West Virginia is a state that’s often the butt of many people’s jokes for being the home of backwoods, toothless, inbred, hicks. Some might even know West Virginia for its country roads that will take you home whether you want to go there or not. I suppose according to John Denver, all country roads lead to Charleston or Beckley instead of Rome! But everything about West Virginia as we know it as been co-opted by corporate propaganda to push this narrative of ignorance, divide and backwoods unimportance.
The origins of West Virginia has been romanticized as this abolitionist dreamscape. The story that’s told to us about WV is that they annexed from Regular Virginia because they did not want slavery! But in reality it had nothing to do with abolition but rather the supply lines to win the Civil War. West Virginia had plenty of people who were fine and dandy with owning slaves.
[Image 1] Famed 5 dollar bill, Abraham Lincoln went to the Northern Industrialists who owned all the railroads, timber and coal yards and offered the land of West Virginia as compensation for helping out the Union army. Lincoln sold out the state to profiteers as the state’s inception. Really West Virginia was the first state to become a corporation and therefore is the first state to get personhood. Which was a real bummer because in for a long time Black People only got 3/5th of personhood, but West Virginia just got all of the fifths of personhood pretty immediately.
After the Civil War, West Virginia became THE spot the coal industry to get cheap labor. This is where the real history buried history of West Virginia begins. Between 1880 and 1919 the state’s population went from 93k to 446k. This is because the Coal Companies built little towns around the coal mines and needed people to occupy them to work the mines.
By the time Ellis Island opened up in the 1890s, the Coal Bosses sent out recruiters to bring immigrants to work the mines. The recruiters promised these new immigrants a new life to help take care of their families! By this point there were some large Strikes that had taken center stage and the working class were becoming more empowered. So in order to circumvent things like paying fair wages and giving people human dignity, the coal bosses hired immigrants that didn’t have an opportunity to be a part of the Labor Movement and could easily be exploited for their work. You know how business is done! This is what MBA’s teach you. Step 1: Hire Immigrants. Step 2: Exploit Immigrants. Step 3: Purchase Respect! Master’s degree acquired!
Just this notion alone debunks the “THEY TOOK OUR JOBS” argument! Nobody took anyone’s jobs. The bosses handed them to immigrants under the guise of a better life for their families. The jobs were there for taking, but the working at that time didn’t really want to those jobs. The people weren’t into the coal industry and in a jealous rage the industry decided to use immigrants against the working class. And the sad part is it worked. These corporations created and benefited from anti-immigrant xenophobia.
Once these immigrants and also former slaves were in these coal towns, they were paid for the coal they extracted by the ton, not by the hours they worked in the mines. But they weren’t paid in real dollars, but something called Scrip, which was money made up the coal bosses. This is where the game of Monopoly originated, because Scrip is basically play money, disguising a new era of wage slavery! This kept the miners subservient and dependent on the coal companies but also ensured that these coal bosses in West Virginia were going to be richer than god.
In the company towns the fake money was used to pay for lodging, supplies and utilities. These towns were also primarily non-union areas in Southern West Virginia. These towns also had mercenaries hired by the coal bosses to ensure the miners would stay in line and not unionize. The coal bosses called them company towns but they were basically forced labor camps. Eventually the Nazis would look at this and say “Hey that’s not a bad idea!”
[SC 2] Up north, the United Mine Workers of America, or the UMWA or the Miner’s Unions, had partnered with the International Worker Of the World to engage in strikes. Mother Jones, the octogenarian activist, joined the UMWA & Eugene Debs in Pittsburgh to lead a strike in 1897. This was the first major win for the Miner’s Union.
[SC 3] Following this Mother Jones led strikes and demonstrations all across Pennsylvania. Mother Jones was a major advocate for getting rid of child labor. She led a protest of young kids that worked factory & mine jobs on a march to Teddy Roosevelt’s summer home in 1903. I’m sure all the rich folks in sippin’ tea in their estates were shocked and said “well why do you have to make child labor so political!”
