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A history lesson

Rebirth of a Nation: The Klan’s Long Shadow Falls in Charlottesville



Hours after white supremacists’ violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protestors killing one woman and leaving scores hospitalized, President Trump read a strategically vague, equivocal statement from his private golf club in New Jersey. He blamed “many sides” for the violence and hatred, and uncharacteristically neglected to call out the perpetrators – the KKK, neo-Nazi, alt-right and other hate groups who had just terrorized an American city. This verbal fuzziness continued with an oddly saccharin plea for mutual love and respect, and to “cherish our history” — which some viewed as a nod and wink to the “Unite the Right” organizers whose stated purpose for being in the city was to defend the removal of monuments to their Confederate heroes.

But former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke was having none of Trump’s equivocality. From Charlottesville he tweeted, “I recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency.”

For those aghast at this weekend’s events, recall that not quite two years ago, candidate Trump dithered over Duke’s tacit endorsement, while the New York Times likened Trump’s success to Reconstruction-era politics. The following weekend, Saturday Night Live rolled out a “Voters for Trump” campaign spoof ad with ordinary people reciting banalities like “he says what I think” while the camera slowly zoomed out, revealing a housewife ironing a Klan robe as an audience burst into laughter. It was questionably funny then, but Trump’s candidacy at the time was still widely viewed as a joke. Saturday’s violence demonstrated yet again for the nation that America’s latent white supremacy is no laughing matter.

Now, 200 plus meme-filled days into this President’s term, America is faced with a serious choice: Keep laughing until it kills us, or take a long look in the mirror.

Trump’s statement doesn’t get a pass for legitimizing the resurgence of white supremacist violence, but he was right about one thing: “This has been going on for a long time.” Lest you think Charlottesville is an aberration, let’s revisit the rise of the “Second Klan” in 1915 —  as good as any starting point for this all-too American story.

On a chilly Thanksgiving night in October 1915, a dozen or so hooded men assembled atop Stone Mountain outside Atlanta, Georgia – an American flag fluttering in the wind, a bible opened to the twelfth chapter of Romans, and a flaming cross to light the night sky. Inspired by the recent release of D.W. Griffith’s racist epic, Birth of a Nation, William Joseph Simmons and his disciples proclaimed the second rising of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Theatrical poster for D.W; Griffiths 1914 silent film epic, The Birth of a Nation. One of the most commercially successful silent films, it was boycotted by the NAACP for its racist portrayal of black men as inept, lazy sexual trespassers of white women’s virtue, while the KKK were cast as heroic saviors of the Reconstruction South from the tyranny of black rule.

I suspect you can easily imagine this scene. That’s because the enduring media rendering of the Klan is deeply rooted in our popular imagination – fringe outcasts cloaked in ghostly costumes on a torch-lit hilltop. The snag in this fiery narrative is that it conjures up a characterization of racism as a cultural anomaly. Our collective imaginings of white supremacists, with all the stylings of Griffith’s film, have maintained this myth.

Historical scholarship of the WWI era paints a lesser-known, but more enlightening portrait of racism in America, the nature of the Klan, and reveals the 100-year shadow it casts over our nation’s current political and social divides.

The Stone Mountain version of the Second Klan remained an insignificant local group until well after the Armistice of November 1918, when in June of 1920 Simmons contracted with publicists Mary Tyler and Edward Clarke, partners in the Southern Publicity Association – a firm that had mastered the persuasive art of patriotic, nationalistic propaganda during WWI promoting the Red Cross, the Anti-Saloon League, the Salvation Army and the War Work Council (weaponized irony and smug memes serve as modern era white nationalism’s propaganda of choice).

Ku Klux Klan members pose for photos at a camp meeting near Morgantown, W.Va. in May 1926. West Virginia and Regional History Center, West Virginia University Libraries

Under the guidance of shrewd publicists, the Klan refashioned itself with a familiar brew of coded values: family, community service, law and order, patriotism, “Old-time religion,” hard work and economic prosperity, coupled with sober depictions of Klan members as pillars of respectable society. Their platform of hate against immigrants, Catholics, Jews and African Americans was not only disseminated through burning crosses and white-sheeted horsemen, it was carefully diffused through communities in the guise of family gatherings propagated through cheerful fliers. Picnics. Merry Go-Rounds. Proudly sponsored by your local Ford dealership.

