No Neutrals: The Harlan County Miner’s Strike of 1931

Harlan County Minders President William Hightower — Patrick Hyde’s Great-Great Uncle — was wrongly imprisoned on false murder charges and released after several years in prison following hearings by the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee of the United States Senate

“They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there;
You’ll either be a union man
or a thug for J.H. Blair

Tell me, which side are you on?
Which side are you on?”

— Florence Reece, 19311

Introduction: Harlan in the Camera eye

1917. Wartime. Harlan’s black diamonds make up for Britain’s idle coal industry, fire steel foundries in Michigan, draw mountain folk from all over Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Employment and prosperity…Irish, Welsh, Scottish immigrants, ex-sharecropper negroes all have employment, all make money. Morgan, Ford, Insull, Mellon, Rockefeller all make money in Harlan.

1920s. Peacetime. British mines resume production. Great lakes steel foundries experiment with petroleum fuel. I.C.C. raises rail rates. Wages are cut and cut and cut and…meat is substituted with beans and cornbread. Beans and cornbread are substituted with Red Violet tops and greens.

1929. Miners receive still another financial blow…a crash upon what is broken. 2“Spindle-legged children, hollow chested and with sunken cheeks cling to their mothers’ garments and stand listlessly in the yards of their homes.” February, 1931: due to a raise in operating costs the Harlan County Coal Operators Association has decided that workers shall receive a 10 percent cut in weekly wages. February, 1931: 3If you starve while you work why not strike while you starve?

Florence Reece


Before 1910 Harlan County, in southeastern Kentucky, was an undeveloped rural area. Living apart from the rest of the world, the people in this nook of Appalachia were an inbred population of the same social type as the Hatfields and the McCoys. Discussing the mountaineers of southern Kentucky, Malcolm Ross states that “[i]nto modern times they remained under pioneer conditions, living on sowbelly and greens and singing old English ballads up remote mountain hollows.”1 Many Harlan County families lived from the produce of small hill farms. In 1910 five small family-operated coal mines existed there.2

These Appalachians were not disposed towards complex economic development schemes. Harlan’s local power structure included a circuit court judge, a sheriff, and a police force. Small fundamentalist congregations were scattered throughout the County, perhaps in contraposition to the one existing industrial innovation: the still. With few industrial additions Harlan’s hill people had lived their lives apart from the rhythms of the Guilded Age.

A quiet move: The Wisconsin Steel Company, a subsidiary of Morgan-McCormick International Harvester Company, bought several thousand acres of Harlan County.3 A few years later in 1910 the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, with help from the House of Morgan, built a small extension from its main line to Wisconsin Steel properties. In the next decade the United States Coal and Coke Company, Inc., a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation, bought large amounts of property in Harlan County.

The House of Morgan’s entry set an investment pattern which other large corporate investors, including Insull, Rockefeller, Ford, and Mellon, followed. The large investors rented mines to local operators, delegating management responsibility to small businessmen who were native to Harlan. With the Louisville & Nashville Railroad as a transportation link, a “coal boom” occurred in 1914. War production caused a great demand for coal both in America and in western Europe. The excavation of coal mines was taking place all over the state; Harlan County had the largest mines in Kentucky. Mountaineers from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina flocked to Harlan for prosperous employment.

In 1917 the United Mineworkers of America organized a local union in Harlan County.4 Coal operators readily agreed to a contract. Under the contract agreement, the miners had a right to trade with stores besides those which were employer-owned, and miners were to be paid commission on each tipple of coal loaded. The coal operators violated both contract conditions. Nevertheless, a 1922 United Mineworkers of America agreement renewed the ignored contract. By 1924 the Harlan County United Mineworkers local had slipped into “desuetude.”5

Balloons of Hell

Harlan County’s coal mines opened in 1914 during the height of World War I. Coal demand was high in two major areas.1 Great Lakes industries needed coal for war production. The huge British mining industry shut down during the war, and U.S. coal filled the gap.2 Following the war the demand for U.S. coal declined.3 Four main factors caused a depression in the American coal market: oil, electricity, and other alternative energy sources reduced demand for coal in domestic industry, the British mines re-opened after the war, and Germany was forced to repay some war debts in coal. In addition, rail rates on coal shipments greatly increased during the nineteen-twenties.

