Dark as a Dungeon- Mining in Appalachian Kentucky: Part 3

“We is free”, God and Communism, Rednecks and Redbaiting

Link to Part 1 (Includes references)
Link to Part 2
Link to Part 4

“We is free”

Kentucky is a strange place to outsiders. It’s a southern state which didn’t secede. It’s a red state which maintained a democratic governor despite the Reagan renaissance in the 80’s up through 2015. The state famous for horse racing and bourbon is filled with counties where putting money towards either is illegal. People from the north think we talk like we’re southern, people from the south think we talk like we’re northern. Old men meet at the newest McDonald’s in the county to drink stale coffee to discuss fresh topics in local politics- we’re in constant dissonance with ourselves. 

A story I heard a few years ago on a local radio program, Kentucky Sports Radio, stuck with me as a perfect encapsulation of Kentucky as a whole. A meeting in Whitley County, a southeastern Appalachian county, was called to discuss the implementation of a tax to start public trash pickup. Trash burning had recently been made illegal, so something had to be done to keep garbage from piling up. The crowd was against the idea of a new governmental service, but their reasoning wasn’t coming across clearly. County officials only saw the upside- this was cheaper than doing it privately, trash pickup is one of the few things that is largely well done by governments large and small. What was the issue? The citizens hemmed and hawed, talking about the disadvantages to moving to the new system, but they didn’t ever really get at it.

A woman stood up and succinctly put the problem into words. This plan sounded like communism, and “There ain’t no communists in Whitley county…we is free”. Today this sentiment would be widely shared throughout most of Kentucky, especially the Eastern Appalachian counties- but that wasn’t always the case. There definitely used to be communists in Whitley County, and they definitely didn’t used to be free, all because of King Coal and his feudalistic kingdoms in the Appalachian Coal Fields. 

God wouldn’t want poor people destroyed

Reminder that the main inspiration and source for these installments is They Say in Harlan County- An Oral History – Alessandro Portelli, which I highly recommend.

According to Portelli’s interviews, faith and the bible was and is used to justify views on nearly everything, especially which side of the labor dispute to pledge loyalty to. “We need [Bibles] right along with the union. They’s three things I will stand for. That’s the bible and church, and my union, and God. I’m still union, still believe in my Bible.” This view is widely shared, “I think they got the principle of the union from Christianity. And, to be honest with you, I think just as much of my union as I do religion… it’s a blessing to have both.” 

Eli Sanders; Pentecostal Church of God & tipple worker and track loader at P V & K Coal Company 1946

Portelli, a Roman Catholic who visited Harlan County on and off for over a decade from his home in Italy to gather the stories of the people there, was mesmerized yet unaffected by the religious fervor he saw in Harlan during his visits in the 80’s-2000’s. He was careful to sit back as an impartial observer but was obviously turned off by some of what he clearly viewed as showmanship. His respect and distancing as an anthropologist only faltered once in the book, when he tells of a day when he was pulled up on stage by a preacher hoping to put him into a spiritually transformative trance. He resisted. Afterwards he wrote in the book, “You don’t imagine how far I am from you, sister. Not because I don’t believe in your God, but because I can see this is not about God but your pride.”

One particularly influential religious ideology in the area, one which tended to be fervently pro-union, were snake handling denominations. I want to be careful here, this shouldn’t be read as ‘all Appalachian Christians go to snake handling churches’, and I don’t want to paint a caricature of what these people do, but it did happen and continues to happen in certain areas, though rarely. The idea was that pastors and other church members would handle venomous snakes, convinced that god would protect them from being bit. If they were bit, god would then spare them from expiring due to the venom. And if they did pass, god must have simply been calling them home. It should be noted that snake handling is only a small part of these religious services, it is not the only thing these people believe in. However it dominated perceptions of religion in the region. It was a testament of faith and a masterclass in showmanship. The followers of these churches tended to be extremely devout and loyal to their congregation. The community in these tight-knit denominations made them key in standing up in the fight to organize for workers rights.

This is a popular picture of a snake handling service going on in Harlan, Kentucky in the 1940’s. Pulled from the Wikipedia article on the subject of snake handling in religion.