Klan picnic advertisement in the Illinois State Journal, Aug.15, 1924

The Good Citizen was published from 1913 until 1933 by the Pillar of Fire Church at their headquarters in Zarephath, New Jersey. The newsletter promoted women’s equality, anti-Catholicism, antisemitism, nativism, white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan.

Armed with this time-tested brand, Tyler, Clarke and Klan leaders hired a staff of seasoned organizers and set to work increasing the membership of the Klan. Within months, membership soared to 100,000, and by 1921 the Klan had chartered two hundred chapters, with nearly one million members. By the mid-1920s, they had enlisted more than 5-8 million people in nearly every state in the Union, and became a divisive force in the 1924 Democratic Convention held at Madison Square Garden in New York. Dubbed the “Klanbake” by journalists of the time – it represented the longest continuously running convention in U.S. political life. A populist force of reckoning, the millions-strong Klan opposed and defeated Catholic nominee Al Smith, then Governor of New York.

Historian Nancy McLean pulls back the deceptive cloak of decency worn by Klan members and illuminates the now-common embedded race-coding of neutral public policy issues in American politics in her book, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: the Making of the Second Klu Klux Klan:

Most often the men who donned the order’s robes and assembled beneath its flaming crosses were, as one contemporary put it, “… the good, solid middle-class citizens.” Not only did the Klan draw from the broad middle of the nation’s class structure, but it most commonly mobilized support through campaigns waged on the prosaic theme of upholding community moral standards.”

The Klan campaigned on values that appealed to an aggrieved white middle class whose status, centrality and power was threatened by the rapidly shifting economic landscape of the WWI era: urban industrialization, the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South, and a flood of Eastern and Southern European immigrants.

The gains and mobility of Black Americans struck a particularly painful chord among a plurality of reactionary populists, but what the Klan perhaps feared most were the hundreds of thousands of African American WWI veterans returning from fighting in Europe in 1919, and what these soldiers symbolized. Trained in combat, exposed to new experiences (and contact with African colonial troops) overseas, their sacrifices fighting had changed them forever. NAACP leader W.E.B. Dubois exhorted returning veterans to fight for their rights in a famous essay, Returning Soldiers, penned for the organization’s magazine, The Crisis, in May 1919:

We return.
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.
Make way for Democracy! We saved it from France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.

In the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, a black WWI veteran confronts a member of the white Illinois militia during the August 1919 “Red Summer” riots. During the six days of violence, 38 people died (23 black and 15 white) and more than 500 were injured.

And fight they did. In the Summer and Autumn of 1919, race riots erupted in three dozen cities and one rural county throughout the United States.  Dubbed “Red Summer,” black veterans defended their communities from white mobs as racial frictions intensified amidst a post-war economic recession, industrial labor competition, overcrowded urban tenements and greater militancy among black war veterans. In the rural areas of the South, there were 64 lynchings in 1918 and 83 in 1919, including several Black veterans whose only crime was wearing a uniform. Just last week, while doing research on African Americans in WWI, I stood on a street corner in Chicago where one of the bloodiest of these riots occurred in August of 1919. This past does not feel distant.

Nearly 100 years after the Red Summer racial violence of 1919, nurse Ieshia Evans confronts riot police during a protest of the police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La. July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

The white reactionary response to the threat of Black social and economic gains was unequivocally asserted in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. A group of 50 or so Black WWI veterans donned their uniforms and weapons, drove to the county courthouse and offered to guard a young black man charged with assaulting a white woman in an elevator. This inflamed a white lynch mob of 1500, who looted gun shops and attacked the prosperous Black community of Greenwood (dubbed the Black Wall Street). The veterans fought a pitched battle overnight, until the local sheriff and arriving Oklahoma National Guardsman deputized the lynch mob, and used airplanes and machine guns to burn Greenwood to the ground. The message was clear. Gains in status, position and power for Black Americans was intolerable.

