A Century Ago: Backlash and Bloodshed in West Virginia | Opinion
Indeed, a third of a century ago, the director John Sayles, recalling his film “Matewan” with Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones and Mary McDonnell, on the conflict in these distant hills, used an idiom which is part of the wars in today’s history. . “When a colonized people learn that they can fight together,” he said, “life can never be so comfortable for its exploiters again”.
The conflict has its origins in the multi-generational discord between miners and mine owners, but its trigger was the dispatch of a private security force from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to evict the miners from the homes. owned by the Stone Mountain Coal Co. in Matewan. , West Virginia, in 1920. Miners mobilized to oppose it. A verbal brawl turned into a shootout, men were killed in the streets, passions ignited, a pro-minor sheriff was killed by Baldwin-Felts agents, and thousands of rabid miners marched towards Mingo County.
The goal of their procession: to put an end to the power of the coal companies, as said Charles B. Keeney III, historian at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College and great-grandson of Frank Keeney, the union leader of the struggle . , “to rule the coalfields as a police state in which the right to freedom of speech, assembly and other basic rights have been confiscated as a condition of employment.”
At one point, the miners appealed to Governor EF Morgan, himself convinced that “moon liquor, guns and automobiles” were the cause of lawlessness in his state and that the miners had turned away. mobilized “for the sole purpose of terrorizing the government.”