IN THE SUMMERS of 1920 and 1921 southern West Virginia was the scene of some of the most historically significant unrest in U.S. history. Yet today this history has been largely forgotten. Although I was raised in West Virginia, I first learned about these events as a nearly grown man when I saw the movie Matewan, John Sayles's cinematic vision of the seminal events of the mine wars.
In the Battle of Matewan, union coal miners fought Baldwin-Felts "private detectives" who had been hired to evict union miners from company housing. Several men died, including the mayor of the town of Matewan. Police chief Sid Hatfield (yes, of those Hatfields) became a folk hero. He was later indicted on murder charges in nearby McDowell County and shot, as they say, "in cold blood," by company detectives on the courthouse steps. This event, in combination with the imprisonment of some union organizers, led to the climactic Battle of Blair Mountain, in which union miners, having disregarded President Warren G. Harding's demand that they return to their "homes," confronted the U.S. military.
One would think that an armed insurrection would have been prominently displayed in the West Virginia history class one takes as an eighth-grader. It was not. Which is not to say I had no idea that strange and violent things had taken place in the 50 years or so when my coal-mining grandfather was moving from abject poverty to relative prosperity. There were occasions, I was told, when it was necessary for him and others to travel to work armed with rifles. There was the time he had beaten a mine foreman to within an inch of his life for admonishing my one-armed great-grandfather for his slow pace in loading coal. And there was another time, decades later, when that same foreman showed up on my grandfather's front porch seeking his forgiveness.
These stories, however, seem to have taken place on another planet. They are alien not only because of the nakedness and the nearness of their violence (it happened here?), but also because most of us have little experience with the kind of poverty that could produce it. More than that, the stories seem alien because we'd rather not face the history of violence which underpins our use of electricity. When any of us flips a light switch, that electricity is underwritten in part by the violence I've described. In other words, electricity runs on coal, but coal production runs on bygone violence. The mine wars, the schemes to deprive local Appalachians of the mineral rights to their lands (an injustice which has never been put right), workplace injustice and the struggle to right it are the constitutive violences of the coal and electric power industry.
This violent history also remains hidden because it is clothed in relative prosperity; it's no longer naked in the way it was 80 or 90 years ago, and it's therefore more difficult to talk about. People in Appalachia and elsewhere really are fed, clothed and sheltered well through their work in the coal mines. That's why we don't talk about Blair Mountain in the eighth grade.
Despite the benefits of mining to individual families, West Virginians actually benefit very little from the coal industry. Given the richness of natural resources in West Virginia and the dramatic need for those resources elsewhere, one might expect that public universities in the state would rival the Ivy League. They do not. One might also expect that the last thing such places would require is state-funded taxing of the poor in the form of gambling and lotteries to subsidize the state budget. But strangely they do. For some reason this kind of injustice remains difficult for many to see.
Recently, however, the violence of electricity production has once more become starkly visible, as it renders our experience of the landscape interplanetary. This new visibility is the product of so-called mountaintop removal methods of coal extraction. …