In 1931 Karl Myron Scott wrote “the coal industry has not greatly improved since 1919. It is still over-developed, uneconomic and erratically operated.”4 “Erratic operation” resulted from the poor, unstable, competitive market in U.S. coal. Local operators in Kentucky competed for national markets with local operators in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Colorado, and elsewhere. Although all four states had common national-level ownership, the coal mining depression of 1921 was a creation separate from other depressions.5 An excessive number of mines drove the prices down for local operators. In this case Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” allied with a very visible body composed of names such as Morgan, Ford, Rockefeller, Insull, and Mellon. Corporate owners rented mines to the local operators at a set price, and the “invisible hand” kept market prices low.

In the eyes of local coal operators, losses in national and international markets had to be “absorbed: by miners.” Thus an I.C.C. increase raising production costs inevitably meant one thing: reducing wages. From 51921 on miners received cut after cut in wages. During the “good days” of World War I, a Harlan County miner might easily make four or five dollars a day. By 61929 miners often received only eight or nine dollars a week. As conditions grew more difficult coal operators raised rents of the company-owned homes where most miners lived. Miners were forbidden, under threat of being fired, to buy staple products anywhere except at company-owned general stores. Prices at the general stores were ten and often twenty percent higher than at other Harlan County stores. Miners were paid in 7“script”, a company money redeemable only at company stores. At the end of a week workers often received bills from the company informing them how much, in addition to the total of week’s wages, they owed the company.

The local operators were small businessmen attempting to realize profits from coal fiefs. One such local coal operator was 8“Uncle Bob” Creech. Uncle Bob paid rent to his mine’s 9“New York owner.” National reporter Byars saw Uncle Bob as one of 10many operators who was “under duress to do certain things to their workers…and do them.” Uncle Bob was not seen as a cruel or even unkind man, yet he had a business to run and he ran it. Corporate owners viewed Uncle Bob as a model boss because of his efficiency. When asked about labor unions Bob said 11“they’ll bring a union in here over my dead body…I would rather close this mine forever…I will never submit to a union.” A Harlan coal miner described Uncle Bob as a reasonable man full of sympathy for miners. Upon describing Bob’s sympathy the miner looked at his own thin, half-naked child and said “hit don’t go very far do hit?”

The forty-five thousand members of Harlan’s mining force were in a position where their wages decreased drastically as living costs increased. As the twenties progressed, conditions grew worse, forcing families to survive on Red Violet tops, lettuce, and wild greens. Many coal miners could not afford coal, and resorted to searching the railroad tracks for 12stray coal that had fallen from the coal train. Families set up shanty town tent communities after eviction from their homes. One vacant barn in Harlan County became the home of 28 evicted persons. Coal miners reduced production, and cut both wages and employees. Harlan’s mountaineers grew ever more gaunt and pale as the nineteen-twenties crept by and the thirties began.

Alcoholism, Saturday night gun brawls, knife fights, outbursts of desperation and a general social malaise filled the air of Harlan. People did not simply go hungry; they starved. People did not simply suffer; they died. In 13February of 1931 the town of Carry averaged seven child deaths per week. Pellagra, flux, and “miner’s asthma” made death an everyday occurrence in the mining communities.

Throughout Harlan female-dominated fundamentalist congregations prayed and sang for help every night. Despite appeals to the king of man the laissez-faire king of supply & demand laid out his solemn dictum of maximization bringing down a solemn judgement on Harlan’s mining community. Suffering and early death was the plight of the Harlan County working class.

Mining Camp Homes


Harlan mines neared bankruptcy in 1931. Mine operators formed the 1Harlan County Coal Operators Association and through this organization made collective decisions concerning the mines. Destitute miners were in no position to take a 2wage cut; yet, in February of 1931 the newest in a long series of wage cuts occurred, reducing miners’ weekly pay by 10 percent.

Though the United Mine Workers of America had been absent since 1924 a few inactive union members remained in Harlan. The February 1931 wage cut boosted a fresh wave of union organizing. Concealed, low voiced meetings occurred in private homes.

3Mine operators easily accepted a United Mine Workers Contract in the “good times” of 1917 when a strike could have crippled profit attainment. In the “hard times” period of 1931 Harlan coal operators found it most profitable to resist all unionization. Operators could not recognize the demands of a union and also profitably compete in a market based on nonunion coal prices. Local coal operators were in financial trouble even without a union.

