100th Anniversary of Battle of Blair Mountain, W. Virginia – August 25-September 2, 1921

Remembering the heroic miners of the Battle of Blair Mountain

The Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada remembers with great affection the workers throughout North America who have given their lives, been injured or sent to prison in the many battles for the dignity of labour and for a nation-building project to build the new without class oppression and exploitation.

The more than 100 miners who were killed a century ago in West Virginia in their battle against the violence of the coal barons and U.S. imperialist state stand out as heroes to be fondly remembered. Scores more were seriously injured and hundreds unjustly imprisoned for the so-called crime of organizing and engaging in struggles to better their working and living conditions.

The U.S. coal wars raged for over 30 years from the beginning of the 20th century. Miners throughout Appalachia battled to assert their right to be and increase their claims on the immense social product they produced in return for the sale of their capacity to work. Ruthless coal imperialists and their state machine denied miners even their most fundamental rights, frequently discarding them as disposable items less than human.

The Battle of Blair Mountain occurred in an atmosphere of extreme tension and class struggle. Martial law had been declared to intimidate the miners, to disarm and discourage them from joining the United Mine Workers. Even talking in groups of more than two was criminalized. By August 1921, miners and their families were convinced that the only way they would be able to improve their lives was to occupy the coal mines throughout the territory, mobilize the unorganized miners to join the cause and demand an arrangement with the coal barons suitable to themselves.

To assert their rights, 13,000 armed miners began a march from Marmet to Williamson, West Virginia in late August 1921. They demanded their rights as humans and producers to a say in their working and living conditions and a just claim for the sale of their capacity to work. Their immediate aim was to march south to Mingo County to free all imprisoned miners, end martial law and organize the workers in the region into the United Mine Workers (UMW). Hundreds more miners joined as they marched through coal country with some even commandeering a Chesapeake and Ohio freight train, renaming it the Blue Steel Special, and travelling on it to meet up with the advanced column of marchers. Significantly, around 30 per cent of the total contingent consisted of African-American miners who battled bravely alongside their working class brothers.

Blocking the miners’ way were 2,000 to 3,000 recruits of a rogue coal baron army that had dug into the heights of Blair Mountain. The mercenary private army was heavily armed with the most modern weaponry including aircraft. The Battle of Blair Mountain began in late August with miners fighting heroically with whatever weapons available to them mostly hunting rifles and surplus war material. They had to contend with the rogue army even using aircraft to drop poison gas and bombs on them. In early September after more than one million rounds had been fired, it appeared that the miners had seized the upper hand and would soon break through and rout the mercenary army of the coal barons.

In panic, the imperialist coal barons summoned the United States Army. U.S. President Warren Harding ordered federal troops, which had already been assembled nearby including Martin MB-1 bombers, to advance on Blair Mountain to defeat and disarm the miners. The power of the U.S. military was unleashed against the miners on September 2. Reports say that most miners were unwilling to fire on U.S. troops as many were veterans of WWI. They surrendered to the army with 985 miners indicted for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason against the state of West Virginia. Those facing trial by jury were mostly acquitted by sympathetic juries while others were imprisoned for years.

The coal barons and their state used the victory over the miners to attack the United Mine Workers throughout Appalachia with membership falling from 50,000 miners to approximately 10,000 but recovering during the great economic crisis of the 1930s with the UMW fully organizing southern West Virginia coal mines by 1935.

The courageous struggle of the coal miners had a profound influence on the consciousness of industrial workers throughout the United States, assisting the organizing and struggle for the rights of steelworkers, packinghouse workers and others in the 1930s.

For working people, the heroism and militant actions of the coal miners of Appalachia revealed the necessity to organize the working people to defend the rights of all. They have to do battle not only against the big employers but also against the state machine of the ruling class.

To uphold the rights of all and build the new within the conditions of the modern world of a socialized economy, the working class program and vision is to engage in nation-building in a manner which humanizes the social and natural environment by putting the working people as the decision-makers under all conditions and circumstances.

The MLPC salutes the coal miners in the U.S. and Canada and holds high the memory of the heroes of the Battle of Blair Mountain.

All out to humanize the natural and social environment by becoming decision-makers ourselves! Uphold the dignity of labour and the claims workers are entitled to make by right! Oppose the criminalization of workers’ struggles and demands!

Members of the United Mine Workers of America commemorate the Battle of Blair Mountain, September 2, 2019.

(With files from “100 Years Later: The Battle of Blair Mountain.” Photos: West Virginia State Archives, West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, E. Allen.)

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Filed under History, United States, Working Class

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