Harlan county is boasted, by its residents, as a welcoming home to “all faiths”. One should keep in mind that “all faiths” largely means all christian faiths. There are endless denominations of protestants and a fairly large contingent of Catholics. Historically the Catholics were treated extremely poorly, especially if they were migrants from Ireland or Italy. So, not exactly “all faiths” were “welcome”, unless you’re willing to relax the definitions of some key words. But knowing one’s religion was an everyday part of life in this region, especially when your brand of religion was used to assume your loyalties to one side of the labor or environmental dispute over another.

The various divides between denominations and their siding with union or management still exists today, the question of ‘Which side are you on?’ can be easily guessed based on what church one attends. “Unto this day, for example during the strip mine struggles in the mountains, the mainline churches…the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian- all side with management…” but smaller communities like the Pentecostals and, it seems, the Catholics tend to side with the miners “Cause God wouldn’t want poor people destroyed.”

“We is free”, God and Communism, Rednecks and Redbaiting

“In the late sixties, when all my friends were quoting Mao…”

From pouring through various sources, it seems that religion is what is responsible for keeping the Appalachian region from turning into a bastion of socialism/communism in the early 20th century. Communist organizers eventually gave up there because of the firewall put up by the church and the association with the godless Soviet uprising. But union organizers still saw promise- “The miners are more religious than any other body of proletarians… The religious character of these proletarians would offer a splendid opportunity for emergence of a real proletarian religion.” But that eventuality did not come to pass.

“In the late sixties, when all my friends were quoting Mao…” is hardly a sentence you expect to see spoken of a longtime Kentucky resident. “Lenin has become a kind of hero” is also very surprising to hear, but these sentiments were not uncommon. Before they were ultimately (and soundly) rejected after WWII, the communist party and communist sentiments were very prevalent in Kentucky in the Appalachian region. In 1931 as much as 1000 Harlan residents were registered, card carrying communist party members, which was about 2-3% of the population. While this is not exactly a majority, it remains a sizable portion considering there were likely many more sympathizers and more casual supporters who were not officially registered*. Mistreatment by company bosses drove many people’s politics into the red, which projected a similarly crimson tint on the culture of the area. Sarah Ogan of Harlan wrote and popularized the song I Hate The Capitalist System in the 1930s.

*For reference, the Libertarian party had roughly 500,000 officially registered members nationally in 2016 but the Libertarian presidential candidate received almost 4.5 million votes.

“They said I’m communist again”

The booming economy of the 1920’s hid a lot of underlying issues with unions and management in most mining communities, especially southern Appalachian mining camps which for one reason or another were slower to unionize. Coal prices were relatively high because of demand, despite the creeping dominance of oil on the world stage as the primary energy source. There were labor disputes on things like pay and safety during this time but they would soon turn much worse when the Great Depression was at its peak. Southern Appalachian coal companies did whatever they could to hold off unionizing. Petitioning, lobbying or simply bribing the government worked for a time, but the socialist and communist parties started gaining strength in statehouses and county governments. The tide of public opinion needed to be reversed.

This image is of Mother Jones, a pro-union organizer who was famous all over the US and in some parts of the world during the early 20th century, speaking to miners in a camp in Eskdale, West Virginia. It is of little coincidence that the entire community is being brought around the church.

Redbaiting* is a term used to describe the logical fallacy of accusing one’s opponent of being a socialist or communist. Its effectiveness in getting organizers to stop talking waxed and waned throughout the 20th century, but it was quite effective against the background of religion, and opponents of unions were well aware of that fact. “All union organization work in eastern Kentucky was promptly branded ‘Red’ and propaganda and action to root out the ‘Red menace’ began”. In company towns, which were privately owned and largely viewed as being outside the laws of the states they were in**, work was done to halt the spread of these ideas at whatever cost. Holding literature was tantamount to criminal syndicalism. Assemblies were illegal. At least half of the Bill of Rights was up for review in some coal camps. In 1931, thanks to a campaign led by notorious Harlan Sheriff, JH Blair, the National Miners Union was branded communist, and were dismissed in the realm of public opinion as outside, godless agitators. The eventual turn of opinion was surprisingly fast, considering when they initially reached out, they received 4,000 applications in the first week.

*I saw this referred to somewhere else as Reductio ad Stalinum
**The legality of this claim is ludicrous, but nobody seemed to care at the time?

