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Harlan: Working under the Gun

Harlan: Working under the Gun

by John Dos Passos, An Article in The New Republic (December 2, 1931).John Dos Passos, Photo Wikipedia[View Image]
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John Dos Passos, Photo Wikipedia

Editor’s Note: John Dos Passos was born in 1896 in Chicago, Illinois. His wartime service as an ambulance driver and later work as a journalist led him to see the America as “two nations,” one for the rich and one for the poor. His reputation as social historian, radical critic of American life, and major novelist of the postwar “lost generation” rests primarily on his powerful U.S.A. trilogy.

Everybody knows that the coal industry is sick and that the men working at our most dangerous occupation (every sixth man is injured in the course of a year) are badly off, but few Americans outside of the miners themselves understand how badly off, or how completely the “American standard of living” attained in some sections during boom years, with strong unions working under the Jacksonville agreement, has collapsed. The coal operators, who have been unable to organize their industry commercially or financially along modern lines, have taken effective common action in only one direction: in an attack against the unions, the wage scales and the living conditions of the men who dig the coal out for them. Harlan County in eastern Kentucky, which has been brought out into the spotlight this summer by the violence with which the local Coal Operators’ Association has carried on this attack, is, as far as I can find out, a pretty good medium exhibit of the entire industry: living conditions are better than in Alabama and perhaps a little worse than in the Pittsburgh district. The fact that the exploited class in Harlan County is of old American pre-Revolutionary stock, that the miners still speak the language of Patrick Henry and Daniel Boone and Andrew Jackson and conserve the pioneer traditions of the Revolutionary War and of the conquest of the West, will perhaps win them more sympathy from the average American than he would waste on the wops and bohunks he is accustomed to see get the dirty end of the stick in labor troubles.


I am sad and weary, I’ve got the
hongry ragged blues,
Not a penny in my pocket
to buy one thing I need to use
I was up this mornin
with the worst blues ever had in my life
Not a bit to cook for breakfast
or for a coalminer’s wife.

The mines in Harlan County are in the forks and creeks of the upper part of the Cumberland River. A comparatively new coal field, first developed on a large scale during the boom in production that went along with the European War, its output is said to be a very high grade of bituminous. The miners were organized 90 percent by the United Mine Workers of America around 1917. In the 1920 boom a union miner was sometimes able, hiring several “chalkeyes” (inexperienced helpers) at $8 a day, to clear two or three hundred dollars a month. Railways pushed into the leafy valleys of the Cumberland range, fairly prosperous towns grew up. The population of Harlan County increased three or fourfold. Local business men who had managed to get hold of coal lands prospered on leases and royalties. Mountaineers who had lived poor and free on their hillside farms came down into the valleys to work in the mines and live in “patches” of temporary houses, put up by the companies. The race for riches went to the heads of the operators. The fact of having a little cash every two weeks went to the heads of the miners. The union turned into a racket and lapsed. Financiers skimmed the cream off the coal companies and left them overcapitalized and bankrupt. In the fat years no one thought of taking any measures of civic organization to help tide them over the lean years that were to follow—a typical American situation. Headlong deflation left the coal operators broke and the miners starving.

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. Jones—his wife is a member of the Hall family, which has mining interests in the vicinity—called 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.


When my husband works in the coalmines,
he loads a car on every trip,
Then he goes to the office that evenin
an gits denied of scrip—
Jus because it took all he had made that day
to pay his mine expenses—
Jus because it took all he had made that day
to pay his mine expenses.
A man that’ll jus work for coal light an carbide
he ain’t got a speck of sense.

Breakfast in the station at Cincinnati. After that the train crosses the Ohio River and starts winding through the shallow valleys of the rolling section of central Kentucky. At lunch time to get to the dining car we have to walk through a federal prison car on its way to Atlanta. Change at Corbin onto a local train for Pineville. The Louisville papers say Governor Sampson is sending a detachment of militia into Harlan County. As we get near Pineville the valleys deepen. Steep hills burnished with autumn cut out the sky on either side. There’s the feeling of a train getting near the war zone in the old days

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.

When the members of the committee settle down at a long table in a room off the lobby to decide on a plan of procedure, stories start pouring in.