Rumors of unionization spread panic through the Harlan County Coal Operators Association. Judge 4Davie Crockett Jones, whose wife was a member of the operators association, declared all unionizing activity to be illegal under the 1920 Kentucky Criminal Syndicalism Law. The main part of that law states:

“Any person who, by word of mouth or 5writing, advocates the propriety of doing any act of violence as a means of establishing any political ends, change or revolution; or who publicly displays any printed matter suggesting the doing of any act of physical violence, the destruction of or damage to any property as a means of bringing about any political revolution, or who shall attempt to justify by word of mouth, or voluntary assemblies with any society which advocates physical violence as a means of accomplishing any political ends is guilty of a felony and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by imprisonment in the state penitentiary for a term of not more than twenty-one years, or by a fine of not more than $10,000, or both.”

Malcolm Ross noted that with the Criminal Syndicalism Law it was possible 6“to send a man to jail for twenty-one years for possession of a picture advocating direct action to change the form of government of the state of Kentucky.” A broad based interpretation of this law,7 as well as the “artificial assistance” that hired testimony provided, gave local coal operators a powerful legal weapon which could be, and was, used to repress union organizing in Harlan. Sheriff John Henry Blair and his deputies, alerted by the talk of labor organizing, began to scour the hills of Harlan County in search of “criminal syndicalists.”

Despite threats, union organization8 in Harlan grew by the day. Local organizers conducted small clandestine meetings all over the county and formed a decentralized pro-union movement by early March of 1931. Having organized this movement, local organizers approached William Turnblazer, head of District 19 of the United Mineworkers of America, asked for recognition, and demanded assistance from the national union. In later March of 1931 Federal United Mine Workers came publicly into Harlan and held a mass rally9 supporting unionization. Miners who attended the rally were automatically fired, blacklisted, and told to “get out of Harlan.” 10Shortly after the rally, 35 private houses belonging to union sympathizers simultaneously burned down.

Union organization continued on a more public level. A second mass union support rally took place in the Harlan town La Follette. United Mine Workers official William Turnblazer headed this rally. Turnblazer and Kentucky Congressman Will Tailor gave impassioned speeches denouncing coal mine conditions and miners’ pay. 11The speakers urged miners to sign up in the United Mine Workers, 12which also entailed paying a membership cost. Turnblazer promised miners relief from the federal union in the event of a strike. The effect of the federal U.M.W. rallies was to provide a strong centralizing force for a previously decentralized movement, and to greatly increase the number of individuals involved in that movement.

Shortly after the second mass rally 11,000 Harlan miners went out on strike. Violent confrontations between the miners and Blair’s deputies attracted state and national attention.13 The federal United Mine Workers did not follow the pledge to provide food for strikers. After the second rally the federal U.M.W. backed away from its prior pledges, and functioned as an absentee pacifying force. It is difficult to discern continuity in the federal U.M.W. positions during the span of the coal strike.

Without food from the federal U.M.W., local strikers had no outside source to help provide food. Appeals to the Red Cross for assistance were futile as the Red Cross did not consider the coal strike to be a 14“natural emergency.” Non-mining church congregations in Harlan County were not sympathetic to the needs of strikers. When requested to aid a seriously ill woman in a miner’s community, a doctor replied 15“aw, let those people go to work like decent folk and don’t bother me with any more calls.” Without local help, without federal help and without food, hungry strikers staged raids on company 16owned stores. To resist these raids, Sheriff Blair increased his staff of deputies. Private companies hired guards from Chicago’s Italian17 population and from 18Kentucky and West Virginia prisons. A well known guard was Bill Randolph. American Civil Liberties Union Worker Arnold Johnson19 stated that “(f)acing a fourth murder charge in another Kentucky County, Randolph was released by the operators on $25,000 bond to become a…‘deputy’ in Harlan.” It is difficult to imagine the legal steps through which a man waiting to come to trial for a dancehall murder in Pikeville, Kentucky, suddenly becomes a mine guard in Harlan County, Kentucky. Yet Randolph was released on bond and hired as a guard by the 3 Point Coal Company, a company owned and operated by the brother-in-law of Judge D.C. Jones. Shortly after being hired, Randolph walked into a lunch room known to house union meetings and shot proprietor Joe Chasteens. Randolph was arrested, indicted by the regular grand Jury, and then cleared of all charges as his shooting was in self defense. 21Joe Chasteens died from a bullet wound in his back.