Eventually she went down to West Virginia to survey the mines. When she saw the condition of the workers down there, she said this was “worse than those in Czarist Russia!” That’s right folks, the authoritarian Russians drew a line at slave labor camps and American industrialists said “What if we sold the idea to the German Nationalists?”
Now think about whether work conditions are any different today. Amazon Warehouses have reported stories of people passing out of dehydration. Meat packing plants have unsanitary conditions for their workers cramped in one space for hours on end. Walmart employees are paid so little that customers have to help them buy food! There’s an intern that has to pretend that Joe Biden isn’t a war mongering, sociopathic, rapist on twitter everyday! And there are people who are paid to be Mitch McConnell’s “friend”! I’m pretty sure that last one is a violation of the Geneva Convention!
[SC 4] In order to prevent the UMWA from gaining a foothold in West Virginia, the coal bosses came up with “Yellow Dog Contracts” in 1907. These contracts basically said the miners were sole “employees” – a term used very loosely – of the Coal Company and couldn’t join a Union by law. These laws specifically called out the United Mine Workers of America & The International Workers Of The World! And if they did join a Union, they would be terminated and evicted from the their homes by the Coal Companies.
In 1917 the Supreme Court had made them legally binding and ensured that the Unions couldn’t gain traction in states that were using Yellow Dog Contracts. The provision was the Coal Companies had to walk the miners once a day, make sure they fed them and cleaned up after their poopies. They really show that they were going to be responsible for the miners. And the end of the day, the Supreme Court of 1917 asked, who’s walking who… After a series of General Strikes and mass organizing, in 1933 Yellow Dog contracts were put down like that feral, rabies ridden canine at the end of that movie…Marni & Me.
These contracts, much like Scrip, were meant to keep employees in fear and subservient to the whims of the Coal Bosses, especially since the Labor Movement was getting wind of their tyranny. It made sure that these workers wouldn’t resist or strike and would be loyal…like a yellow dog or a Lab. Today we don’t need Yellow Dog contracts because we have the burden of healthcare. With the power of healthcare connected to work, it’s easy to see how employees can be kept subservient under the threat of loosing access to a doctor.
Coal Miners all around were treated as less valuable than the coal they were extracting from the Mountains. So in 1913 in Paint & Cabin Creek, WV, the miners went on Strike backed by the Miner’s Union and Mother Jones! The miners were asking for Union legitimacy and better wages. By better wages they meant real money. The coal company freaked out and said the Union was working for a competitor, out to ruin their business! Doesn’t this make the coal bosses sound like crazy prospectors. “They comin’ for mah gold! Mah black gold!”
So as retaliation for asking for real money and human rights, the Coal Bosses hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. They weren’t as much detectives as they were mercenaries. I mean if they went by the Baldwin-Felts Union Hunters it would have been more accurate but also would’ve made them look bad. Now before the SS was invented the Nazis looked at these so called Detective Agencies and were like “That’s not a bad idea! But we’ll give cool lighting bolts on their uniform! Really brand our fascism!” No one can say the coal companies weren’t inspirational.
The Coal Companies gave the mercenaries machine guns and set up encampments to fire on the Striking Miners. So the miners fought back with guerrilla warfare. Martial Law was instated 3 times which was unprecedented during peace times. 200 strikers including 86-year old Mother Jones were arrested. You really gotta watch out for those octogenarians, with their frail backs, canes and hard candies, which is a dental nightmare. They could give a harsh talkin’ to if you ain’t careful! They could even shake a fist or two and then you’re really in for it!
Governor Hatfield, pardoned some of these strikers, but kept the main organizers of the strike in prison. Then the cherry on the authoritarian cake was when he closed down the town’s Socialist newspapers because…well lets just say liberty, freedoms and Russia.
The next major strike in West Virginia wouldn’t happen till 1920. The UMWA had launched a major campaign to unionize the coal mines in Southern West Virginia. As retaliation, with the now legally binding Yellow Dog Contracts, 3000 miners were fired and served eviction notices. When the miners didn’t leave the Baldwin-Felts thugs were called in to violently remove them from their homes.