Fast forward 100 years to striking economic and social parallels, in which the persistence of racially-coded public policy terms is exploited for political profit and power during periods of economic and social stress. As in the 1920s, there is growing disparity in income and wealth, unregulated excesses of Wall Street, and the extermination of the middle classes.

A similar gulf between the haves and have-nots existed just before the stock market crash of 1929. While the WWI era heralded post-industrial disruption, ours brings its own revolutionary moment with far-reaching impacts from technological change. Headlines abound about robots and artificial intelligence displacing both white and blue collar workers, while Silicon Valley Tech investment capitalists and the Koch-funded, libertarian Cato Institute explore “Universal Basic Income” for the majority of people who will be left behind in the brave new economy. The changing face of America, especially the increase in the Latino population and the influx of Muslims, is eroding longstanding privileges of white people in America. Finally, the ultimate symbolic dislocation of white power amidst this maelstrom of economic, social and technological distress — the election of America’s first African American President in 2008.

Enter reactionary populism in shifting forms, from the coalescing of discontent among Tea Party members to the dramatic rise in militant “patriot” groups and the rebranding of white supremacy as the meme-loving “alt-right.” West Virginia University’s Director of the Center of Black Culture and Research Marjorie Fuller dissects this response in The Pendulum Effect.

Echoing the rise of the “Good Citizen” Klan of the WWI era, Tea Party ideologues originated as a decentralized, small-scale movement that was predominately white, male, nativist, patriotic, anti-immigrant, and politically conservative. It remained insignificant until shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, when conservative PACs, such as the Koch brother’s FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity lent media know-how, funding and organizational expertise to grow its membership. They funded and organized “Town Hall” meetings and other patriotic-themed protests. Within five years, Tea Party affiliates were elected to political office, membership soared to nearly one-half million and sympathizers numbered in the tens of millions, with the movement becoming a divisive force in the Republican Party.

Does this all sound familiar?

If you find yourself bristling at the notion that the same forces that gave rise to the Tea Party movement, then Trumpism and the alt-right bear a resemblance to the reactionary populism that bred the Second Klan, let me stop you right there. This weekend and the past 200 days of escalating white nationalism, bears this trend out. Despite the Tea Party’s frequent and early assertion that their followers were not racist, several studies found that “racial resentment” was a greater predictor of Tea Party membership than political conservatism. Similarly, studies have confirmed that racism and xenophobia drove Trump’s election more than economic anxiety. Keep in mind the fraternal Klansmen of 1925 fancied themselves going about the noble business of upholding community values, patriotic virtues, nationalistic ideals and the ubiquitous, racially-coded theme of law-and-order. Trump emphasized these themes in his administration’s response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville: “What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives,” he said.

Perhaps it’s entertaining to scoff at the caricatures and memes of Trump as a Chaplinesque fascist, as this keeps us at a comfortable distance from a terrible truth. And Trump, in his foot-dragging disavowal of the KKK and the alt-right violence in Charlottesville, must have more than a passing awareness of this truth.

Which means we needn’t look any further than the closest mirror to confront a familiar embodiment of  latent white supremacy and white nationalism — cloaked, not in white sheets, but the pretense of “Good Citizen” in this divided, troubled America.

A white nationalist demonstrator walks into Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Joel William Beeson is an associate professor at the WVU Reed College of Media and co-directs StoryBridge, a reporting collaboration with Morgan State University’s School of Global Communication and Journalism. Beeson has M.A. and B.A. degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and received his doctorate in American Studies at the Union Institute and University investigating how Critical Race and Feminist Standpoint theories can inform counter narratives in social documentary work. Beeson recently produced a Google Expeditions VR project looking at the WWI era through the eyes of the Chicago Defender in collaboration with the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Braintrust in honor of the WWI centennial.

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A history lesson

Researchers Uncover History of Former W.Va. Coal Community



Scott's Run miner's children lined up for a meal in the 1930s. In reaction to this photo Scotts Run elders said, "There was a soup line or the blacks and there was a soup line for the whites, and that certainly proves it, how sad." Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center.

West Virginia University researchers recently completed a year-long project exploring the history of a coal community in Monongalia County, using photos and oral history to create an exhibit.