On May 4, 1931 the “Battle of Evarts” established the Harlan County coal strike as one of the most closely watched strikes in America. The 22battle occurred when a committee of union organizers confronted Sheriff Blair demanding a discussion of harassments and threats made by deputized mine guards. While speaking with Sheriff Blair, several carloads of deputies arrived with machine guns and rifles. Armed strikers and deputies fought a thirty-minute gun battle which left three guards and one miner dead. After the battle thirty-four miners and no deputies were arrested and charged with murder. Soon after 100 more miners were arrested and charged with criminal syndicalism. The quiet hill county was now known throughout the United States as “bloody Harlan.”

The 23thirty-four men arrested and charged with murder contained in their ranks the top leaders of the Harlan strike. Labor leaders Hightower and Jones24 sat in prison waiting for trial and sentencing for deaths in a battle which both men claimed they were not participants in. Yet both men were found guilty. As weeks passed more and more strikers were arrested for criminal syndicalism. Harlan’s jails were packed.

The federal United Mine Workers refused to legitimize the Harlan strike. Finally William Turnblazer declared that the Harlan Strike was an illegal “wildcat” strike. Federal U.M.W. officials supported Governor Sampson’s decision to send 400 National Guardsmen into Harlan County. Upon entering Harlan the National Guardsmen set about “maintaining order” by jailing more local 25union organizers. Harlan’s strikers were distraught by the actions of the federal U.M.W.

Without the centralizing force of the federal U.M.W. the strikers divided into numerous small union pockets. Local United Mine Workers attempted to maintain their organization. Continued U.M.W. allegiance was only partial as many strikers felt abandoned by the federal U.M.W. Radical labor unions entered Harlan as early as May of 1931.26 An International Workers of the World charter was found in a raid on local U.M.W. headquarters. Membership in the Harlan I.W.W. is estimated to have been two hundred miners at most. The National Miners Union entered Harlan in June of 1931. N.M.U. organizers set up a soup kitchen, and an N.M.U. Woman’s Auxiliary. Shortly after the N.M.U. arrival the International Labor Defense sent representatives into Kentucky to aid striking miners in both Harlan and Bell counties.

In the summer of 1931 coal strikes were occurring all over Kentucky, but they lacked a central organizing force. Harlan might have been the focal point for a coal strikers’ united coalition; however, the strike never really recentralized after the federal U.M.W. left Harlan. A dispute between the I.W.W. and the N.M.U. added division to decentralization.27

Religious Ritual

“Snake doctors imported from New York were tearing up the countryside…there are no labor troubles…everyone is happy.”28 Sheriff John Henry Blair’s verbiage was not borne out by his day to day activities. Arnold Johnson estimated that Blair had 65 deputies and from 150 to 200 undercover workers.29 Coercive forces in favor of the operators association guarded company property, attempting to prevent unionizing efforts and to coerce striking miners to return to work or leave Harlan. These forces were also directed at visiting newspaper reporters and writers.

From June to November of 1931 writers from all over America went to Harlan. The most notable group to enter Harlan County was the National Committee for the defense of Political Prisoners, which included Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Bruce Crawford, and Charles Walker. These and other writers suffered many forms of harassment while in Harlan30, such as being beaten31, arrested32, shot, “kidnapped,” and transported to another state.33 The outsiders became objects of local and national criticism. Judge Jones proclaimed that Harlan did not “need anyone from Russia or any warped, twisted individuals from New York to tell us how to run our government.”34 Despite proclamations and threats, reporters continued to come to Harlan. In the summer of 1931 Federated Press reporter Jesse O’Connor received a telegram message from the United Press office: “Our correspondent was shot out of Harlan. Can you resist going in?”35

Laying on of Hands, Religious Ritual

When the radical unions began a strong organizing drive, Sheriff Blair’s deputies launched an all-out assault. They dispersed union meetings with tear gas. There was a mysterious bombing of the National Miner’s Soup Kitchen.36 Judge Jones made liberal use of the Criminal Syndicalism Law to jail unionizers. The Harlan County coal strike took on the character of a “symbolic event” in the national media to be analyzed and argued about, and to be put into a larger national and international frame. The Harlan County strike became a functional myth for a left wing ideological statement about America in 1931. But to a starving striker the national media meant little. Also, Judge Jones was not impressed by the presence in his county of several of the most famous writers of the Twentieth Century.