In the town of Matewan in Mingo County, Al & Lee Felts, the lead mercenaries of the Baldwin-Felts, personally came down to evict miners. Matewan’s Strike Supporting Sheriff, Sid Hatfield, was backing up the miners. The Felts decided to push women and children out of their homes at gunpoint, because they respect the rule of women & children first. If this was the Titanic, they would’ve thrown the women & children overboard first! That’s called equality. The Felts’ with the Mayor of Matewan took these miners’ family to train station to evict them.
Sid Hatfield, with a group of miners, followed them down to the train station and said the Felts were under arrest for unlawful evictions. The Felts then Sid Hatfield was under arrest, because…they said so, no takesybacksies! Eventually shots were fired. Not in a verbal way. It was like someone came out said “Yo mama so fat her bathtub calls her Grover Cleveland!” No literal gunfire! There was an argument over who shot first. And the answer is Han…Han shot first!
The shootout lasted 10 minutes. 7 Detectives, 2 miners and the Mayor of Matewan were killed. 17 strikers and Sid Hatfield were tried for…I dunno heresy against Coal Worshipping and Russianism. I mean I think they meant to say Boleshevism, Russianism sounds scarier. Can’t you just see bearded men with hammers and sickles trying to hunt down a family of bald eagles when I say that? They were acquitted but in 1921, and Sid Hatfield was murdered by The Baldwin-Felts in front of the courthouse.
This sparked a 5000 miner march to Charleston. Backed by the UMWA, these miners with their red neckerchiefs tied on, were not going to back down till their demands were met. At this point they had been lied to by the Coal Bosses, the courts had let them down by legitimatizing the Yellow Dog Contracts & the government had let them by arresting strikers and the use of mercenaries. So they trusted the unions who were on the side of the working class miners.
President Harding sent down Brigadier General Henry Bandholtz to offer an ultimatum to the miners. But the miners rejected any compromises and kept marching to Logan County. The county sheriff, Dan Chafin, who was an Anti-Union employee of the coal companies was set to stop these miners. The Coal Companies sent him their private armed forces and he deputized citizens. They killed 5 strike supporters as a message to the unions.
By the time the miners go to the Logan County, Chafin’s men were armed with Gatling guns. The miners with their rifles and hand guns fought back against the private army of the Coal Companies. The military was ordered to use their bombers, but they declined to fire on civilians. [SC 13] So Chafin went to the coal companies and got 3 bi-planes and dropped homemade explosives on the miners. Once the federal troops were order get involved, the miners knew they were outgunned and outnumbered and surrendered.
This was the Battle of Blair Mountain. This is a major moment in American history where not only were federal troops called on striking citizens, but a private corporation paid for the bombing of said citizens! This is another example of how the strikers made the decision to call off the violence and NOT the corporatists. Violence is second nature for Capitalists.
This was a loss for the UMWA but it showed the coal companies that the workers won’t back down without a fight. This isn’t taught to most people because this history shows what we are capable of when stand together and push back against tyrannical power structures. It shows us how much strength the working class actually has!
The radical of history of West Virginia is hidden from the people by the legislative depowering of Unions and the Labor Movements and a propaganda campaign to make the people of the state believe they are lesser than. The coal companies are using new tactics to cover up the power labor history of West Virginia.
Mountain top removal is the new way the mining companies causing destruction to the lands in West Virginia and erasing the history of the state. Mountain top removal is exactly what it sounds like. It’s removing the the top of a mountain with explosives to get to it’s nougaty, coaly, center! And it begs the question, how many licks of sticks of dynamite does it take to get to the center of that mountain top…and that’s silly because they’re using C4.
Mountain top removal is not just a destructive way of getting coal but also a way to get rid of archeological evidence that shows what exactly happened at Blair Mountain. The corporations have used their wealth and legislative strongholds to normalize this kind of obliteration. These communities don’t realize they’re in an abusive relationship because they don’t know anything else exists.
