07 April 2012

Appalachia: Resistance to the Rape of a Culture

This text was originally a term paper written for Dr. Fouad Moughrabi’s poli sci class “U.S. and the Third World” at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in May 1984.  Keep in mind some of the individual facts may have changed even though the overall picture remains; updates will be in italics within brackets.

Appalachia, simply defined, the region surrounding the Appalachian Mountain chain in its various branches.  It includes the Adirondacks, Allegheneys, the Smokeys, the Blue Ridge, the Cumberlands, and other ranges, plus a Ridge-and-Valley region.  It encompasses extreme southwestern New York state, eastern Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina, the entire state of West Virginia, northwestern South Carolina, northern Georgia, and northeastern Alabama.

The story of the land and people of Appalachia is one of pride, independence, and courage in the face of exploitation by huge corporations, by the federal government, and by those who want to “develop” its tourist potential and “civilize” it with second homes, condos, and metropolitan society—in other words, colonization. 

This corner of the world provides an illustrative view of the “Ugly American” who wishes to force his way of life on everyone else and regards the rest of the world as there to serve him, with one exception:  this is America and these are Americans.  What follows here is largely the view of the people themselves, how they perceive their plight.

The situation in Appalachia appears the same as in most Third World countries, with a very few people or groups of people controlling all the wealth and economy and most of the land.  Some statistics from the region, which will look familiar to the student of the Third World situation, are as follows:  land ownership—28% locally-owned, 72% absentee-owned; mineral ownership—20% locally-owned, 80% absentee-owned; land control—53% of the land is controlled by 1% of the population, leaving 99% to compete for the remaining 47% of the land.

The largest single land owner in Appalachia is the federal government, primarily through the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), but also through the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), building it dams even where none are needed, diverting water from the mountains to the metropolitan centers on the outskirts of the region, all in the name of “progress”.

The other major group of outside owners include the coal companies.  Known as “Big Coal”, the top twenty owners [as of May 1984] are:

1) Kennecott Copper, through Peabody Coal, the company which devastated Muhlenberg County in western Kentucky, owned by the Rio Tinto Group;

2) Consolidation Coal [now Consol Energy], which owns the Chrysler Corporation and is in turn owned by Continental Oil [now Conoco-Phillips];

3) Island Creek Coal Company, which is owned by Occident Petroleum Company (Oxy);

4) Clinchfield Coal Company, which is owned by Pittston Coal Company, a subsidiary of the Brinks Company;

5) AMAX Coal Company, which is owned by American Metal Cliimax;

6) U.S. Steel, which owns its own operations;

7) Bethlehem Steel, which also has its own operations [sold to International Steel Group in 2003, which merged with Mittal Steel (an Indian company based in Rotterdam) in 2005];

8) Eastern Associated Coal Corporation, a division of Eastern Gas and Fuel [now Eastern Enterprises];

9) North American Coal Corporation, a totally independent operation [now a subsidiary of NACCO Industries];

10) Old Ben Coal Company, which is owned by Standard Oil of Ohio [which is itself now owned by British Petroleum];

11) Freeman United Coal Mining Company, which is owned by General Dynamics;

12) United Electric Coal Company, also owned by General Dynamics;

13) Westmoreland Coal Company, another independent operation;

14) Pittsburg Midland Coal Company, which is owned by Gulf Oil [now part of Chevron-Texaco-Unocal];

15) Utah International, Inc., which is independent of outside control and also deals in copper, iron ore, and other minerals throughout the world;

16) Central Ohio Coal Company, owned by American Electric Power, the largest utility company in the world;

17) Central Appalachian Coal Company, also owned by American Electric Power;

18) Windsor Power House, also owned by American Electric Power;

19) Central Coal Company, also owned by American Electric Power; and, finally,

20) Southern Ohio Coal Company, also owned by American Electric Power.

These twenty companies produce 52% of all coal in the nation per year.  It is also interesting to note that in mmany cases, “Big Coal” is the whore of “Big Oil”.

Coal is not only the major product of the region, but also the major producer of conflict.  Strip-mining, unsafe working conditions, insufficient wages, pollution of the land and rivers have all served to fuel the fires of hostility between the coal companies and the people of Appalachia.

The history of organization by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) contains much of the violence so often attributed to Appalachia, most of it committed by coal company thugs and which is still going on wherever the union tires to organize new locals.  It is a classic struggle between rich and poor, powerful overlords and a helpless population, civilized corporate tyranny and resistance by a people striving to feed their families and maintain their existence against the onslaught of Manifest Destiny and the invasion of American imperialism.

