A Powerful March on Blair Mountain
“There will come a time, I know, when people will take delight in one another, when each will be a star to the other, and when each will listen to his fellow as to music. The free people will walk upon the earth, people great in their freedom. They will walk with open hearts, and the heart of each will be pure of envy and greed, and therefore all humankind will be without malice, and there will be nothing to divorce the heart from reason. Then life will be one great service to humanity! His/her figure will be raised to lofty heights—for to free humanity all heights are attainable. Then we shall live in truth and freedom and in beauty, and those will be accounted the best who will the more widely embrace the world with their hearts, and whose love of it will be the profoundest; those will be the best who will be the freest; for in them is the greatest beauty. Then will life be great, and the people will be great who live that life.”
-Excerpt from Mother, by Maxim Gorky
Appalachia Rising’s second major event, the March on Blair Mountain, was an event unlike any other that I have ever taken part in. It was a tremendous success despite tremendous obstacles. And because it overcame those obstacles, the movement to abolish mountaintop removal, as well as the youth-led climate movement and probably the labor movement in West Virginia, is much, much stronger. I am so looking forward to Appalachia Rising’s next big event/campaign!
The March had four demands: preserve Blair Mountain, abolish mountaintop removal, strengthen labor rights, and invest in sustainable job creation for all Appalachian communities. Blair Mountain is where 10,000 coal miners fought in 1921 against the coal operators and their supporters who were severely repressing them as the miners attempted to organize.
What were the obstacles that the MOBM organizers and participants overcame?
–The heat: High temperatures were in the mid- or upper-90’s for all six days of the march, and it was humid. On Wednesday, while being shuttled back to our Marmet warehouse headquarters at the end of that day’s march, a temperature sign in the town of Madison read “102.” But because of a good team of medics and a well-organized water supply operation that moved with us as we marched, as well as nutritious food prepared by Seeds of Peace, only a handful of marchers over the course of the week had to stop marching for medical reasons.
–No places to camp: As of Friday the 3rd before the march started on Monday the 6th, there were definite or near-certain places for us to camp after each day of marching. As of Sunday evening the 5th, the Wednesday and Thursday locations had been withdrawn. On Monday night, after setting up camp at the John Slack State Park in Racine, we were forced to take our tents down and leave at 10 pm or be arrested. And on Tuesday morning, while on the march and after spending Monday night back in our Marmet warehouse, we received a cancellation call from the private campsite we had lined up for that night.
We ended up sleeping every night except Friday, 200-250 of us, on the floor of the warehouse, getting by using outdoor port-o-potties and two bathrooms with two sinks and no showers. Every day, at the end of the march, we were shuttled back, and every morning we were shuttled forward to the march starting point for that day. As the march kept going deeper into southwest West Virginia, the waiting for everyone to be picked up at the end of the day and to arrive in the morning got longer, three hours by the last day.
There is no question that the power of the coal operators, their power to hire and fire and intimidate, their control of local and state government, their over-a-century-long domination of the West Virginia economy, was the ultimate reason for these cancellations, and for the difficulties march organizers had in finding camping locations despite months of outreach.
-Threats and hostility: On Sunday night about 11 pm we received a call from someone known to the leadership that there was a group of hostile strip miners getting organized to come to our warehouse in Marmet. Everyone was awoken to explain the situation and to move people back from the covered-up plate glass windows in the front of the building. Our security team took various precautions, including putting duct tape over the windows. Then, about an hour later, and much to our collective relief, our contact called us back to let us know that the hostile group had dissipated and was not coming our way.
Then on Monday evening, after receiving some hostility but also a lot of support as we marched from Marmet to Racine, over 11 miles, we found a group of about 15 very angry people as we arrived at John Slack State Park. For hours they stood at the entrance to the park encouraging passing cars, coal trucks and other vehicles to lean on their horns if they opposed us, and it sounded from inside the camp like there were a lot of such people, although some vehicles went past us more than once. One time the group of 15 marched down to where we were set up, accompanied by West Virginia state police, and walked through and around us. One sign, held by a child no older than 10, said, “Eat coal shit face.”
The other location where we experienced a lot of overt hostility was in the small town of Ottawa, deep in Logan County and about 10 miles from Blair. But as far as I know there were no physical attacks on any of us during the whole week, in large part because of the trainings in nonviolence that all marchers had taken part in and the high level of discipline and organization that we displayed throughout.
It was also helpful that the West Virginia State Police were with us on all days of the march. Although we had conflicts with them at times, particularly during the march up Blair Mountain when they detained 25 people at the back of the march to force the march leadership to get the whole march to walk single file, overall their presence definitely discouraged those who might have been thinking of attacking us.
According to local leaders, this is the first time in decades that there has been this kind of cooperation from the state police. Undoubtedly, the large numbers on the march, the presence of CNN cameras and other media every day, and the growing national strength of the climate movement had an impact in bringing about this change.
