John Dos Passos
Originally published in The New Republic (December 2, 1931).
I: WAR ZONE
Last winter was pretty bad. When spring came along, the miners around Evarts began to think something ought to be done to revive the old locals of the U. M. W. of A. Wages had been steadily slipping. Conditions of safety were getting worse. A few old Wobblies and radicals began to talk class war; some of the youngsters began to wonder about socialism. A meeting was held in Pineville to talk about union organization. Two hundred men lost their jobs and were blacklisted. The coal operators, scared by the flood of anti-Red propaganda fed them through detective agencies and professional labor-baiting organizations, began to hire extra guards. Their position depended on their underselling the coal regions where traces of unionism still remained. Trusting to the terrible unemployment to break any strike that might be pulled, they took the offensive. In April they started evicting active union men from their houses. In the eastern counties of Kentucky every man considers himself entitled to carry a gun and to protect himself with it against insult and aggression. It was not long before a skirmish took place between miners and guards sworn in as deputies. This was followed, on May 5, by an out-and-out battle on the road outside of Evarts.
The townspeople of Evarts explain it this way: The town was full of evicted miners who seem to have had the pretty complete sympathy of the townspeople (the small merchants and storekeepers are against the mine operators because they force the miners to trade at the company commissaries). Feeling was running high. The mine guards made a practice of riding slowly through the town with their cars in second, machine guns and sawed-off shotguns sticking out of the windows, "tantalizing us," as one man put it. The morning of the fight, a rumor went around that the sheriff was going to bring in some carloads of scabs. Miners congregated on the road across the bridge from Evarts. The Coal Operators' Association claims that the miners were lying in ambush, an assertion which the miners deny. A carload of deputies came in from Harlan town. Shooting began, and lasted for thirty minutes. In the course of it three deputies were killed and several wounded; one miner was also killed and others wounded. Deputies then took Evarts by storm and arrested everybody they could lay their hands on. For some time the town had been under the cross-fire of their machine guns. The next morning Judge D. C. Joneshis wife is a member of the Hall family, which has mining interests in the vicinitycalled a grand jury which the miners assert was illegally picked, made them a fiery speech denouncing I. W. W.'s and Reds. This grand jury returned thirty triple-murder indictments and thirty indictments for banding and confederating. Among those indicted were the town clerk and chief of police of Evarts. From then on through the summer the elected town officers of Evarts were superseded by the high sheriff's men, whose salaries are paid by the coal operators. No indictments were returned against mine guards or deputy sheriffs who had taken part in the battle, or against a mine guard who later killed Chasteen, a restaurant owner in Evarts who was on the miners' side.
About that time, so far as I can make out, the communist-affiliated National Miners' Union, which was conducting a strike against the Pittsburgh Terminal Company, sent organizers into eastern Kentucky, and N. M. U. locals began to be formed out of the wreckage of the old U. M. W. of A. In Evarts itself the I. W. W. seems to have had more influence than the Communists. The thing is that the miners felt that they were fighting for their lives and were ready to join any organization that would give them back solidarity and support them in their struggle against intolerable conditions. I talked to men who had joined all three unions.
Meanwhile the Coal Operators' Association was out to crush radicalism in Harlan County. The automobile of the I. L. D. relief worker was mysteriously dynamited. The soup kitchen in Evarts, which was feeding four hundred men, women and children a day, was blown up. In an attack on another soup kitchen at the swimming hole near Wallins Creek, two union men were killed and several wounded. Union organizers were beaten and run out of the county. Bruce Crawford of Crawford's Weekly, who greatly annoyed Sheriff Blair by publishing the miners' side of the story, was mysteriously shot from ambush. Boris Israel, Federated Press correspondent, was seized on the steps of the courthouse at Harlan, taken for a ride in perfect Chicago style, thrown out of the car on a lonely road and shot. Houses were raided, and many union sympathizers (among them Arnold Johnson, a theological student, who was an investigator for the American Civil Liberties Union) were arrested and jailed on the charge of criminal syndicalism. The Knoxville News Sentinel, a Scripps-Howard paper which printed stories about the frightful plight of the miners, was taken out of the newsstands in Harlan and its reporters were so intimidated the editor never dared send the same man up to Harlan twice.