Scott’s Run is a five-mile area that stretches along the banks of the Monongahela River, about four miles from West Virginia University.

Today less than 2,000 people live there, and the former towns in Scotts Run – such as Osage and Cassville – are all unincorporated.

But, in the early 1900s, the area was booming from the coal industry. Its main economic advantage was its proximity to the river, railroads and coal resources. But, by the 1930s during the Great Depression, like much of the country, Scott’s Run hit hard times.

School children at Osage, a town within Scott’s Run, with their Sunday school teacher in the 1940s. When researchers showed this photo to Scott’s Run elders one said, “As youngsters on Osage Hill we all played together. No difference in color. We didn’t know a difference until we went to school.” Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center

Consequently, the community banded together, creating a family-like bond that still exists today.

“There’s this community that is a completely different world from what you’ve seen of Morgantown that has this history that’s very much the history of West Virginia,” said Kristina Hash, a professor of social work at WVU.

Hash was one of six researchers on the team that studied Scott’s Run. Other researchers included Catherine Gouge, Lori Hostuttler, Tamba M’bayo, Christine Rittenour and Tyler Redding.

The project was funded in 2018 through a grant from the West Virginia University Humanities Center.

Many photos were taken of the people of Scott’s Run during the Great Depression years, Hash said. Using these photos, she and her team documented stories from West Virginians who were children during the early years of Scott’s Run.

About a dozen of the original residents of Scott’s Run still get together every weekend. Hash said the sense of community is strong.

“People that had a really diverse community that lived in harmony that centered around coal and together faced major tragedy,” she said.

All the research was compiled into a video and an exhibit that has been donated to the Scott’s Run Museum where it will be permanently on display. The museum is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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A history lesson

Art Exhibit Explores Appalachia’s Connection to Wales



Some of the Welsh artwork on display at the Monongalia Arts Center. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Across the Atlantic Ocean — 3,586 miles away from West Virginia — you will find Wales, which is part of the United Kingdom. The western side of Wales is lined by two channels from the Celtic Sea. And inland is quite mountainous. Within those mountain towns, you will find similar folk culture to Appalachia.

“The nature of the people and the landscape is very similar. Plus, many people from West Wales came over here. So we’ve got those really strong connections,” said Peter Stevenson, a Welsh artist, writer and storyteller.

These strong connections inspired Stevenson to host an art exhibit at the Monongalia Arts Center in Morgantown, an expansive art exhibit dedicated to the Wales-Appalachia connection.


Many of Appalachian’s ancestors migrated from Wales to Appalachia. There are other strong historical connections between the two regions. For example, both have a long and complicated history with the coal industry, and both have a strong mountain culture – a culture that includes music, art and storytelling.

Some of the Welsh artwork on display. Much of the artwork Stevenson brought with him on the plane from Wales. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Stevenson has family who immigrated to West Virginia in the 1960s. So, Stevenson has listened to many Appalachian folktales, and he has found many similarities to Welsh folklore. Similar characters appear in both traditions, like fairies or little people and granny women – older, eccentric women who either create charm or mischief.

Stevenson and Ro Brooks, executive director of the Monongalia Arts Center. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

But the stories differ slightly. Stevenson thinks the Welsh brought over their folklore when they immigrated to Appalachia hundreds of years ago, but the stories changed slightly over time to become more Appalachian.

“Within these stories which appear to be the same they take on something from the landscape and nature of the people in that landscape and they’re subtly different,” he said.

The Exhibit

Figures and drawings of Welsh ‘Granny Women’ that are part of the MAC exhibit. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Stevenson organized the art exhibit on display in Morgantown to further explore the connections.

The exhibit is one big story that contains many little stories, it is a bit like a fairytale book come to life at the Monongalia Arts Center, featuring Welsh and Appalachian artists.

There are dolls made to look like witches with a black triangle hat, drawings of mermaids in the Monongahela river and a woman who turned into a swan. There are a lot of bright colors and characters that make one’s imagination run wild.

Stevenson is a professional storyteller. When he tells a story, one feels spellbound. He tells the crowd a folk story using a cranky – a storytelling device likely familiar to Appalachians.

