Protesters begin weeklong march to Blair Mountain
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Protesters from around the country began a 50-mile march to Blair Mountain at a baseball field in Marmet on Monday morning.
Two coal companies, Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal, own much of the mountain. The companies plan to surface-mine the land, which was the site of a bloody union protest in 1921.
The modern marchers sang a few rally songs before leaving the ball field, including "This Little Light of Mine." They waved signs, too: "Don't Strip Our History, Save Blair Mountain," "Abolish Mountaintop Removal," "Mingo Mountain, Destroyed," "Big Branch, Destroyed" and "Appalachia Deserves A Clean Local Economy."
The throng received honks from some passing motorists and jeers from others. The march slowed southbound traffic to a crawl through the town.
A pair of protesters banged on hand drums as they marched through town. Some wore red bandannas around their necks, advertising the event as a "red neck march." Some believe the term "red neck" originated at the Battle of Blair Mountain as a derogatory term for the marching union supporters.
The group moved along MacCorkle Avenue through Marmet before turning onto W.Va. 94 toward Racine. Marchers camped near Racine Monday night.
Laurel Whitney, 26, of New York City, estimated the size of the group at 300.
Press releases for the march predicted "upwards of 500" participants would join the protest. Whitney, a press liaison for the march, said the group expects to have between 700 and 1,000 marchers by the time it reaches Blair Mountain.
"It will gain more people as the week goes on," she said.
In August 1921, thousands of coal miners from Boone, Fayette, Kanawha, Mingo, McDowell and Logan counties gathered in Marmet. They planned to march to Logan and Mingo and free jailed union members there, according to an article in the West Virginia Encyclopedia.
The group never made it there. State police dispatched by Gov. Ephraim Morgan, along with volunteer militiamen and coal company employees, met the miners at Blair Mountain, where the two sides clashed. Several people died in the conflict, but no exact death toll was recorded, according to the encyclopedia.
At Morgan's request, President Warren G. Harding sent in 2,500 federal troops to stop the battle. Hundreds of miners were charged with various crimes, and most were given minor sentences.
Chuck Keeney helped organize the protest on Monday. Keeney, a history professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, is also the great-grandson of Frank Keeney. Frank was the United Mine Workers of America president from 1917 to 1924 and led the 1921 Blair Mountain march.
Although marchers are calling for an end to all mountaintop removal in addition to Blair Mountain's preservation, Keeney says his interest is purely historical.
"I'm not an environmentalist. I'm a historian," he said.
Keeney said Blair Mountain is "the most important historical site in our state."
"I don't understand why any West Virginian . . . would want our history destroyed," he said. "If you want to destroy Blair Mountain, you can change your name to Rodriguez and move to Michigan."
Terry Steele of Matewan stood along MacCorkle Avenue on Monday morning wearing a UMW cap and holding a UMW sign. The union is not officially participating in the march but supports marchers' fight to preserve Blair Mountain.
Steele, who is retired, worked as an underground coal miner for 26 years. He came out to support the marchers.
"I don't want to see the southern part of our state destroyed," he said.
He said he doesn't consider the protest a challenge to coal miners. Steele, a self-confessed environmentalist, said much of the state's strip-mined land is not being redeveloped.
"This is not about jobs. This is about profit," he said.
Steele was not marching with protesters but plans to join them when they reach Blair Mountain.
Eddy Pendarvis, 66, and Elinor Taylor, 82, both of Huntington, marched near the rear of the group. Taylor says she has fought mountaintop removal mining since the 1980s.
"They say those who don't learn from history are going to start over," Taylor said.
Pandarvis said she's marching to "honor the unions." Her father and two of her uncles worked in the coal industry.
"This is to honor the unions. We don't want to take anybody's jobs," she said.
However, Pandarvis says she opposes both surface and underground mining.
"I think the future is in solar and thermal and wind energy," she said.
She said those beliefs have caused some conflicts in her family, but she hopes that coal supporters and mining protesters "can all find a way to work together."
Pendarvis and Taylor marched through Marmet but didn't plan to walk all the way to Blair Mountain. Pendarvis has a 92-year-old mother to take care of, and Taylor cares for her 96-year-old sister.
Misty Blair of Marmet and a half-dozen friends and family members organized a small counterprotest at a bus stop near Marmet Elementary School. Blair's husband, Steven, works as a roof bolter in an underground mine in nearby Winifrede.
"We're pissed out here," she said.
The group hollered at passing motorists - "Honk to support our miners!" - and held up a pink poster toward the marchers. It read: "Our miners power your houses."
"They don't understand our way of life," said Sue Martin, Blair's aunt. "We're upset they let them stay in town."
The counterprotesters said the marchers enjoy the benefits of coal-powered electricity while opposing coal mining.
"They like to take a bath, don't they?" Jennifer Foster said.
"They're hypocrites," Blair said.
Marmet police, Kanawha County sheriff's deputies and West Virginia State Police accompanied the marchers. Some members of the group carried stop signs, but police made them put away the signs, fearing motorists would become confused.
Marmet Police Chief Fred Maynor said the protests "caused no problems at all, traffic or otherwise." Maynor, a retired coal miner, said some members of the group camped near the march's Marmet headquarters and others stayed in Kanawha City Sunday night.
"It went smoother than I thought it would," he said.
Organizers could not specify the roads the marchers would take toward Blair Mountain, saying they would decide the exact routes each day. They plan to arrive in Logan County on Saturday.
Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or firstname.lastname@example.org.