The reason why these companies are resorting to mountain top removal is because coal is a dying industry. After World War 2, the jobs in a coal mine became more automated. And it’s difficult to get people to see this fact when the culture of the state of has been engrained and entangled into the industry. The people are the industry and the industry are the people. So when you go after the industry, the people think you’re going after them. Look I think Tyler Durden summarized this best.
But this is why the notion of jobs retraining is so hard in areas like West Virginia. A lot of people have been convinced that coal mining is the only way of life. Democrats come out to areas like this and claim that they’re willing to retrain these folks, but never say in what. The jobs exist, we just have a to give them a chance to flourish.
And as Eleanor Goldfield says, you can have a job in damn near anything. We need jobs in the reclamation of land, renewable energies, counseling, drug rehab and we need a job where someone punches a Mining CEO in the chest once a day. “Well why not the dick, Krish? That’s your signature move, the dick punch.” And it is, but in this situation it’s pertinent to go for the chest. These CEOs are all wearing oxygen tanks and I think they’ll get the message about how they’re shortening the breath of humanity and the planet, when they’re REALLY short of breath. It’s like Mixed Metaphoric Arts!
Look at this point we shouldn’t even want to have coal as a source of energy considering vast ecological damage it causes. Before coal is burned, it has to be cleaned. So it’s cleaned in a chemical bath and it creates a nice thick oozy slurry called Coal Sludge, which a cocktail of poisonous heavy metals. [WV 9] I believe we saw this in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
This sludge contaminates the water supply and even the cleaners get into the water. Politicians approve of what the coal companies do, because it’s “proprietary”. And I’m sure the machismo that is normalized in these areas would look at complaints like this and say “Oh come on! Water is supposed to be a little hard! You liberals and your filtered water! Who are you the King of England?! Quit being such a pussy and drink that water that cause minor brain damage & genetic defects! It’s good for yah!” Right I forgot wanting clean water and being alive is a sign of cowardice. Suicidality is super manly!
If the sludge wasn’t enough, coal plants have compression stations that create non-stop noise! Not only that, but when these plants have accidents or cause fires, the people are not warned. But the propaganda has permeated through the culture so much that these coal plants wind up staying way past their welcome.
This is where I really feel like religion has failed us all. It’s really astounding to me that we haven’t made a full investment in solar, considering how may religions worship the damn sun! If Ra or Surya, both Sun Gods, saw our dependency on fossil fuels they’d solar flare us out of existence. They’d look at us and say “hey assholes, we gave you an infinitely renewable source of energy! That stuff wasn’t meant for you dig up, that’s why it’s buried so far under the Earth! Fuck, why did we gift you guys with logic if you’re just going to shit on it! Oh good another country song about going to war and burning fossil fuels with your truck! Why does your Ford F-150 need testicles? It’s an inanimate object and doesn’t need a gender!”
Even the term Redneck is co-opted by this culture of normalizing ignorance and destruction. The term Redneck is one of solidarity for striking miners. They would tie red bandanas or neckerchiefs to signify who they were and where they stood. This was symbol of pride in the working class!
Today we look a redneck as a slur for someone that’s inbred, gun toting, racist and kinda dumb. And that definition is championed and worn as a badge of honor in places like West Virginia. And that comes from how much popular culture has taken this warped definition and turned ignorance into a way of life!
The term redneck is co-opted by millionaire entertainers like Jeff Foxworthy who used it as the butt of a joke with his famous “You Might Be A Redneck” routine and culturally contributed to burying the real meaning of the word. And he used comedy to do it which makes him a traitor to the art! Comedy is supposed to speak truth to power, not help it redefine a movement that stood up to tyranny.
And Jeff Foxworthy isn’t a redneck even by his definition! He grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, his dad had a great job with IBM and he attended Georgia Tech. I don’t think it should be “You might be a Redneck”. If he was more honest he’d say “You be privileged”.
Foxworthy is as much a Redneck as I am a Bollywood dancer. Jeff Foxworthy is a turncoat and a fraud that buried the true radical history of the term. He turned it into a product and built a brand on to sell merch to champion ignorance. Foxworthy, Garth Brooks, Toby Keith are all profiting from warping reality and telling people to take pride in their anti-intellectualism.