A cranky is like a picture book except with drawings all on one long scroll. It is contained within a frame with two handles that move the scroll, and it is typically accompanied by a story.

The Story of Betty

The story Stevenson told at the exhibit opening is about an old granny woman named Betty who lived on the west coast of Wales. She often would gaze out her window toward America.  

“Thousand wrinkles around the eyes, a single yellow tooth wobbling unnervingly in the breeze from her breath and a single gray hair in the middle of her chin,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson turned the cranky as he spoke. The pictures are drawn in heavy black ink. Betty looks like a kind, but mischievous old woman out of a children’s book.

Stevenson explained that Betty could make love potions. She would make them for all the town folk. But sometimes she mixed them up, and in Stevenson’s story, much to the town’s dismay, Betty accidentally made a farm woman and a man of nobility fall in love. But they ended up living happily ever after and having dozens of babies.

A miniature cranky made by Stevenson. Crankies are often used to tell a story. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Peter turned to the final image on the cranky, and revealed a picture of Betty with a sly smirk pointing to her love potion bottle and a trail of red hearts.

“Old Betty is still there. She’s still there in her little cottage. She’s got even more wrinkles around her eyes, her solitary yellow tooth fell out years ago, but her little gray hair is still there and she twirls it and looks out across the water to America,” Stevenson said. “And thinks to herself, maybe my love potions would work in West Virginia.”

West Virginian Art

The first floor of the exhibit features the Welsh artists and their interpretation of folktales. The second floor is dedicated to West Virginian artists, such as Eddie Spaghetti.

He is based in Morgantown and works in many art mediums, including crankies. One of Spaghetti’s crankies on display is titled ‘Light in the Darkness.’ It is accompanied by a poem that Spaghetti wrote in tiny print underneath the drawings.

“I put a magnifying glass onto it, that magnifying glass is a real attention-getter – you can’t help but to look at stuff,” he says.

Another of the West Virginian artists featured in the exhibit is accomplished sculptor Jamie Lester. Some of his well-known work includes the Don Knotts and Jerry West statues in Morgantown.  

Lester’s piece representing man’s connection to coal. He is one of many West Virginian artists featured in the exhibit. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Lester’s piece on display in the Wales-Appalachia gallery reflects man’s connection to coal. Something that is a big part of Appalachian and Welsh history. It’s a sculpture of a man’s body merged with a coal operation, and the coal tipple is connected to his head and shoulder.

“He’s being like fed coal, he is coal, coal is in his blood, he’s being force-fed coal,” Lester said. “And his arms are tied behind his back and one of his arms is breaking the structure of the tipple, so you get the feeling he’s being tormented, but there’s the possibility of him breaking away from his tormentor.”

This sculpture and all the many other pieces from Appalachia and Wales are on display at the Monongalia Arts Center in Morgantown. The exhibit will be up through the end of this month, when it will travel to Wales for display.

The second level of the exhibit featuring West Virginian artists. Then entire exhibit tells one big story of the Welsh-Appalachian connection. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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A history lesson

Mountain Justice: Appalachian Women Fought for Workers Long Before They Fought for Jobs



The only women delegates to United Mine Workers Convention in Washington, D.C., January 24, 1938. Left to right: Pearl Kosby, Bridgeport, Conn.; Esther Perelson, Ozone Park, Long Island, N.Y.; and Esther Levin, also of Ozone Park. Library of Congress.

This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists, and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original article here.

As historian Jessica Wilkerson carefully turned the pages of a notebook documenting a coal miners’ strike, fragments of dried leaves fluttered out. Sudie Crusenberry, who glued it together, was the wife of a disabled Kentucky miner. She had to reuse her children’s old school scrapbooks to record the work of her “women’s club,” which helped drive the successful 1973 Brookside Mine Strike. “She was layering memories of her children with this dramatic struggle for justice in the coal fields,” said Wilkerson.

The notebook also held newspaper clippings about the strike, the campaign to help miners dying of black lung disease, and the Ku Klux Klan’s attacks on female organizers. Crusenberry pasted a photo of herself next to the lyrics of “Dreadful Memories,” a song about raising hungry, shivering children in the coal fields. Another page featured a photo and quotation from the spitfire labor organizer Mother Jones.