The people of Appalachia are not opposed to the coal industry as such; in fact, many welcome the jobs and income.  But they would like an industry with more concern for safe working conditions and the welfare of the workers and their families.  They would also like for the industry to show more concern for the environment; nobody but the coal companies and maybe the TVA would be sad if strip-mining were made a capital offence.

In 1890, the UMWA was founded to fight for the rights of miners who worked long hours in hazardous conditions with pennies for payment.  It was about this same time that socialist thought was increasing in the labor movement and radicalism prevailed.  The push for organization was forceful and so was resistance by owners.  This was particularly true after John L. Lewis assumed the national presidency of the union in 1919.

When the destitute miners began to organize for their rights, they were met with the same brutal force that rail workers striking against Standard Oil in 1914 met in Ludlow, Colorado.  There, company thugs surrounded a strike camp and opened fire, killing 43 women and children and wounding hundreds more while National Guardsmen nearby stood and watched. 

The mine operators in Appalachia were equally as vicious.  When miners began organizing in Appalachia, operators hired Pinkerton agents as mercenaries, employed their own goon squads, used the National Guard and the various police agencies available, and, in one place, even recruited a mini-air corps, led by one Billy Mitchell (later the father of the U.S. Air Force), to fly over their strike camps and drop bombs on the miners and their families.

Let the people of Harlan County, Kentucky, stand witness.  According to Nimrod Workman, an organizaer there during the 1930’s, one of the company thugs’ favorite tactics was to go into the strike camps while the men were gone and pour kerosene into the children’s milk—which was likely all they had to eat. 

Jack Hill reported in The Labor Defender in 1932 that thugs would raind mining towns, searching house-to-house for guns, union cards, literature, etc.  If there was any resistance, heavy machine guns on the hills would open fire, killing everyone, men, women, children.  They would harass, bomb, shoot, and otherwise intimidate any they found striking for the union.  At the height of union-organizing in 1938, there were seventy-five murders in Harlan, almost all by company thugs. 

Many of these tactics are still being used today [in 1984], as women demonstrating against strip-mining in Knott County, Kentucky, and strikers against Duke Power Company can attest to, as can many still trying to organize in stubbornly resistant operations.

From 1949 to 1950, coal miners across the United States held a general strike against the Southern Coal Operators Association, the combined northern and western operators group, the captive mine (owned by steel companies) operators, and the anthracite operators group.  They struck for a shorter work day, higher pay, and more safety, and against the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, increasing mechanization, and especially against use of the very hazardous continuous miner machine.

Beginning in West Virginia, under leadership of the Johnson-Forrest Tendency of the SWP and at first authorized by UMWA president Lewis, it rapidly spread to all of Appalachia and then to the West.  After Lewis prematurely ordered the miners back to work, the strike became as much against him and his collaboration as against Big Coal.  Pres. Harry Truman, who had campaigned on a promise to get Taft-Hartley repealed, eventually used that same law to end the strike by fiat.

Bitter hostility between labor and management continued until 1950, when the National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement was signed, aka the Mechanization Agreement (among other things it specifically abandoned resistance by the UMWA to the continuous miner).  Then, “abruptly, permanently, and somewhat mysteriously”, all hostility between Lewis and the leaders of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, or BCOA (George Love of Consolidation and Harry Moses of U.S. Steel) disappeared.

During the next ten years of his rein, Lewis grew cozier and cozier with his former antagonists.  The union’s rank-and-file membership was virtually locked out of negotiations.  Lewis assumed an autocratic rule of the union and held down resistance to the automation of the industry that put thousands out of work.

Tom Kennedy, Lewis’ vice president, succeeded him in 1960, and Tony Boyle succeeded him in 1963.  Boyle began to use the Welfare and Retirement Fund to his advantage.  He drew a salary of $50,000 [$350,000 in 2012] with plans to retire at full pay.  The twenty-seven district presidents made $30,000 [$210,000 in 2012], retiring at half pay.   In contrast, rank-and-file members received $1380/year [$9660 in 2012] at retirement.  The Fund also had several disqualifications which robbed men who had been working all their lives in the mines of their just due.

So complete was the bedding together of the coal operators and those who were supposed to be protecting the miners’ rights that shortly after one of the worst mining disasters in history at Mannington Mountaineer No. 9 in West Virginia (in which 78 men were buried alive in 1968), Boyle appeared on the scene praising the mine as one of the best companies to work for.