The term redneck was brought back into the vernacular during this time. The term described the appearance of someone who worked outside all day and got sunburned on their neck, but the meaning behind the word was more dismissive, as the Oxford dictionary defines it, “a working-class white person, especially a politically reactionary one from a rural area”.* The term would evolve and essentially flip over time. I’m sure socialists in America today would say one of their biggest challenges would be to get the support of “rednecks”, but 90 years ago that’s exactly what they would be.

*Reactionary in this sense seems to perfectly capture the condescension of people who end up influencing official definitions

The following dissertation excerpt is from the book Harlan Miners Speak, written by many authors, but mainly Theodore Dreiser. I will always point out that while it is a primary source it is likely a very biased one:

“They called me a red neck.”
Is that a communist?
Did they threaten you?
“They said there would be trouble if I mixed with those reds.”

Miners sometimes bought into this and showed solidarity by wearing red handkerchiefs as a sign of union support. They would be worn proudly around their necks, or in back or breast pockets. This open pride in a fringe political movement seems unthinkable in this region today. The stigma against communism up until the 1930’s just wasn’t as strong, and it likely would not have existed at all if not for the campaign to paint communists and their sympathizers, sometimes correctly so, as godless agitators.

Rednecks showing off their red bandanas

“There would be bonfires of rejoicing in Moscow”

The effectiveness of this campaign to paint unionizers as communists increased after the rise of Soviet Russia as a true global threat. As has been mentioned before, in the 30’s the communist label wasn’t so toxic but by the 60’s it had become very effective. One organizer was interrupted by a worker who wanted to clear one thing up first, “Look, if you’re Communists, tell us now. We believe in what you’re doing, but if you’re Communists that’s not the direction that we’re headed.” 

An organizing committee, the Appalachian Volunteers saw pushback as they were soundly rejected despite their efforts to organize against the layoffs and abuses of companies as they transitioned to mechanized and strip mining. They were again called outsiders, a new accusation of them being racial integrationists was thrown in, and, above all, they were called atheists. When strip mining was being protested, the Kentucky Un-American Activities Committee prosecuted and had protesters thrown in jail for sedition and attempting to overthrow the government of Pike county.

The unionizing effort stalled out. The firewall of fierce religiosity stopped the flow of socialist and communist ideologies gripping the area, but only in name. The title of communist was toxic, but people in the region today are still fiercely pro-union. They agree with many ideals that a socialist would call for, but would never be caught dead associating with someone who would identify as such. It’s another contradiction that some Kentuckians still have to this day. Most working class people in Appalachia have turned their hate from capitalism in general to the company bosses, which is a much easier pill to swallow. You don’t have to be a commie to get screwed by your boss.

Sarah Ogan, the previously mentioned writer and performer of the song “I Hate the Capitalist System” saw her own volition for the socialist cause ground down over time by the redbaiting campaign. In her older age, desperate to not be remembered in history as a “godless communist” she changed the title of her most well known song to “I hate the Company Bosses” when she rerecorded it later in the 60s.

Ogan’s original anti-capitalist song was recorded by Alan Lomax during his run of field recordings of American folk music during the 1930’s for the Library of Congress. The 60’s, totally-not-communist version of the song was fittingly recorded by a private company, Folk Legacy Recordings, Inc.. Funny enough, the new version is now in the government’s hands as FLR’s entire catalogue was gifted to the Smithsonian in 2019.

The slow, steady public opinion campaign against Appalachian socialism is essentially the model for changing attitudes over long periods of time. The persistence and tying the cause to religious sentiments would be mirrored, whether by accident or on purpose, by the national Republican Party in its southern strategy campaign starting in the 60’s.

It is likely that without the national 2nd red scare and the rising tension of the Cold War that this influence campaign against socialism would have failed, but obviously it didn’t. The boogeyman of Stalin and potential spreading the Red Menace was enough to build up the patriotism of Appalachian residents and get them to turn on the organizers who moved into their areas. Progressing from the turn of the 20th century up through today, putting out statements like ‘There would be bonfires of rejoicing in Moscow if the battle of Evarts defendants were acquitted’ became more and more effective. And you might be thinking, ‘What the hell is the battle of Evarts?’. Well, the unionists, socialists and communists weren’t going to get pushed out of Appalachia without a fight.

The next installment of Dark as a Dungeon will be all about the Coal Wars.

“We is free”, God and Communism, Rednecks and Redbaiting

End of Part 3

Link to Part 1
Link to Part 2
Link to Part 4


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