amount of time rigging our economy and tricking us into thinking we’ve got the same American-dream chance as anyone.
In coal towns, the coal operators owned your ratty house and paid you in scrip that was only good at their company store. You worked up to 10 hour shifts every day of the week. They separated you from the other ethnicities in town in order to divide and conquer using fear. You couldn’t afford to stay, but you also couldn’t afford to leave. If you went on strike, well, the company’s private police force would knock down your door and kick you and your family out on the street at gun point, often forcing you to walk until you were out of town limits, as the town was private property. Watch the film Matewan if you want an inside look.
The miners in those suffocating company towns turned to rank-and-file leaders to organize them, to help them fight their oppressors. They turned to one another, despite skin color or accent, and created power in community. They turned to an old woman, wonderfully called an uncivil shrew (61), who traveled the country fighting for the rights of the oppressed, despite having no formal connection to these families.
I’ve been saying for a while that Appalachia is a microcosm of the US. If we want more than the leftover scraps from real estate barons and millionaire politicians, we must learn how the brave men and women in coal towns fought, learn from their missteps, and organize ourselves. The next step for the US, if we follow Appalachia’s path, is to work ourselves to the bone trying to reach the American dream only to see the economic gap grow, leaving us behind, due to power grabs and privatization. One senator from New Jersey, who was investigating the rebellion in West Virginia, wrote of the “cankering blight of insatiable greed. The wealth of the State has been taken from the many by the few” (273). How little has changed in the intervening century! A large percentage of Appalachian land is still owned by folks outside the region, meaning our communities don’t benefit from the taxes or the profit. Similarly, if things are allowed to continue, the profit the US generates will all go into the pockets of the rich instead of into our schools, our healthcare, or our roads. Those in power want to stay there. They benefit from keeping us uneducated and isolated.
Environmental and class concerns are also a tell. Daily we use energy sources that oppress in one way or another. The infrastructure has barely changed, despite new and sustainable options, because those in power benefit from that oppression, even when their coal or oil begins to run dry. Mother Jones said it best:
If the people in the cities far removed from the mines would only stop to think under what conditions they coal that keeps them warm and comfortable is being dug, if they could only realize at what a great cost to human life these black diamonds are being brought out from within the earth, they would see a tear in every particle that composes each lump of coal. They would, instead of the red flickering flames, see bloodshot eyes, and in every one of these flickers they would see an accusing finger pointed at them, holding them responsible for the maintenance of a system which breeds such conditions. They would know that every piece and every grain of coal is baptized in workers’ blood. (126)
Another red flag is control of the media. Silencing journalists was a method those in power used during the mine rebellions. In fact, “worried that his scheme of ending the Kanawha Valley coal strike would be portrayed as bullying the miners into an agreement,” Governor Hatfield ransacked and closed at least two newspapers who dared disagree with his settlement (255–256). Now we are seeing journalists die for their brave attempts to share truth, as those in power benefit from silencing disrupters and controlling the narrative.
I also worry about the loss of law and order. During this mine rebellion, Governor Glasscock did not know how to handle the conflict, so he declared martial law, which meant he could convict and sentence civilians via military trial at his whim. The right to a jury of peers was dismantled, and Mother Jones spent months imprisoned for her speeches with no due process. One newspaper at the time wrote, “The constitution of the United States and the constitution of West Virginia are both swept aside. The civil rights of working men and the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and of action are utterly destroyed” (134). Though terrifying, it is easy to see the growing violence fed by our president’s rantings become the reason he ends up with ultimate, unchecked power.
That brings to me to an important point, which goes against much of what Mother Jones instigated. The miners in these rebellions often fought violence with violence. They returned the gunfire of the mine guards. All this led to was death, destruction, and delay. Even the military court was backed up for months because it was dealing with individual perpetrators rather than working toward a solution to the miners’ problems. If we, as the US, follow this route, we will only be hurting ourselves. And we will make ourselves vulnerable to a drastic decision like martial law. When they go low, we must go high.
In one of her epic speeches, Mother Jones laid down the reality that everyone, including those not affected by certain issues, must raise our voices as one: “I believe so implicitly in the strength of public opinion that I think that if we can have a strong protest from all parts of this country, we can defeat the capitalists despite the combined efforts of the courts, the police and the militia against us” (127). We need to stand up for our brothers and sisters, and we need to do this in peace. As St. Ambrose of Milan once said, “No one heals himself by hurting another.”
Don’t let the politicians tell us this is the best we can do. Don’t let them separate us from each other out of fear. Not only are we are stronger together, but we also have a driving vision of how beautiful our country could be. In the words of Mother Jones, “There is never peace . . . because there is never justice” (279). Do your part to peacefully bring about justice by voting.