The decision of Fund board members to revoke medical cards of all members who were working for companies which failed to sign the national agreement caused a mass uprising in Eastern Kentucky.  Wildcat strikes were widespread.  “roving pickets” went from mine to mine inciting strikes and closing down operations.  Of course, these were harassed, beaten, and killed along the way.  The state police and the National Guard were called out against them.  They failed in many places, but they sowed the seeds of the reform movement in the UMWA.

The case of Eastern Kentucky is unique in many respects.  Kentucky is the only state in the Union where the legality of the “broad-form deed” was upheld.  This gave the mineral owner the right to extract the coal by whatever means possible, regardless of the damage to the surface.  Of course, these were sold eighty years ago [110 years now, the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries], when almost all miningg was done underground.

No region in the U.S.A. has undergone the rape that Eastern Kentucky has suffered, though strip-mining is widespread elsewhere, especially in West Virginia and East Tennessee.  Small wonder that the people eventually took up arms against the mountain strippers.

In the Lotts Creek section of Knotts County, members of the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People (AGSLP) began attacking the operations of the Kentucky Oak Mining Company after tension sprang up surrounding two events in 1965 in which residents faced off against bulldozers threatening their land.  Out-and-out warfare continued for six months with almost nightly firefights.  Equipment was sabotaged.  Supplies were destroyed.

In 1966, the owners (Bill Sturgill and Richard Kelly) decided to leave Lotts Creek.  After that, the movement spread throughout Eastern Kentucky, though in less violent forms (sporadic violence did continue into the mid-1970’s).  In 1970, the AGSLP began to hold mass demonstrations, stopping coal trucks, holding marches, motorcades, and press conferences, meeting with Congressional leaders and conducting groups on tours of strip-mined areas.  Finally, in 1974, a law was passed in Frankfort (the seat of Kentucky state government) effectively negating the broad-form deed.

The reform movement within the union began in 1968 when doctors discovered that “miner’s asthma” was really the disease pneumoconiosis, one in which coal dust gets in the lungs and ruptures the air sacs.  This is better known as “black lung disease”.  When miners, spurred on by physician Donald Rasmussen, began to demand compensation, the UMWA’s Boyle regime resisted, even when the rank-and-file were going to the states instead of the union or the operators. 

Faced with this, Arnold Miler and other formed the Black Lung Association (BLA).  The BLA became a powerful lobbying agent, getting bills passed on the state and national level.  A wildcat strike by 40,000 miners in West Virginia in support of black lung legislation was condemned by the UMWA, which ordered the strikers back to work.  They marched anyway. 

The reform movement formally declared war with the Boyle regime in 1969, with the candidacy of Joseph Yablonski for the international presidency that year.  Mass fraud and intimidation at the polls kept Yablonski from winning.  Twenty-two days later, 31 December 1969, Yablonski and his family were murdered in their sleep.

Another election was held in 1972 because of the fraiud in the 1969 election.  Boyle lost to the reform candidate, Arnold Miller, president of the BLA.  The UMWA was once again representative of its people. 

Boyle was convicted of Yablonski’s murder in 1974.

In the past twenty years [now fifty years], the mountain people have had to deal with yet another invasion of their homes.  Developers, spurred by the popularity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, have begun to move in.  Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is now one of the most renowned tourist traps in the country.  Condominiums at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina sell for $100,000 [$223,000 in 2012 dollars]. 

Resorts and second homes for “Florida Yankees” have sprung up all over the Southern Appalachian Highlands, primarily in western North Carolina and East Tennessee.  Besides raping the land, this drives up prices for land far out of the small farmers’ range, and puts a strain on the water supply.

Next to American Indians, the people of Appalachia are the poorest and the most discriminated against minority in the country.  Median income ranges from $2047 [$4560 in 2012] to [$8588 [$19,132 in 2012].  Many, particularly in the mountains, “live without water and sewage facilities, without warmth in the winter, with rats and insects breeding in the open garbage, and with visible structural failures” (Chase, “Housing in Appalachia”).  They are often scorned as “hillbillies”, and this quote from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) shows the attitude of most of mainstream America towards the Appalachian people:

We all profess to love liberty, but these people take their liberty seriously.  They don’t buy food; they shoot, grow, or catch it.  Few have running water or electricity in their homes, and most have less than a fifth-grade education.  Family and kinship ties are strong here; it is common for three or four generations to live together.  They have no social consciousness in the modern sense—but when one man’s barn burns down, every man in the vicinity shoulders his axe and hikes through the woods to help build a new one.