And it certainly helped that Massey Energy, primary instigator and organizer of hostility and violence against Appalachia activists for years, had been officially bought out and taken over by Alpha Natural Resources company just the week before. Alpha apparently is more “public relations” oriented than Massey, and their cause was not helped by the state government commission report that came out a few weeks ago officially blaming Massey for the Upper Big Branch mine explosion last year that killed 29 miners.
The Real Reasons for Success
But the most important story about Appalachia Rising: March on Blair Mountain was the interplay between a hard-working, intelligent, determined and well-organized leadership, primarily young people in their 20’s, and the spirit and determination of the 200-250 marchers, inter-generational but also mainly young.
We began to get an idea of what all of the months of organizing had created on Sunday night. That evening, the leadership had gotten a call from a person who had previously agreed that we could stay in a field next to his house on Thursday night. This person, a lawyer, explained that he was getting heavy pressure from his family that owned the land and he would have to back out of his agreement.
This development meant that we no longer had camping sites for either Wednesday or Thursday nights, since late Friday we had gotten a message that the town of Madison had backed out of their agreement that we could sleep in a grassy field next to a swimming pool.
Everyone was called together to explain the situation: if we set out the next morning as planned, we would be doing so with no definite places to stay for two of the five nights. As of that point in time, the leadership thought that we were in good shape for Monday and Tuesday, and the plan for Friday was to camp in Blair at the base of the mountain.
It didn’t take long for the marchers as a whole to respond: let’s march!!! We collectively trusted that the leadership was doing all they could to make things work, and they had told us that they would be working while we were marching on Monday to come up with alternative locations for Wednesday and Thursday, and that was good enough. The spirit of determination to do this 50-mile march, to get to Blair Mountain, was palpable.
Something similar but even more amazing happened the next night at John Slack State Park. After being told about 10 pm that we had to break down our camp and leave or be arrested, and after the leadership met to figure out what to do, Andrew Munn spoke to the assembled marchers inside a park pavilion. He explained the situation and went on to say, to paraphrase, “We are not on this march to stand up for our right to camp overnight in a state park. We are on it to get to Blair, so let’s pack up, return to Marmet and tomorrow we’ll keep marching on to Blair.” A roar went up from the crowd, and four hours later, by 2 am, everyone and all their gear was back in the warehouse.
Our beloved community of 250 people was completely unified in what we were doing and why, and we were not going to be turned back.
And it was a beloved community. We treated each other with respect. We looked each other in the eye and greeted each other in the early mornings as we got up to get ready to march. We helped each other. We shared sun screen and water during the long hours of marching in the heat and humidity. We made lots of new friends and learned about one another’s lives. And we sang every day.
One of the high points for me was on Friday morning, the day we marched into Blair. I had been part of the first wave of shuttle vehicles that drove 45 miles from Marmet to get to the point where we had stopped marching the day before. There were 125 or so of us waiting, waiting for what ended up being three hours, for the shuttle vehicles to go back to Marmet, pick up all the other marchers and return. At one point about 100 of us were in a circle singing a song, a new song for me, one with a lively, basic melody and words about continuing to move forward. There was a place in the song where each time it was re-sung, a different phrase was used. People were laughing and smiling as they sang for what seemed like 10 minutes, substituting appropriate phrases at the appropriate place.
Marching up Blair Mountain
It was something special on Saturday to march up the road that went to the top of Blair Mountain following a stirring rally of 1,000 people in the field where we camped Friday night. The march leadership counted 775 people on that two mile march to the top. When we arrived there was another stirring rally with singing and powerful speeches by the leaders of the struggle against MTR. While that was happening, about 145 people risked arrest by heading down a dirt road up at the top of the mountain that went to the battlefield area where, 90 years ago, West Virginia coal miners stood up for their right to a union, their right to be treated with dignity and to a decent life.
The 145 made it to the beginnings of the battlefield. When the state police arrived and told them to turn back, they did so, as had been decided in advance that they would.
There is no question that Appalachia Rising: March on Blair Mountain had a very big impact in West Virginia and probably elsewhere in Appalachia. It received good coverage in a number of mass media outlets, in county newspapers, in the Charleston papers, on the radio, Associated Press and many more. One United Mineworkers local, Local 1440 in Matewan, WV, with 1200 members, officially endorsed this march, and we carried signs and banners letting people know that throughout. And as we discovered as we walked, there were an awful lot of people who were very happy to see us as we marched along the roads of Kanawha, Boone and Logan counties.
Lots of coal field residents have been inspired and empowered.
It was a joy and a privilege to go eight days and nights without a shower, marching through high heat and humidity, with the sisters and brothers who made this event such a success, who worked together, who supported and loved one another, who took daily risks, who persevered despite everything, and who made history. Let the spirit of the March on Blair Mountain grow and grow!
For more information on the march go to http://www.marchonblairmountain.org.