Crusenberry and other miner’s wives inherited a legacy of labor activism from Jones and previous generations of Appalachian women. This tradition is the subject of two recently-published books of history written by women from the region. Wilkerson’s To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice documents how the War on Poverty in Kentucky triggered a period of rising activism among Appalachian women in the 1960s and ’70s. They, in turn, built on the union organizing at the heart of Never Justice, Never Peace: Mother Jones and the Miner Rebellion at Paint and Cabin Creeks, by Ginny Savage Ayers.

Both authors grew up with a generational fascination with Appalachian history.

An Assistant Professor of History and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, Wilkerson hails from East Tennessee, where her distant cousin helped found the Museum of Appalachia. 

Her grandfather spent most of his career as a union organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, and her grandmother papers she had saved from her own involvement in the labor and Civil Rights work of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

“That I didn’t learn about his until I was a young woman, despite my grandmother’s deep pride in their involvement in the labor movement, is a testament to the power of conservatism in the region, how it silences and erases certain histories,” Wilkerson said. “It seemed such a relief to my Grandma when she could finally share that history with me.”

Savage co-wrote Never Justice, Never Peace with her late father, Lon Kelly Savage, a journalist and Virginia Tech administrator born in Charleston, West Virginia. His dad told stories of being hired to fight the miners in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the most significant in the West Virginia mine wars. Savage wrote the only popular history of that insurrection. After his death, Ayers decided to finish his research about the earlier mine wars, a forgotten chapter in American history.

Ayers’ book describes a strike that devolved into armed skirmishes between miners and hired “mine guards,” followed by a series of military trials held under martial law. Mother Jones, who would later inspire Sudie Crusenberry, traveled the country publicizing the plight of workers. Her famously foul mouth and rabble-rousing speeches belied her grandmotherly appearance. Jones was among many long held without trial at the whim of the governor, who also hounded the socialist press.

“He sent National Guard troops to physically bash the presses to silence that voice,” Ayers said, noting that attacking the media is a time-honored political tactic. “Today it’s not done physically, but done by casting doubt on the validity of the press.”

One of the main narratives in Never Justice, Never Peace, focuses on how Mother Jones helped the miners and their wives recognize their own power. (A West Virginia example was Willie Fish, a teenager and miners’ wife who smuggled guns and ammunition to strikers under her dress while very pregnant.)

Wilkerson’s book picks up decades later, as Appalachian women in Kentucky sought to reclaim that power. They started as community workers during President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, then expanded into related social justice issues, such as the environmental effects of strip mining.

Wilkerson argues their activism arose from their understanding of how their unpaid caregiving—for children, disabled husbands, and abused wives —was linked to their rights as citizens: the right to affordable child care and health care, clean water, and safe working conditions for raising a family.

Her book’s title was inspired by the words of Bessie Smith Gayheart, an Appalachian woman who led a group of activists during a sit-in at a strip mine: “I was born and raised in east Kentucky and I am going to stay; but to stay here you’re going to have to fight like hell.”

At a time of heightened racial antagonism in the South, white Appalachian women lobbying for welfare reform were still willing to form alliances with urban Black activists and disabled men. This solidarity arose partly from generational experiences in mining camps. Coal companies had historically employed mountain whites, Black workers moving north, and recent European immigrants.  

“Companies felt it was to their advantage to segregate these populations and foster distrust between them, because if they’re not working together, they won’t revolt together,” Ayers said. “This was flawed thinking on their part, because these workers became aware they were being abused. They knew there was strength in banding together.”

Wilkerson agrees that there was a collective memory of those partnerships – but also of lynchings and racial terror. “We often want to focus on one or the other, but the two were happening at once, which is why it was hard for those coalitions to hold,” she said.

Nevertheless, the latter-day female Appalachian activists faced risks for crossing racial lines.

For example, Appalachian community organizer Edith Easterling was called to testify before the Kentucky Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare. “Politicians saw it as a way to go after War on Poverty funding,” Wilkerson said. “They’d use the same organization to go after Black activists in cities and the white working class in Eastern Kentucky.”