A reign of terror spread through Harlan County. On 37July 20, 1931, deputies raided the home of union organizer Bill Duncan. They dynamited member Jessee Wakefield’s car while it sat in front of a National Miner’s Union Soup Kitchen. Deputized guards waited for labor organizer Sam Reece outside his home. Mrs. Florence Reece was inspired to write her famous song claiming that in Harlan County there 38were “no neutrals.” The Evarts Soup Kitchen was dynamited on August 10 of 1931. The Harlan Jail was packed with strikers who slept on a hard floor and were given 12 cents’ worth of food per day.

New Deals

Nearly 2,000 miners participated in the Harlan County Coal strike. Strikers, strike families, and outside organizers worked day and night to keep the strike alive. Soup kitchens, defense committee funds, national Christian fellowship organizations, and radical labor unions provided food and assistance to striking workers. Despite these efforts the Harlan County coal strike was a failure.

Harlan strike efforts never achieved sufficient centralization after the federal U.M.W. left. Radical labor unions lacked the legitimacy and the organizational efficiency to bind Harlan miners together into a single coalition. Without a strong central coalition strikers had no power base through which to oppose the strong central force of the Harlan County Coal Operators Association. It is clear that the coal operators had a high degree of influence in Harlan County legal affairs. State and national authorities initially acted to maintain the status quo in Harlan, which in effect supported the coal operators. As contrasted with the miners, the mine operators had some reserve of funds with which to endure the strike and also had avenues on the national level for protective funding from mine owners. All of these major points emphasize the odds against a successful coal strike.

The Dreiser Committee and other writers made the Harlan strike into somewhat of a media event. Newspapermen, authors, and zealous youth from elite, private northeastern U.S. universities flocked to the “real life experience” in Harlan County, Kentucky. These visitors were among the alienated intelligentsia of the depression years. Largely because of their writings certain aspects of the Harlan strike are well documented. Yet the short term functional results of academic labor on events in Harlan were limited. In the long run these efforts certainly helped but, people don’t eat “in the long run.”

Dreiser was heavily criticized for his activities in Harlan. Christian Century wrote that: “It would be hard to conceive a more fruitless approach to an important issue than has just been made in Harlan County, Kentucky, by Mr. Dreiser and a group of his friends.” However this common line of criticism was followed by the statement that “in light of the long imprisonment of Arnold Johnson of the American Civil Liberties Union, of the shooting of newspaper correspondents, and of the imprisonment of such large numbers of miners, there would appear to be ample cause for an investigation into the state of law and order in Harlan County.” Along with the Dreiser committee the Christian Century called for an investigation in Harlan. Rheinhold Niebuhr2 led Christian thinkers in demanding a congressional investigation in Harlan.

On February 12, 1932 3national defense committee member Waldo Frank testified before U.S. Senators Costigan, Cutting, and Logan. They assured him that the senate would do everything in its constitutional power on the Harlan County issue. Bernstein 4mentions senate hearings on Harlan. Senate Resolution 178, 72 Congress, 1st session listed several investigatory objectives. I find no evidence of an actual investigation.

In 1933 conditions began to improve in Harlan County, although changes in local power relations were not responsible for this improvement. Previously, mine operators had successfully 5avoided court charges brought against them, national attention had brought no substantial relief to Harlan, and the State Penitentiary contained many strikers convicted of murder and criminal syndicalism. Harlan conditions changed with the passing of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Section 6a of the N.I.R.A. established a code of fair competition under which all employees were guaranteed the right to collective bargaining, the right to join a labor organization of one’s own choosing, the right to minimum pay rates, and the right to set maximum work hours. This “Magna Carta” of labor set federal standards which shortly began to affect labor union organizing in Harlan County.

Labor battles did not end in Harlan after 1933, but miners began to receive concessions from the coal operators as a result of the law. In September7 of 1933 Harlan County recognized the United Mine Workers of America as their official miners’ union. U.M.W. federal officials organized a well knit union network in Harlan, as well as throughout Kentucky, and other coal mining states. 8Ironically the Mayor of Kentucky called out the National Guard in December of 1935 to protect United Mine Workers trapped by deputies in a Harlan County Hotel, and in September of 1935 during a Harlan labor 9dispute. The order forcing coal operators to pay union wages resolved this dispute. Despite these new rights, minors convicted for murder in the “Battle of Evarts” stayed in the penitentiary, denied 10pardon by the governor.

