Documenting the Appalachian Intifada: A Review of ‘So Much to be Angry About’

Appalachia Movement Press logo. Photo: Provided
Appalachia Movement Press logo. Photo: Provided

Liberation movements around the world and throughout history have always created our own media: to tell our own stories, to teach our own people and to strengthen our movements and organizations. In South Africa, the anti-apartheid resistance relied on Radio Freedom. The Voice of Fighting Algeria was a guiding light in the revolutionary struggle against French colonialism in that country. In Bolivia, revolutionary miners defended their radio towers against ruthless mine bosses.

In the United States, the liberation struggles of the 1960s produced vast numbers of radical newspapers, underground pamphlets and movement magazines. News, political analysis, history, poetry, cartoons and debates filled the newspapers of the Black Panther Party, broadsides of radical student groups and rank-and-file union newsletters. Often produced by activists with limited experience in typesetting, graphic arts darkrooms, or printing presses, the results were nonetheless creative, inspiring and thought-provoking. In truth, these underground, often amateurish movement publications remain essential to understanding the histories and politics of our social movements. 

Activists and archivists have tediously collected and transcribed many of the most important publications, particularly from larger organizations in urban areas. Still, the intellectual and creative endeavors of countless activists remain long out-of-print, gathering dust in basements, unknown to all but a few specialists. For too long, historical and political writings from Appalachian radicals fell into the latter category.

Shaun Slifer’s new book – released in March by West Virginia University Press – about West Virginia’s little-known, radical Appalachian Movement Press (AMP) is an impressive contribution to the history and culture of our movement media. Slifer’s basement-spelunking of the Appalachian South Folklife Center’s forgotten archives, augmented by interviews with AMP activists, delivers an exceptional history from below. “So Much to be Angry About” provides a rich, in-depth introduction to the personalities, politics and motivations behind AMP.  The rest of the book — more than 150 pages — provides reprints from a diversity of AMP’s hard-to-find projects with useful introductions by Slifer.

Don West and Appalachian Socialism

Although the Appalachian region is often depicted as “Trump country” today, the rich veins of left-wing radicalism continue to be excavated. The bloody battles of the early 1920s coal communities at Matewan, Paint Creek and Blair Mountain remain a historical testament to the recalcitrance of workers in the Appalachian region. When education workers staged wildcat strikes throughout West Virginia in 2018 which then spread across the country, the red bandanas of militant, “redneck” coal miners were re-popularized on picket lines. 

Shaun Silfer. Photo: Provided

Too often, however, the militant traditions of socialism in Appalachia have been treated as a quaint anachronism, peculiar to a bygone era before the New Deal. Nevertheless, the oppression and exploitation endemic to capitalism in the region never disappeared. In 1968, rebellious coal miners in West Virginia organized the Black Lung movement while young Appalachians sought to organize their communities for radical social change. The decades between the Appalachian insurgencies of the 1920s and the radicalism of the 1960s New Left were bridged by people whose lives and struggles were testament to the organic, living memories of mountain socialism. When AMP activists first met one of these old left organizers, Don West, he was in his sixties.

Once a popular writer of radical, working-class poetry, West served as a political anchor for the much younger AMP activists. His radicalism and activism spanned decades from the textile strikes of northern Georgia in the late 1920s and the Communist Party to the early Civil Rights Movement and the beginnings of the Highlander Folk School in east Tennessee. Unlike other New Left rhetoric of the late 1960s, AMP activists embraced the old left West as one of their own. As Slifer writes, “The younger activists running the AMP shop weren’t about to ignore the wisdom of the elder generations, especially not a larger-than-life character like Don West.1

West was a partisan for the freedom of art, information and knowledge; particularly for poor Appalachians. His rejection of copyrights opened the door for AMP activists to republish texts typically out of reach for small presses. As Slifer note:

He rejected copyright to his own work because, as he saw it, to do so would restrict the free movement of art generally. “Poetry and other creative efforts should be levers, weapons to be used in the people’s struggle for understanding, human rights, and decency,” he wrote late in his life, in 1982. In other words, “Just ignore copyright,” Yvonne Farley [an activist and friend of Don West] summarized, “it’s a capitalist thing.”

Appalachian Movement Press republished essays from the Black Appalachian historian Carter G. Woodson, Phillip Foner and others. They also published much of Don West’s original poetry and writings along with other journalists and writers in addition to publications about Appalachian politics in both the mountains and urban centers.

The activists of Appalachian Movement Press sought to publish the histories, traditions, and politics of Appalachian people, contextualized by the politics of working-class struggle and socialism. Affordability was a key component of the project; pamphlets ranged in price from 25¢ to 50¢. Their aim was to give inspiration to a new generation of poor and working-class people in the Appalachian region. 