Many families live in deserted coal towns that companies have left behind in search of greater profit.  Three-quarters of Eastern Kentucky’s coal miners found themselves without a job this way after the coal boom of the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  “They become victims of a materialistic social order which venerates efficiency and wealth above all other things, and largely disregards social and human consequences” (Caudill). 

Some of these miners banded together and earned meager profits working small holes with little equipment other than their arms and backs.  Some remained where they were, unwilling to leave their homes, and were forced onto welfare rolls.  Thousands, over one-third of the regional population, followed the course of other people from the region abd fled to the metropolitan centers of the North and Midwest to look for work.

Migration has become a fact of life in Appalachia.  Driven out by high prices for land, unemployment, and/or ruined land, over two million people fled Appalachia between the early 1960’s and early 1980’s [probably millions  more by 2012].  By the way, it is “migration” rather than “emigration”; probably a majority of the displaced Appalachians pile into cars once a month, if not every weekend, to travel back “home”, if home still exists.

The Appalachian people are unique in that, with American Indians, they are the only segment of society with a federal agency especially dedicated to their welfare.  Though the people disagree over whether the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) really has their best interests at heart, the ARC does often fight an uphill battle with Congress, local governments, and other parts of the bureaucracy for the rights of the people and what it eems to be in the people’s best interests.

The ARC is one of the programs Ronald Reagan has slated to be slashed out of existence in 1985 [fortunately, he failed in that and ARC still exists].

The situation may sound desperate, but the times are changing.  Under Arnold Miller, the UMWA has moved to the forefront of the grassroots movement of the Appalachian people to protect their right and improve their general welfare.  The Council of the Southern Mountains has moved from simply promoting Appalachian culture and edication to aiding communities organize to get help and services they need.  The Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People is still alive in Eastern Kentucky. 

These organizations are essentially grassroots groups begun by the people to help them help themselves.  Being proud and independent people who revere self-reliance, they probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

I do not know if we can “do” anything for the people of Appalachia, or even if they would want us to.  but I do know they would appreciate it if we support their efforts for justice. 

Therefore, I close with these words of the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia:

The cries come now from Appalachia,
but they are echoed
—across the land
—across the earth
in the sufferings of too many peoples.
Together these many sufferings
form a single cry.

The living God hears this cry
and he tells us,
what long ago
on a different mountain,
he told his servant Moses that,

—he had heard the cry of his people.
—he would deliver them out of the hands of oppression.
—he would give them a rich and broad land.

But before we turn
to this message from the Lord,
we must hear fist
the cry of Appalachia’s poor.


Bethel, T.N.  “Conspiracy in Coal”.  Appalachia in the Sixities: Decade of Reawakening.  Ed. by David S. Wells and John B. Stephenson.  (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1972).

Branscombe, James.  “Nonviolence and Violence in Appalachia”.  Redemption Denied.  Ed. by Edward Guinan.  (Washington:  Appalachian Documentation, 1976).

Branscombe, James, and Peggy Matthews.  “Selling the Mountains”.  Redemption Denied.  Ed. by Edward Guinan.  (Washington:  Appalachian Documentation, 1976).

Brooks, David.  “Strip Mining in Eastern Kentucky”.  Redemption Denied.  Ed. by Edward Guinan.  (Washington:  Appalachian Documentation, 1976).

Caudill, Henry.  “The Permanent Poor: The Lesson of Eastern Kentucky”.  Redemption Denied.  Ed. by Edward Guinan.  (Washington:  Appalachian Documentation, 1976).

Chase, Elizabeth.  “Housing in Appalachia”.  Redemption Denied.  Ed. by Edward Guinan.  (Washington:  Appalachian Documentation, 1976).

“LAND: A Broken Covenant”.  Pamphlet by the Catholic Committee on Appalachia.

Miller, Arthur.  “The Energy Crisis as a Coal Miner Sees It”.  Redemption Denied.  Ed. by Edward Guinan.  (Washington:  Appalachian Documentation, 1976).

“THIS LAND IS HOME TO ME”.  a Pastoral Letter by the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, 1972.

Voices from the Mountains.  A collection of words, songs, and photographs from many people.  ed. by Guy and Candie Carwan.  (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, Inc., 1975).

No comments: