Matewan Revisited


The history of America is the chronicle of class struggle. The current fight is the same fight that working class people have always waged. In the past there were three distinct classes: the upper class, the middle class and the underclass. The middle class is rapidly melding with the under class, leaving us with essentially two socioeconomic classes. In essence, what remain are the rich and the poor. The chasm between rich and poor has never been wider and it is growing every year.

For reasons that must be political, those in power expend much energy and capital denying that America is a class society. Recall how Poppy Bush used to accuse his political adversaries of conducting class warfare, even as his policies, like those of his son, do great harm to working people while benefiting the wealthy. Unrestrained capitalism is the opposite of Robin Hood and it reigns supreme in America. The hypocrisy of the elder Bush’s inane pronouncement is an insult to the intelligence of every working class citizen, who knows about class divisions first hand through long experience. In essence, what we have here is a predator and prey relationship. The rich are today preying upon the poor, just as they have always done.

This relationship is portrayed clearly and accurately through an examination of labor history. One particularly poignant example occurred in the hills of West Virginia in the spring of 1920. This was the battle of Matewan that pitted the mining companies against the coal miners who were desperately trying to organize a union. Far from being atypical of the oppression and wage slavery that characterizes America to this day, the events that unfolded in the coal fields of West Virginia are emblematic of class struggle, as documented by the historical evidence. An examination of these facts reveals the insult and insensitivity of Poppy Bush’s absurd proclamations against the working poor.

Few of us today can appreciate the atrocious conditions that working people once endured. Some of the worst working conditions in the world were encountered in the coal fields of West Virginia. Thousands of men and boys (child labor was also exploited in those days) died in the mines as a result of wanton neglect on the part of the mine owners. The lives of the coal miners were of no greater worth to the mining companies than a turnip. Workers were nothing more than property that was expendable and easily replaceable in the field. The horrid conditions that prevailed in places like Matewan, West Virginia, are almost beyond imagination.

Whole towns were under the oppressive dictatorship of the coal companies, which included the political electorate. Thus the coal companies assumed the role of God not only in the coal fields of West Virginia, but all across the land. Other corporations did the same. The coal miners lived in constant fear and intimidation of their bosses and their goon squads. Their housing was owned by the company. Entire towns were in essence owned by the company. The coal miners were the slaves on whose backs great fortunes were amassed for the mining companies and the robber barons. The mine owners lived like kings, while the miners scratched out a subsistence living in utter squalor. The miners had to purchase their tools, their food and supplies from company stores, whose prices were grossly inflated. The long hours of toil in the wretched and dangerous mines were paid in company scrip. Often at the end of an eighty hour work week, owing to the irregularities that always arose in keeping the company books, the miners actually owed the mining company money.

Those who tried to organize unions were summarily fired from their jobs and evicted from their housing. Many were routinely beaten and murdered by company thugs, such as the Felts Detective Agency. These beatings and murders occurred all across the nation, and those who administered them did so with impunity. The police and the National Guard were under the employ of the mining companies. As they are today, they were called forth to protect the wealth and property of the rich from the justice demanded by the working poor. There was no law and there was no justice for working people. The only protection the workers had was the union. Despite that kind of opposition, miners joined the union by the thousands in Matewan and vicinity in a display of courage that is rarely seen today.

Matewan was different from the norm in an important way: its police chief, Sid Hatfield, a former coal miner, and its mayor, C. Testerman, were both men of courage and moral integrity who stood up to the thugs hired by the mining companies to terrorize the miners and their families. Understandably, such courage and strength of character were an aberration. Under enormous pressure from armed thugs, lesser men in other parts of the country capitulated and cooperated with the corrupt power of the mining companies. These companies were essentially all powerful

Agents of the Felts Detective Agency had been unlawfully evicting union families from their homes, setting their belongings out in the rain. Sid Hatfield and Mayor Testerman attempted to halt the evictions, but to no avail. Then on the afternoon of May 19, 1920, accompanied by a group of armed miners, Hatfield attempted to arrest the detectives including Baldwin-Felts president Thomas Felts, and brothers Albert and Lee, who carried out the evictions. Hatfield and Testerman faced their heavily armed adversaries in the street. Someone fired a shot and a fierce gun battle ensued. In less than a minute eye witnesses reported that more than a hundred shots were fired. Killed in the first volley were Al Felts and mayor Testerman. When the shooting was over, seven detectives, including Lee Felts and two miners were dead or dying in the streets of Matewan. The incident became known as the Matewan Massacre.

The episode made Sid Hatfield a folk hero to working people throughout the world. Here was a man who not only faced the armed thugs hired by the mining company, he shot it out with them in the streets of Matewan and killed two of the notorious Felts brothers. Fifteen months later, however, Sid Hatfield was gunned down in a surprise attack by agents of the Felts Detective Agency on the steps of the McDowell County courthouse. No one was ever tried, much less convicted for his assassination. The murder touched off a fierce armed insurrection by the coal miners that involved more than ten thousand men.

This is the history of class conflict in America-one episode among countless thousands. But it is a history, common as it was, that is rarely told. You will not read about it in the text books used to teach history in our schools. Why? Because events like this tell the real story about America’s long war on working class people. It reveals how our nation’s wealthiest and most influential families obtained their positions of wealth and privilege. It is the kind of history that foments outrage at the injustice that still afflicts working class people to this day. It is a history that demonstrates that ordinary people can fight back and demand justice, even against impossible odds. Better to die a free man than live a slave.

So when I hear the products of class privilege, the Bush family, for example, accusing others of fomenting class warfare it makes me shake with rage because I know the history of my country in sordid detail. I know they are spewing lies that dishonor the countless thousands of working class people who were brutally oppressed and often murdered by their employers and their hired guns. I am also reminded that the Bush family fortune has been amassed like so many other dynasties-through the brutal exploitation of working people known as wage slavery. The Bush clan has no conception about what it is like to struggle, to sacrifice and to honor and uphold justice for ordinary people. If I were a plutocrat, if this were my legacy, I would not want the world to know about it either. It is a disgrace too vile to be put into words. This is what I call America’s secret history-the history those in power do not want you to know about. So spare me the banal talk about a free and democratic society. That is not what America is about.

This secret history explains current events perfectly. Working people are still fighting the same fight against the same foes as did Sid Hatfield and those coal miners at Matewan on that fateful day in 1920. The descendants of those people continue to work the coal fields of West Virginia and they continue to die in the mines. Under burgeoning capitalism the mining companies are now permitted to write the legislation that is supposed to provide for the safety of the miners. Thus the guns of the Felts Detective Agency have been rendered, for the time being, unnecessary. Why resort to violence when legalized bribery works so well? How little things have changed. Working class people continue to be the prey of their corporate employers with little recourse to the judiciary. Unionism, as timid and ineffective as it is these days, continues to wane as corporate power increases. It is the same old drama being played out in modern times by the descendants of the original players-and, like it or not, all of us are participants.

Now the vast majority of workers are ‘at will’ employees without any kind of protection from their employers. Thus, as in the days of Matewan, if a person wants to survive they must submit themselves to the indignity of being the property of their employers. America is a nation that was built upon slave labor. Migrating from job to job is no better than migrating from one master to another. In any case, the worker is the slave of the employer. The tradition continues to this day, although with far more subtlety than in the past. Our elected officials, if calling them so is not to make a mockery of the term, are increasingly under the employ of the ruling elite. The judiciary is stocked with corporate apologists anxious to continue the tradition of fleecing the workers and lining their own pockets with wealth they neither create nor earn. The fact that Industrial slavery bears a close and disturbing resemblance to its cousin chattel slavery is no accident. Its end product is almost as tragic, as the gap between rich and poor widens exponentially. As is the custom in America, the rich have gotten to where they are by riding the poor.

The character and the courage of Sid Hatfield and those coal miners at Matewan, West Virginia, are inspiring. Following their outstanding moral example, let us not capitulate to the modern thugs of American corporatocracy-to the military industrial complex and the champions of empire that would grind us under their heel. Let us read and reread labor history-America’s history-with a sense of hope and optimism, inspired by the example of Sid Hatfield and thousands of people like him. Someone has to stand up to the thugs who have always run this country for private wealth. We must, as history demonstrates so clearly, take heart and show some courage. We must stand for justice for all, no matter the personal cost. Otherwise, we are only paying homage to high minded ideals while betraying them with our misspent lives. We must stand together, shoulder to shoulder and face the enemy.

A life lived in the pursuit of justice for all is the only kind of life worth living. It is an examined life that requires character, courage and a capacity for critical thinking that can see beyond rhetoric and the mere symbols of freedom, to the bedrock of reality. It is a life that demands substance from us. The Wobblies had it right all along. The answer to justice, to world peace, is One Big Union. An injury to one is an injury to all is as true today as it was the day the phrase was coined. We should live by this credo. Justice demands courage and even bravado. As Thoreau so eloquently stated, “A man sits as many risks as he runs.”

American history, as dismal as it often is, is also the history of class struggle against oppression. Therein lies its greatest value-its eternal hope. It is the long continued fight that has always kept America from being what it could become-a bastion of democracy and hope, bristling with peace. This is because a privileged few do not want to share the wealth of this nation with those who create it. They intend to keep it for themselves, as their predecessors did. So we must keep alive the idea of One Big Union. It represents our best hope for halting the exportation of jobs that pits worker against worker across political boundaries. To accomplish this Herculean task requires that we have the courage and the wisdom to bring back the revolutionary unionism championed by people like Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Emma Goldman and Big Bill Haywood. Sid Hatfield and mayor Testerman have already shown us the way. Do we have the fortitude and the courage to follow their example?

Note: the author gratefully acknowledges and thanks long time union organizer Anthony Debella for providing the inspirational impetus behind this piece.

Charles Sullivan is a photographer and free lance writer residing in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. He welcomes your comments at [email protected]

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