Today, many of these publications are nearly impossible to find outside of rare book collections and personal archives. Thankfully, “So Much to be Angry About” includes reprints of several classics that illustrate the breadth and eclecticism of the project. Jim Branscome’s provocative essay “Annihilating the Hillbilly” is included along with Margaret Gregg and Michael J. Clark’s children’s story, “Lazar & Boone Stop Strip Mining Bully” as well as Don West’s “Freedom on the Mountains” and others.

Appalachian Intifada

Importantly, “So Much to be Angry About” situates AMP activists in the context of global radicalization and people’s movements. Indeed, the network of Appalachian radicals of the 1970s were remembered by Yvonne Farley as an “Appalachian Intifada.” While this description might seem incongruent today, it nonetheless aptly describes the political strategy of many AMP activists.

Like much of the global left at the beginning of the 1970s, Appalachian activists were greatly inspired by the anticolonial revolutions still unfolding. Anticolonialism became a concrete, real-world example of revolution against global capitalism. Much of the revolutionary left pitched struggles – even within the borders of imperialist nation-states like the U.S. – as anticolonial projects. 

Leaders of the Black Panther Party, for instance, often framed the Black liberation struggle in urban ghettos against the forces of colonialism, which included police. This internal colony thesis had profound importance for the practice of AMP. Indeed, it shaped the fundamentals of their project, as Slifer describes:

Appalachian Movement Press had several tactics in mind for decolonizing Appalachian people. They would serve as a cut-rate printshop for the radical leftist movements coming alive in the mountains. They would use their offset printing equipment to reprint and distribute original, hard-to-find texts about early twentieth-century Appalachian movements towards workplace determination and unionization. They would republish modern articles on government corruption, coal industry deception, and environmental degradation in violation of any copyrights. And they would continue the publication of Don West’s radical, original poetry and nonfiction, securing West’s role as an elder intellectual leader of their anticolonial movement.

As Slifer acknowledges, the internal colony thesis has fallen out of favor for many writers in the academy. But perhaps it has been dismissed too hastily. Certainly, underdevelopment and extractive industries are core components of “normal” capitalism. However, contrasted to the normal capitalism of New York City, agricultural areas, or other parts of the economy, capitalist development in the Appalachian region appears abnormal. The region’s extractive industries routinely waged anti-worker warfare rarely matched in other parts of the country. And, like colonial projects elsewhere, local elites and power-brokers collaborated with absentee landowners, speculator and investors. In this context, AMP activists attempted to grapple with the real-world particulars of capitalist development in the Appalachian region. As Slifer notes, the internal colony framework was a sort of “useful shorthand” for understanding Appalachia’s relationship to capitalism as well as liberation movements around the world. 

The internal colony thesis was not particularly original. In 1926, Antonio Gramsci promoted a similar thesis in debates with others in the Italian socialist newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo:The Northern bourgeoisie has subjugated the South of Italy and the Islands, and reduced them to exploitable colonies.”  He went on to lambast the dominant ideology that defined the poor of southern Italy:

. . . the South is the ball and chain which prevents the social development of Italy from progressing more rapidly; the Southerners are biologically inferior beings, semi-barbarians or total barbarians, by natural destiny; if the South is backward, the fault does not lie with the capitalist system or with any other historical cause, but with Nature, which has made the Southerners lazy, incapable, criminal and barbaric – only tempering this harsh fate with the purely individual explosion of a few great geniuses, like isolated palm-trees in an arid and barren desert.

Historians and scholars have documented similar tropes used against Appalachians as inbred, violent and outside the norms of Americanness. These stereotypes of people cannot be disconnected from the capitalist plunder of the region. Indeed, the internal colony thesis helped the activists of AMP situate their own position and work in the context of global oppression, struggle and liberation movements. It was a fundamental building block of solidarity.

Importantly, Slifer does not shy away from the more problematic experiences of AMP. Gendered divisions of labor, responsibility and leadership meant the project was not a welcoming place for women. And, although AMP testified to the importance of interracial solidarity, their publications rarely centered the experience of native or Black Appalachians.

“So Much to be Angry About” is a testament to the ingenuity of our social movements. The writers and activists who labored through the short-lived Appalachian Movement Press made an important contribution to the preservation and political project of a free Appalachia and world. And Slifer’s insightful eye for aesthetic and design provides a rich dialogue of activist-produced media.

Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing and writing now in Chicago. He is the author of White Bred: Hillbillies, White Trash, and Rednecks against White Supremacy, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.

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