Mixed in with the pop culture propaganda is the political ones with groups like “Friends Of Coal”. They are “front group created but the West Virginia Coal Association, the trade association representing the bulk of states coal mining industry.” If you live in West Virginia and write propaganda against unions, pensions, medicare for all and convince the people to give up their land for the destruction of nature then you might be a Friend of Coal.
These folks are the ones that get excited when Trump says he’s going “Bring back Coal”. And he is! By continuing pump propaganda for these tree killers, we’re funding our own extinction so that in a few million years, our fossilized remains can turn into coal for a society that moved on using a combination of Solar and Wind and look at our era as the “Dark Ages”.
The positive in all this is that in the last few years there have been a bunch of coal companies going bankrupt. The coal company, Blackjewel went bankrupt in 2019 and owed miners backpay of $6000, each. They were in clear violation of the Warn Act, which claims that a company must give a 60 day written warning about mass layoffs. The miners protested and led strikes blocking train lines till the company paid them, which they eventually did.
And by the way, the United Mine Workers of America is shifting its Union prowess into the renewable energy sector because they’ve been seeing the writing on the wall for coal. The Coal Companies apparently couldn’t see that writing, because it’s so dark in those mines. And besides those CEOs aren’t going those mines! They don’t have the right outfits for mining because Armani doesn’t make overalls!
But the spirit of the striking miners is still alive and well. It’s just moved over into a different job – Teachers. In 2018 and 2019 we saw a bunch of teachers strike for better wages and better treatment. Since they were considered federal employees, this was illegal for them to do, but it was illegal for the miners to strike too because of the Yellow Dog Contracts. That didn’t stop either group of Real Rednecks from fighting for what’s right!
There in lies the spirt of what West Virginia really is! A hot bed for labor action to drive change! It’s the citizens and the rank file coming out any saying that we don’t believe in nor will we follow the laws that are in place. And until they change we will not contribute an unjust, unlawful and tyrannical system. And the message spread. There were strikes in LA, Colorado and various other industries joined in solidarity.
Now the corporate school boards decided use old tricks to try and split the Teachers up. In Denver the school boards threatened to called ICE – the Immigration and Customs Enforcement – on immigrant Teachers. This goes to show how much corporations are willing manipulate immigrants to get their way, just like the coal bosses did in the 1890s! This is the school board saying that the immigrant Teachers belong to them and not in solidarity with the Unions. It did not work.
The people in West Virginia are seen as this new definition of Redneck. The inbred, dumb, backwoods hicks that are ready to turn everything into an explosive. But that doesn’t sound like a Redneck to me. It sounds like an imperialist! Usually imperialist of the highest class want to keep their blood pure, which leads to inbreeding.
“Chuck this your cousin Tiffany, you are to be wed to make sure our lineage stays as pure as the rice we eat! Purity is our power! Genetic Abnormalities our gifts!”
This is probably why they are fine with people being poisoned by coal cleaning chemicals. And you can see the unintelligence every time any one of our politicians opens their mouth! Fuck the Democratic front runner struggles to finish a basic sentence without saying something racist! And Imperialists always want to turn something into a bomb.
“Look we created a new way of transporting people long distances, called an airplane”
“Yes, this is great! Now can we add an explosive device that can dropped anywhere we want? It should also have a gun on it. And testicles!”
“I’m sorry what?”
So the next time you want to call someone ignorant, racist, violent and hellbent on our own destruction, don’t call them a redneck, call them an imperialist. If you’re willing to fight for equality and basic human rights and dignity then you might be a true Redneck!
Krish Mohan is a socially conscious, Indian standup comedian and writer who regularly tours the country. He performs at small theaters, bars, comedy clubs, colleges, DIY and house venues. With his quirky attitude, charming personality, and intelligent humor, Krish captivates and engages audiences of all backgrounds, tackling hot button topics like race, religion, war, immigration, while adding an optimistic, philosophical & sociological twist!