History is made of moments. Days of pride and days of infamy.
In infamy, Dec. 7, 1941. Sept. 11. Burned into our souls. Let Jan. 6 be burned there, too. Lest we forget.
The Tulsa Race Massacre of June 1921 is now burning into America’s soul. Rightly so.
Too much of America didn’t know about that terrible destruction and mass murder on Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street” until this year. Now that we’ve seen it, we can’t unsee it.
But did you know 2021 marks another terrible centenary? This Labor Day celebrates 100 years since the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know about this: America washes its dirty history out of its history books.
In the early 20th century, coal kept America’s lights on and its houses warm. Coal mined in Appalachia and the west made New York titans of industry rich.
But coal was a prison on the job, confining deep miners and their families in freezing coal camps, in debt to the company store, choking on coal dust and dying in roof falls. Imprisoned, deputized gun thugs kept them down.
In Aug. 1921, only weeks after Tulsa, coal miners staged the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War.
Enraged when a labor-friendly lawman was murdered, thousands picked up their World War I rifles and shotguns and marched across southern West Virginia. Called “rednecks” for the blood-red bandannas they wore in solidarity, they were vilified as Reds.
The miners battled through West Virginia towns and coal camps along the way toward a reckoning in Logan County. But before they got there, they were brutally cut down as they tried to cross Blair Mountain.
Machine-gunned by coal barons’ private armies, they were blown to bits by bombs dropped from U.S. Army warplanes. Never forget.
The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. The history of labor is likewise written in blood.
Remember the blood of the martyrs of Haymarket, Pullman, Homestead, River Rouge, the southern textile Uprising of ’34 at Honea Path and Blair Mountain.
Their sacrifice birthed a modern labor movement that gave America the eight-hour day, the weekend, the minimum wage, the end of child labor, the requirement of overtime pay, safety standards and old-age benefits, as well as protection for women and minorities of all kinds.
And the legally recognized right to join a union.
That right, neutered by decades of judicial decisions and bureaucratic stagnation, hasn’t been worth much since before I became a union-side lawyer over 30 years ago.
Richard Trumka just died, too young. For the last decade, he had been the president of the national council of labor organizations called the AFL-CIO.
He once was the youthful president of the United Mine Workers and hero of the Pittston strike of the late 80s. He was the friendly face and roaring voice of a rejuvenated, militant labor movement. Let’s pass the Trumka PRO Act in his honor.
Years after the battle of Blair Mountain, as the Coalfield wars in Appalachia wore on, Florence Reece penned a song. The wife of a union organizer, she mournfully sang, “Which Side Are You On?”
Her call rings down through the decades to this 100th anniversary.
I expect the United Mine Workers will sing “Which Side Are You On?” in solidarity this Labor Day.
Let’s all sing it in honor of the Blair Mountain martyrs and Richard Trumka. Sing it in hope and expectation for a rejuvenated labor movement.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles this week for Labor Day 2021 (Sept. 6). The first article in the series is:
Giving Me a Break | Starlette Thomas
Working in law, labor, faith and politics, he is a union-side lawyer and former AFL-CIO official who has served the United Food and Commercial Workers for years. National legal counsel for Jobs with Justice, he represents historically Black Simmons College of Kentucky in Louisville.