In “Schechter Poultry Corporation V. United States” the Supreme Court declared the National Industrial Recovery unconstitutional as 11the court believed the N.I.R.A. threatened to destroy legal divisions between interstate and intrastate commerce thus overriding the authority of the states. The (Schechter) “sick chicken” decision, involving a New York City poultry code, did not effectively cancel out union guarantees as the Wagner Act restated most…section 7a guarantees in much stronger language. The N.I.R.A. guaranteed an employee the right not to be required to 12“refrain from joining, organizing, or assisting a labor organization” as a condition for employment. Collective bargaining, wage rates, and maximum hours were also guaranteed. As Roosevelt stated when he signed it, the Wagner Act13 “defines, as part of our substantive law, the right of self organization of employees in industry for the right of collective bargaining, and…establishes a National Labor Relations Board to hear and determine cases in which it is charged that this legal right is abridged.” Though the Wagner Act did not provide a minimum wage or maximum hour provision it did restate collective bargaining and unionization guarantees in an even stronger form, a form which withstood the review of America’s highest court.

In May14 of 1937 Harlan County was investigated by the National Labor Relations Board for violations of the Wagner Act. In July15 the N.L.R.B. ordered the Harlan Fuel Company to cease unfair practices against the United Mine Workers. Harlan miners were clearly living better under the New Deal. Mine operators, however, conceded dominance slowly: there was still fighting and shooting in Harlan, miners were still arrested for criminal syndicalism, and court room scenes still reflected less than subtle hints of operators’ influence.

In the 1940s the face of Harlan continued to change. New coal mining methods reduced the need for miners. Industrial centers in Pennsylvania and Ohio provided a chance for mass upward-mobility among Harlan’s young men and women through rural/urban migration. At the Fisher Body Plant in Hamilton, Ohio, for example, there is a very large group of individuals18 who grew up in southeastern Kentucky and became employed at Hamilton General Motors after returning from military service in World War II.

Recently Harlan County has been part of a general area of concern to social work agencies. The Democratic Party’s “War On Poverty” paid special attention to southeastern Kentucky and to a book on the area entitled Night Comes To the Cumberlands19 by Harry Caudill. The hill people of Harlan are still largely poor. Ambitious Appalachians leave. Those who remain seem largely disposed towards the same “pioneering conditions” noted by Malcolm Ross in 1922. Patrick Moynihan20 notes that Harlan has favored the Republican Party in recent years. Concern with air pollution has inspired and made profitable a new surge of mining in Harlan. In the “boom days” of the early twentieth century low sulfur coal was not mined because it is not hot burning as high sulfur coal. Today the low sulfur fuel is increasingly used because its fumes are easier to control and are not as dangerous as the high sulfur fuel. Harlan mines still operate. Because of the New Deal Harlan miners live and work in better conditions.


The story of Harlan County, Kentucky in 1931 approximates a source of mythology for liberal and radical ideologues. The surface presents us with “good guy” and “bad guy” types. The good guys are the starving, oppressed laborers trying to organize a union. The bad guys are the coal operators, visualized as overweight old men wearing black suits and top hat, smoking oversized cigars. Original resources all focus on the sensational “News” events concerning the strike. When mine guards are shot at Evarts, it is reported. When Theodore Dreiser is indicted for adultery, it is reported. Radical newspapers covering the strike also focus on sensational events, and explain these events in terms of class warfare. Simple rhetoric, however, does no justice to the wealth of complexity in Harlan; mythology is no adequate substitute for thought.

One of the more insidious aspects of the “banality of evil” is that those performing what are considered “evil acts” are in fact not creatures from another species, but are real people responding to real pressures in a real environment from a real context of social conditioning. If actions are to be understood outside of convenient stereotypes the relations between sets of actors must be understood. Understanding of these relations depends upon a different level of data from that supplied by available primary and secondary resources. A major variable is the relationship between local coal operators and national mine owners. At least some of the national owners opposed wage cuts. If all national owners opposed wage cuts a model emerges in which, as discussed on page three, these owners maintained an excessive number of mines to drive coal prices down while at the same time opposing wage cuts. In this model the actions of local operators become more understandable.