All this time in the adjacent Bell County, where living conditions among the miners are worse if possible than in Harlan, the high sheriff has told the coal operators that if they make any trouble, he will cancel the deputy commissions of the mine guards, with the result that there has been no bloodshed, although there have been successful strikes in several small mines along Straight Creek.
II: ENTER THE WRITERS' COMMITTEE
At the station is a group of miners and their wives come to welcome the writers' committee: they stand around a little shyly, dressed in clean ragged clothes. A little coal dust left in men's eyebrows and lashes adds to the pallor of scrubbed faces, makes you think at once what a miserable job it must be keeping clean if you work in coal. At the Hotel Continental Mr. Dreiser is met by newspaper men, by the mayor and town clerk of Pineville, who offer their services "without taking sides." Everybody is very polite. A reporter says that Judge D. C. Jones is in the building. A tall man in his thirties, built like a halfback, strides into the lobby. There's something stiff and set about the eyes and the upper part of his face; a tough customer. When he comes up to you you realize he must stand six-feet-six in his stocking feet. He and Mr. Dreiser meet and talk rather guardedly. Judge Jones says he's willing to answer any questions put to him about the situation in Harlan County. Mr. Dreiser and Judge Jones are photographed together on the steps of the hotel. Mrs. Grace of Wallins Creek, the wife of Jim Grace, a union organizer who was beaten up and run out of the county, comes up and asks Judge Jones why the sheriff's deputies raided her house and ransacked her things and her boarders' rooms. The interview comes abruptly to an end.
A. I was not with him, but he was arrested in Letcher County. Neon. Him and Tom Myerscough were together.Then she testified to raids on her house and her boarders' rooms being searched for I. W. W. and Com-MU-nist literature. Then an organizer for the union testified about having his house broken into and his guns seized (the possession of firearms is legal in Kentucky), a vice president of the Kentucky State Federation of Labor turned over some documents to the effect that when the state militia came in after the Evarts battle last spring the operators had promised the U. M. W. of A. that they wouldn't take that opportunity of importing scabs, and in spite of that had imported scabs. A young man brought a mysterious message warning the writers' committee not to attend the meeting called by the National Miners' Union at Wallins Creek on Sunday, as there'd surely be trouble there. Bruce Crawford told the story of his quarrel with Sheriff John Henry Blair: how Blair had gone to see him in Norton and complained of the attitude of his paper, had taken a subscription and left, and how the next time Crawford went to Harlan several shots had been fired at him as he crossed the swinging footbridge over the river, one of them nicking him in the ankle. The most moving testimony was that of Jeff Baldwin, whose brother Julius had been killed by deputies at the swimming-hole soup kitchen. His story was that two or more deputies had driven up the dirt road that leads up the hill from the main road to the shack where the soup kitchen was located, had stopped the sedan so that the headlights shone full in the door dazzling the group of miners standing around it, that one deputy, Lee Fleener by name, had first yelled "Put up your hands" and then immediately opened fire. Baldwin's brother and another man had been killed and he himself wounded in the shoulder as he ducked for shelter inside the shack. In spite of the fact that the coroner's jury had named Lee Fleener and other persons unknown as the murderers, no action had been taken by the county prosecutor.
Next day the committee went up to Harlan, a fine ride up the magnificent valley of the Cumberland River. Harlan is a lively little town; stores and bank buildings attest to the slightly flimsy prosperity of the boom period; the handsome courthouse takes away a little from the gimcrack air of a Southern industrial town.
