Ã¯Â»Â¿photographs by ARTHUR TRESS
As their homes deteriorated, their clothes turned to shreds, and their faces became pinched with'famine, and reddened with scurvy, the camp people became objects of detestation rather than pity. The operators scorned them as trash--as contemptible as the black strikebreakers they sometimes imported from Alabama and Mississippi. As starvation and outrage drove the miners to mutiny, the companies recruited an army of "thugs" to "preserve law and order."
JLhere was little hesitation in choosing between penniless coal diggers and their ragged women and children on the one hand and a huge industrial complex marshaled by Fords, Mellons, Insulls, Rockefellers, and lesser barons on the other. Judges, sheriffs, prosecuting attorneys, legislators, the governor, and the state attorney general closed ranks to protect property against the pro-pertyless. Kiwanians and Rotarians, the Chamber of Commerce, the churches and their fanatically "patriotic" preachers and priests, all were as one in their resolve that the order built by coal would be preserved regardless of its cost in human suffering.
The Soviet Union was then just fourteen years old and America was in the grip of a prolonged anticommunist hysteria. Unlike the McCarthy years, the earlier redbaiting era had few voices to challenge the Ku Kluxers, the fascists, the racial bigots, the anti-evolutionists, the frightened industrialists, and the bankrupting businessmen who sought a scapegoat. In Harlan the scapegoat became "the reds": Anyone who wanted labor union labor, improved working conditions, and some check on the power of money was a communist.
Out of the turbulence of the Anarchist movement had come a law against "criminal syndicalism. " The statute became a crown of thorns pressed down with unspeakable cruelty on the brows of the county's 11, 500 coal miners.
Under John L. Lewis the UMW of A, too, was viciously anticommunist. It had a thirst for dues from miners who were too poor to part with even $Z. 00 a month. It consistently failed to support miners in the east Kentucky field when they struck for higher pay--though those nonunion miners had launched more than one sympathy strike to show solidarity with the UMW. The union was su-
premely undemocratic, operating under emergency rules that permitted Lewis to appoint "provisional" district officers. This labor dictatorship had little appeal when it returned, with tacit industry support, to launch a new membership drive.
The drive was a counter to organizing efforts undertaken by the National Miners Union in January, 1931. An offshoot of the American Communist Party, the NMU struck horror into the heart of the Harlan County estab-li shment.
Under the banner of "industrial democracy, " the NMU organizers went to work along the smoke-darkened hollows, in the hunger-pinched camps, along the dusty tunnels of the mines, and wherever the haggard wives of coal diggers got together. The result was a surge of enlistments in both the NMU and its ladies' auxiliary.
The companies and their allies reacted by creating a police state which, for all practical purposes, ignored both the Constitution and statutes of the United States. Sheriff J.H. Blair (a distant relative of this reviewer) appointed as deputies the scores of gunmen imported by the companies. They wore the badges of public lawmen but their salaries, jackboots, uniforms, motorcycles, and submachine guns were supplied by the coal association. Led by a subsidiary of United States Steel, the coal men fought a brutal battle against the NMU -- and later the UMW -- that lasted a decade and cost unnumbered lives.
Blair was elected with association money in 1929. Circuit Judge D. C. "Baby" Jones had found a wife and ideological inspiration in one of the county's major coal families. Commonwealth Attorney William Brock's obsession was communist "literature, " which he was rabidly determined to keep out Of the hands of the miners.
As jails filled with political prisoners, a few people paused amid their own troubles to consider the agonies of Harlan County. The chief of these was Theodore Dreiser, then widely acclaimed as the author of An American Tragedy. He conceived the idea of a National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners. Without power to intervene directly and effectively for victims of homegrown tyranny, the committee could nevertheless
continued on page 12