Also important is the correlation between the national ownership of mines and ownership of the railroads. Raising rail rates may have given a higher margin of profit to national coal mine owners if these persons and corporations also owned the railroads. Again the actions of local operators become more understandable under these conditions. Also as the actions of mine owners may have exploited mine operators so also may the two groups have worked together. The cost of hiring mine guards would be difficult for near bankrupt local operators.

These possible relations need to be investigated and quantified. This quantification and investigation would clarify the substantive causes of the Harlan County coal strike. The relationship between local union organizers and the United Mine Workers also needs clarification. U.M.W. official William Turnblazer appears to have provided a central thrust for Harlan mine unionization and then appears to have denounced what he played the major legitimating leadership role in creating. None of the original or secondary resources have really explained Turnblazer’s action. If the federal United Mine Workers of America were a particular type of “men on the make” and since the U.M.W. did become the legitimate labor union for most coal miners with the passage of the N.I.R.A. and the Wagner Act, then what does this say about the quality or type of unionization legitimated with the New Deal? Is the U.M.W. an aberrant case or one of a uniform type of labor union emerging with the New Deal? Answering these and the above questions depends upon quantifiable information which to date does not seem to have been assembled.

Arnold Johnson declared that 1“Harlan County stands with Sacco-Vanzetti, Mooney-Billings, Centralia, Imperial Valley, Patterson, Lawrence, Scottsboro, and innumerable historic cases revealing the so-called due process of law as tools turned against that portion of the working class which has revolted against…paternalistic dictatorship.” Though, in light of the above discussed operator-owner relationships, we cannot exactly specify who the “paternalistic dictators” were, nonetheless Johnson’s claim bears validity despite its rhetoric. On the other hand Malcolm Ross wrote 2“usually the operators are ordinary businessmen, rather badly frightened by the double threat of financial and physical danger. Too easily do they turn to the protection of legal procedure and hired gun men.” While these two quotes continue to point out already examined ambiguities they also point to an interesting correlation of terms. Given the constraints of the pre-New Deal economy a market slump caused ordinary businessmen to pursue ordinary business practices to an extreme where maximization became blatant exploitation.

The New Deal was federal action attempting to curtail such an extreme, curtailing the maximization of business interests in the Guilded Age with a pluralistic balance of interests in the Keynesian age. Events in Harlan County, Kentucky, from 1914 to 1940 reflect this transition from a society where individuals are free to maximize their interests to a society where groups interact within a regulated, business oriented society.



1. “Which Side Are You On”; copyright Storm King Music, Inc.; 1946


1. “Who Owns the Mines”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; prepared by Members of the National Committee For the Defense of Political Prisoners; Harcourt, Brace And Company; New York, New York; 1932.

2. “A Preacher in Jail”; Christian Century; 8/26/31; Volume 48.

3. Quote, p. 378 from “The Lean Years”; Irving Bernstein; Penguin Books; Baltimore, Maryland; 1966.


1. “Machine Age In the Hills” The Macmillan Company; New York, New York; 1933.

2. “Class War In Kentucky” from “Harlan Miners Speak”, above cited.

3. “Who Owns the Mines” from “Harlan Miners Speak”, above cited.

4. “To The Editor” The Nation; 7/13/32; Volume 135.

5. “A Preacher In Jail” above cited.

Balloons of Hell

1. “Class War In Kentucky”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.

2. “Class War In Kentucky”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.

3. “Class War In Kentucky”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.

4. “Coal Industry and the Coal Miner’s Unions In the United States Since the World War”; Abstract of Doctorate Thesis In Economics, University of Illinois; Urbana, Illinois; 1931.

5. “Class War In Kentucky”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.

6. “Living Conditions In the Coal Fields”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.

7. “The American Standard In the Mines”; from “The Labor Defender”; 1931-32; republished in “Harlan & Bell Kentucky 1931-32”; Appalachian Movement Press, Inc. Huntington, West Virginia; 1972.

8. “Harlan County: An Act of God?” The Nation; 6/15/32; Volume 134.

9. “Harlan County: An Act of God?”; above cited.

10. “Harlan County: An Act of God?”; above cited.

11. “Harlan County: An Act of God?”; above cited.

12. “In the Driftway”; The Nation; 6/8/32; Volume 134.