Q. For how many years have you been a miner?This miner testified that since he'd been fired he had lived "on the mercy of the people." Being asked what criminal syndicalism, the charge on which he had been arrested and bonded over to keep the peace, meant to him, he said: "The best I can give it is going against your country, but that is something I never did do. I never thought about such a thing. . . . My family always fought for the country and I've always been for it."
Then Mr. Dreiser questioned a woman who refused to give her name, saying she was afraid her husband would lose his job if the boss found out she'd testified. They were living in a company house, where they'd been living for three weeks. In that time the husband had received only scrip.
Q. How do you manage to live?In the afternoon Mr. Dreiser visited Sheriff Blair in his office and asked him some questions. The sheriff said that the National Mine Workers was a Communist organization and that the U. M. W. of A. had not been, that he considered The Daily Worker and all other Communist, I. W. W. or Red publications illegal, and explained that most of the deputies he had sworn in were mine guards paid by the coal operators. He didn't know how many deputies he had sworn in. The only money they got from his office were fees for arrests and summonses. He brought the interview to a lively close by serving Bruce Crawford with a $5O,000 civil suit for slander.
Next morning County Prosecutor Will Brock was interviewed. He said he approved of unionism, if it was a legal unionism like that of the U. M. W. of A., but that he considered all this I. W. W.Communist agitation illegal and seditious. As an example of a fellow that he'd thought at first was decent and that had then turned out to be a Communist, he mentioned Arnold Johnson, investigator for the American Civil Liberties Union. The interview was made fairly tense by the interruptions of an attorney named Jones, who shares his office with him, who said he was just waiting to tell the whole damned bunch what he thought of them; on being asked about a deputy named Heywood who was reputed to be a Chicago gunman, he said grimly through his teeth: "All right, if you want to see him so bad, you'll see him." We learned afterward that his brother had been killed in the Evarts fight, and that he himself had taken part in raids on miners' houses.
III: THE MEETING IN STRAIGHT CREEK
Straight Creek is the section of Bell County that has been organized fairly solid under the National Miners' Union. Owing, the miners say, to the fair-minded attitude of the sheriff, who has not allowed the mine guards to molest them, there has been no bloodshed, and a three weeks' strike ended the week before we got there with several small independent operators signing agreements with the union at thirty-eight cents a ton and allowing a union checkweighman. They say thirty-eight cents is not a living wage but that it's something to begin on. The committee had been invited to attend a meeting of the N. M. U. local at the Glendon Baptist Church and walked around the miners' houses first. The militia officers who accompanied us were impressed with the utter lack of sanitation and the miserable condition of the houses, tumble-down shacks set up on stilts with the keen mountain wind blowing through the cracks in the floor.
The midwife at Straight Creek, Aunt Molly Jackson, who later spoke at the meeting and sang these blues of her own composing that I've been quoting at the heads of the sections, was questioned by Mr. Dreiser:
Q. Can you tell us something about the conditions of the people in this hollow?The meeting in the Baptist Church was conducted by a young fellow who'd been a preacher. Men and women spoke. Two representatives of the I. L. D. made speeches. One of the miners said in his speech that the reason they called them Reds was because the miners were so thin an' poor that if you stood one of 'em up against the sun you'd see red through him. All through the meeting a stout angry woman, who we were told was the bookkeeper at the Carey mine and the Red Cross distributor, stood in the aisle with her arms akimbo glaring at the speakers as if she was going to start trouble of some kind. All she did was occasionally to taunt the chairman with the fact that he owed her ten dollars. The high point of the meeting was Aunt Molly Jackson's singing of her blues:
The meeting at Wallins Creek took place in the high-school building and passed off without disorder, though you got the impression that the people who attended it were pretty nervous. The local small merchants seemed strong for the N. M. U. and somebody had put up a banner across the main street that read, "Welcome I. L. D., National Miners' Union, Writers' Committee." The next morning the committee packed up its testimony and left for New York, to be followed by the "toothpick indictment" of Mr. Dreiser and a general indictment of all concerned, including the speakers at the miners' meeting, for criminal syndicalism.