Saving Blair Mountain: Hundreds March in West Virginia

 @MarkJohansonIBT on June 07 2011 10:38 AM

(FLICKR/U.S.
(FLICKR/U.S. National Archives)

This week, environmentalists, historic preservationists and others are retracing the steps of miners who battled police and armed guards on Blair Mountain back in 1921.  The conflict was the largest armed uprising since the Civil War and it only ended when federal troops intervened. 

The protesters hope to tell the story of the 10,000 unionizing coal miners who fought for principles that would help shape today's U.S. labor laws.  Additionally, they hope to keep Blair Mountain from becoming yet another barren, flat-topped strip mine.

According to the Appalachia Rising: March on Blair Mountain's website, the march is a peaceful, unifying event involving environmental justice organizations, union workers, scholars, artists, and other citizen groups.

They argue, Today, Blair Mountain, like dozens of other historic mountains throughout the region, is being threatened by mountaintop removal and it is here that a new generation of Appalachians takes a stand. By working to preserve this mountain we are demanding an end to the destructive practices of MTR that threatens to strip Central Appalachia of its history, its economic potential and its health.

Mountaintop removal mining is the practice of blasting off the tops of mountains so machines called draglines can mine coal deposits.  The mountaintops are then dumped into nearby valleys and streams to create valley fills, converting mountain landscapes covered in hardwood forest into fields of grass.

Opponents of the practice argue that over 1,000 miles of streams have been buried by strip mine waste in Appalachia.  In West Virginia alone, 75 percent of the streams and rivers are polluted by mining and other industries.

The reality is, well over 50 percent of U.S. energy is powered by coal and West Virginia alone has an estimated 4 percent of the world's total stock of this non-renewable resource.

The march to Blair Mountain is just as much a referendum on the environmental impact of this practice as it is a fight to preserve a slice of American history.  Participants in this week's 5-day march seek to protect the historic battlefield by putting it on the National Register of Historic Places.  Such a designation would not automatically stop mining, but it would certainly hinder and slow it down during the review process.

Surprisingly, the battlefield on Blair Mountain was once briefly on the National Register of Historic Places.  It was later removed by a federal law that bars sites from inclusion if the majority of the landowners object.  After a review of the dissenters, state and federal agencies reviewing the case ruled that the opponents dominated.

The 2011 memorial march began on Monday in Marmet and will continue over 50 miles and 5 days, traversing narrow country roads where the coal trucks are an everyday reminder of the conflict at hand.  Today's marchers have with them a slew of support vehicles including a trailer with portable toilets and others loaded with food, water, backpacks, and sleeping bags.

The route is the same one the miners took in the summer of 1921.

At the heart of the conflict back in in the early '20s, the miners asked for the right to be paid by the hour and not by the ton.  They wanted a week that lasted 5 days and not 7.  And, they wanted black miners and white miners to be paid the same.

At least 16 men perished in the event before the miners surrendered to federal troops on September 5, 1921.

If you'd like to learn more about the march go to marchonblairmountain.org.

 

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