This article originally ran in The Guardian.
Recent waves of protests and strikes in West Virginia invoke the memory of a now notorious figure in American history: the redneck.
To call someone a “redneck” now divides us, when the term was created to unite us. And this distortion only benefits rednecks’ original enemies – corrupt politicians and big companies who don’t care about a multiracial alliance of hardworking Americans.
In West Virginia, the term “redneck” dates back to the early 1900s, a time when mineworkers faced the constant threat of death – from explosions, cave-ins and poor working conditions. A West Virginian enlisted in the armed forces during the first world war was less likely to die than one working in a coalmine.
In 1921, black, white and immigrant mineworkers took up arms to battle the coal companies that controlled and exploited every aspect of their lives. United, they wore red bandannas to identify each other in battle. They called themselves the “Redneck Army”.
The West Virginia mine wars were the bloodiest labor conflict in American history. Culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, more than 10,000 miners marched from the Kanawha valley toward Mingo to join other striking miners in protest. In their way stood the Logan county sheriff, Don Chafin, who was in the pocket of big coal – a $32,000 payoff each year, roughly $400,000 in today’s dollars.
Chafin commanded a private army of more than 2,000 mercenaries and multiple airplanes equipped to drop bombs on workers. Siding with Chafin and the coal bosses, President Warren G Harding sent federal troops too, armed with gas and more planes (the fourth time that troops had been called in to squash organized miners in the mountain state).
The miners proved what we know today: there is nothing more frightening to a coal boss or corrupt politician than a courageous, united, multi-ethnic coalition of working men and women.
In the coal camps, black people found segregated housing and schools, and lower pay. Operators preferred to break strikes by importing black workers, to sow discord among the races. But by the 1910s, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was fighting for pay equality, and requiring an oath from every member not to discriminate against any fellow member by “creed, or color, or nationality”.
Its first paid organizer in West Virginia was a black man. Miners swore an oath to each other, across “class or creed”. An early planning committee consisted of three officers: one white person born in West Virginia, one Italian immigrant and one black person.
One miner remarked: “I call it a darn solid mass of different colors and tribes, blended together, woven together, bound, interlocked, tongued and grooved together in one body.”
These miners were not the first West Virginia revolutionaries.
In 1774, the first battle of the revolutionary war was fought in modern-day West Virginia, outside Point Pleasant. More than 70 western Virginians and native Americans died in that battle.
In 1863, Western Virginians fought another revolution. When a majority of Virginia landowners voted to secede from the union, a few of our leaders brazenly said “No” – and formed our own state government in Wheeling. For more than a year, there were two governments calling themselves “Virginia”. Ours rejected the institution of slavery and defended the union. We eventually formed West Virginia, the only state shaped in the cauldron of the civil war.
In the mine wars, we fought bravely and lost brothers and sisters. Victory was not complete until the 1930s when the laws finally changed, union ranks swelled and mine protections improved.
Today, West Virginia is in the midst of another revolutionary moment.
For more than a generation, West Virginia families have been under attack from financiers who squash local enterprise, CEO’s who profit from our hard work and pain, and corrupt politicians who choose corporate lobbyists over working families time and again.
For the last 40 years, jobs in West Virginia have become harder to get, harder to keep and they pay less than they did back then. Weirton Steel was our largest employer a generation ago; in 2015, it was Walmart. Meanwhile, our costs continue to rise – especially for healthcare, childcare and healthy food.
Churches, neighborhoods and unions have crumbled as families struggle just to make ends meet. Is it any wonder that divorce, drug abuse, debt, incarceration and suicide rates are near all-time highs? The town of Williamson (population 2,900) was prescribed 20.8m pain pills over the last decade. The formula is simple and familiar: the more we suffer, the richer some folks get.
It will take another revolution to put power in the hands of West Virginia families. The seeds of that revolution are being sown. Dozens of volunteer-led resistance groups have arisen in the last 18 months – RiseUp in Charleston, Mountaineers for Progress in Morgantown, and Huddles and Indivisibles across the state. Hundreds of West Virginians rallied for Black Lives Matter last fall in our capitol. Last year, progressive slates swept to victory in Lewisburg and Morgantown city council races. This year, more than 50 additional first-time, grassroots candidates have filed to run for everything from school board to delegate to US Congress.
Last month, rank and file teachers in every one of West Virginia’s 55 counties executed the first major work stoppage in more than 30 years. In a true West Virginia spirit, dozens of volunteer feeding and childcare programs cropped up during the strike.
A citizen-led strike fund raised and distributed $332,000 statewide. Thousands of teachers and janitors and bus drivers stormed the capitol – many wearing their red bandannas. And they won – forcing a Republican legislature and governor to concede across the board 5% raises for all public employees.
A week later, West Virginia communications workers went on strike and won their own fight for job security. Now, teachers’ strikes are spreading nationwide.
These hills were once home to one of the most powerful and diverse working-class movements in American history. That legacy lives on.
So call us rednecks. We wear that red bandanna with pride.