13. “Class War In Kentucky”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.


1. “Hunger’s Cry From Kentucky”; from “The Labor Defender”; above cited.

2. “The Lean Years”; above cited.

3. “Starvation and the ‘Reds’ In Kentucky”; The Nation; 2/3/32; Volume 134.

4. “Gun Rule In Kentucky”; The Nation; 5/5/31; Volume 233.

5. Quote. p. 169-170 from “Machine Age In the Hills”; Malcolm Ross; The Macmillan Company; New York, New York.

6. “Machine Age In the Hills”; above cited.

7. New York Times; 8/7/31.

8. “Class War In Kentucky”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.

9. “The Lean Years”; above cited.

10. “Class War In Kentucky”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.

11. “The Lean Years”; above cited.

12. “These Starving 100 Percent Americans” from “The Labor Defender”; 1931-1932; republished in “Harlan & Bell Kentucky 1931-1932”; Appalachian Movement Press, Inc.; Huntington, West Virginia; 1972.

13. New York Times; 10/27/31.

14. New York Times; 4/17/31.

15. “A Preacher In Jail”; above cited.

16. “The Lean Years”; above cited.

17. “Harlan-Where Gunmen Wear Armor”; from “The Labor Defender”; 1931-1932; above cited.

18. “Gun Rule In Kentucky”; from “The Nation”; above cited.

19. “The Lawlessness of the Law”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.

20.  “Gun Rule In Kentucky”; from “The Nation”; above cited.

21. “Gun Rule In Kentucky”; from “The Nation”; above cited.

22. New York Times; 5/8/31.

23. “Coal War In Kentucky”; from “The Labor Defender”, 1931-1932; above cited.

24. New York Times; 1/15/32.

25. “Coal War In Kentucky”; from “The Labor Defender”, 1931-1932; above cited.

26. “Organizing A Union In Kentucky”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.

27. “To The Editor”; The Nation; 7/13/32; Volume 135.

28. Quote; from “Murder In the Kentucky Mountains”; Caroline Drew; from “The Labor Defender”, 1931-1932; above cited.

29. “The Lawlessness of the Law”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.

31. “Editorial”; Christian Century; 11/18/31; Volume 48.

32. “What Have We To Lose”; from “Labor Age”; republished in “Harlan & Bell Kentucky 1931-1932”; Appalachian Movement Press, Inc.; Huntington, West Virginia; 1972.

33. stated in interview with Patrick Hyde; 12/9/76.

34. Quote; p. 306; Abel; from “The Nation”; above cited.

35. statement quoted in an interview with Patrick Hyde 12/9/76.

36. “New York Times”; 10/11/31.

37. “Organizing A Union In Kentucky”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; cited above.

38. “Historical Notes”; “U.A.W. Records, It Could Be A Wonderful World”; Joel O’Brien Productions Inc. and The United Auto Workers Education Department.

New Deals

1. “Editorials” Christian Century; 11/18/31; Volume 48.

2. “New York Times”; 5/8/32.

3. “A Hearing In Washington”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.

4. “The Lean Years”; above cited.

5. “New York Times” 5/10/32.

6. “The Mine Workers’ District 50”; Exposition Press; New York, New York; 1955.

7. “New York Times”; 9/27/33.

8. “New York Times”; 12/9/35.

9. “New York Times”; 9/30/35.

10. “New York Times”; 12/25/36.

11. Schechter Poultry Corporation vs. United States; 295 U.S. 495, 55 S.CE. 837,79L.Ed. 1570(1935).

12. Quote; p. 19; “The Mine Workers District 50”; James Nelson; Exposition Press; New York, New York; 1955.

13. Quote; p. 64-65; “The Mine Workers District 50”; above cited.

14. “New York Times”; 5/20/37.

15. “New York Times”; 7/6/38.

16. “New York Times”; 5/1/39.

17. “New York Times”; 5/1/39.

18. conversation between Patrick Hyde and Adrian Jones, President of United Auto Workers Local 233, Hamilton, Ohio; 6/15/72.

19. “Night Comes to the Cumberlands”; Little Brown; Boston, Mass. 1964.

20. “Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding”; The Free Press; New York, New York; 1969.


1. “The Lawlessness of the Law In Kentucky”; from “Harlan Miners Speak”; above cited.

2. “Machine Age In the Hills”; above cited.