Easterling, a local woman called to testify before the committee for her anti-poverty work, used the opportunity to strafe corrupt local “politicianers.” 

“I will confess we have done wrong—or I have done wrong,” she told the committee. “I voted for that dirty bunch in that courthouse.” She said they wanted to control all the money in the county and were angry when federal programs benefited community organizations. “If they can’t get it theirself, they don’t want nobody else to have it,” she said.

While some women faced public threats, other threats happened at home. Eula Hall endured years of abuse from her husband—who at various times broke her jaw and stabbed her—as her activism built toward the creation of a community health clinic in Kentucky where she still works. 

“When a woman tried to do anything, she must fight her husband to do it,” Hall told Wilkerson. “If we have a group, women won’t be so scared to try.”

Bessie Lou Cornett, a leader in promoting the Brookside Mine strike, later helped fight plans to build a highway through a Black neighborhood. Her husband would attack her to try to prevent her leaving the house to organize. After their divorce, he gained custody of their son by arguing that she was an unfit mother because of her union activity and alliances with Black people.

Cornett maintained her resolve with the memory of her grandfather suffering of black lung. In the film Harlan County, USA, Cornett says, “I told myself, if I ever get the opportunity to get those coal operators I will. Because I thought, you know, [the company] was the enemy. So when the strike came up, I saw the opportunity, and I jumped right in there.”

Cornett’s friend Crusenberry was targeted by the KKK, which burned a cross in her yard. (Local KKK members tended to be white, anti-union men, who thought both Black workers and women should stay “in their place.”)

While some things have changed in the decades since, Ayers says corporations continue to use their power in ways that harm and manipulate Appalachians. In the coal fields, she says that translates into convincing miners they are under attack from green energy and environmental regulations. Another example is the the 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, which took the lives of 29 West Virginia coal miners but resulted in only a misdemeanor conviction for the company CEO.

She also sees examples outside the mining industry. Ayers points to the toxic Kingston coal ash spill in Tennessee, where 40 workers have died and hundreds more were sickened after the cleanup contractor denied them protective gear and tampered with air monitors. 

One of the women featured in To Live Here, You Have to Fight is still doing just that. Sue Ella Kobak, a 1960s War on Poverty Activist-turned-attorney, jumped up at a Knoxville book event in February to passionately argue that Big Pharma is the most serious corporate threat to Appalachia today. Kobak and her husband have been vocally challenging Purdue Pharma since shortly after it began marketing its highly-addictive drug OxyContin in the 1990s. She said her husband, a doctor, now treats about 70 addicts a week.

“My husband and I have been vilified, talked about. We didn’t get shot at like we did in the 1960s, but we have to be very careful,” she told a crowd of about 100 people who had come to hear about women’s activism in Appalachia at the East Tennessee History Center. “The raping (of) Appalachia has not stopped at all. I’m 73 years old… and I’ve never left. And it has not stopped or even slowed down,” Kobak said, her voice breaking.

Although coal is losing dominance, the industries replacing it are still rife with health and environmental hazards, Kobak argued. Streams that once ran black with coal now run black with fracking fluid.

Wilkerson said she’d like to see West Virginia teachers replace miners as the emblem of America’s workers. The statewide teachers’ strike—which inspired others across the nation – was a bipartisan, multiracial coalition with women at its center. It benefited not only teachers but all the state’s public-sector employees, as well as children.

Modern striking teachers owe a debt to women like Crusenberry. After her husband was injured in a mine, her family was forced out of a home the mine owned. Before moving out, she wallpapered the interior with United Mine Workers of America bumper stickers.

“I loved that image,” Wilkerson said. “They’re going to take her house, but not without recognizing who she is and what she stood for.”

S. Heather Duncan is a print and radio reporter and storyteller raised in Appalachia and living in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has won regional, state and national awards for her newspaper coverage of the environment, business, and government, as well as for feature writing. In her free time she enjoys hiking, whaling on the clarinet, and learning the knack of making five-star fried okra, biscuits, and chicken korma (although not necessarily together).

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100 Days