Mr. Dreiser, after questioning Mrs. Grace about her husband’s former employment—a former miner now working in a store, he was prominent in organizing the N. M. U.—asks her how he was arrested:

A. I was not with him, but he was arrested in Letcher County. Neon. Him and Tom Myerscough were together.
Q. What were they doing?
A. They were trying to get the union organized. They were organizing against starvation. They were establishing a union for better conditions.
Q. What happened to him?
A. After they came to the house looking for him, he went away and stayed at a friend’s house and then he and Tom went to Neon, Letcher County. There he was arrested and took to jail in Neon. Then he was turned over to the Jenkins’ bunch of gunmen.
Q. Well, what happened then?
A. Him and Myerscough were turned over to the Harlan County bunch and they takes them over to the Big Black Mountains of Virginia. They bust him in the face and broke his cheek bone. They kicked him in the back. He ran into the woods and they fired at him.
Q. How many shots did they fire?
A. About fifty I guess.
Q. Did they hit him?
A. Well he was grazed at the elbow.
Q. What did he do?
A. He went on to Middlesboro and stayed at a friend’s house. But I didn’t know. When I first got word that Mr. Grace and Tom was held in jail, I didn’t know whether he was in Harlan, Jenkins, or Neon. I goes out and went to get somebody to find out. We thought they were killed. I started to get hold of the I. L. D. and I just happened in where Mr. Grace was and I asked the lady whether her husband was there and I found out that Jim was there. His face and eyes was swollen black and blue. He was crazy as a loon.

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.

Meanwhile, in a crowded room in the Llewellyn Hotel, miners and their wives were telling their stories:

Q. For how many years have you been a miner?
A. From twenty to twenty-five years.
Q. Have you done most of your mining here in Harlan County?
A. Since 1917. . . .
Q. When you were in good standing with this union [the United Mine Workers] how much did you make a day?
A. When we had a union here I could make from four dollars to
five dollars to six dollars a day.
Q. How much did you make a month?
A. Anywhere maybe along from eighty dollars to one hundred.
Q. How much did you work for after the union broke up?
A. They kept cutting wages down till you hardly couldn’t make anything at all. . . .
Q. This thirty dollars that you would get, was it in scrip or in cash?
A. No, sir, you hardly ever drew any money on that. You traded your scrip in at the store, the company store, and part of the time they had you in debt.
Q. Did you buy clothing at the company store or food?
A. Food. I couldn’t get enough to buy clothes.
Q. How did you get clothing?
A. I generally sent out to beg and did the best I could.

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?
A. We have just managed to exist. I will tell you that I’ve had just one dollar in the last three days to live on, my husband and myself and two children.
Q. I wonder how you distribute that money around.
A. We live on beans and bread. We don’t get no dinner…. There don’t none of you know how hard a man works that works in the mines and I’ll tell you what I had to put in his bucket this morning for him to eat and work hard all day. There was a little cooked punkin and what you folks call white meat, just fat white bacon, and that’s what he took to the mines to eat and work on and he had water gravy for breakfast and black coffee.
Q. And what’s water gravy?
A. Water and grease and a little flour in it.
Q. What do you give the children?
A. They had the same breakfast and they don’t get no dinner…. They’re not in a situation to go to school because they have no shoes on their feet and no underwear on them and the few clothes they have, they are through them.

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.


All the women in this coalcamp
are sittin with bowed down heads
All the women in this coalcamp
are sittin with bowed down heads
Ragged an barefooted an their
children acryin for bread
No food no clothes for our children
I’m sure this ain’t no lie
No food no clothes for our children
I’m sure this ain’t no lie
If we can’t get no more for our labor
we will starve to death and die.

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?
A. The people in this country are destitute of anything that is really nourishing to the body. That is the truth. Even the babies have lost their lives and we have buried from four to seven a week during the warm weather . . . on account of cholera, flux, famine, stomach trouble brought on by undernourishment. Their food is very bad, such as beans and harsh foods fried in this lard that is so hard to digest . . . Families have had to depend on the Red Cross. The Red Cross put out some beans and corn.
Q. Do they give it to everyone that asks?
A. No, they stop it when they know a man belongs to the union.
Q. What did they say about it?
A. The Red Cross is against a man who is trying to better conditions. They are for the operators and they want the mines to be going, so they won’t give anything to a man unless he does what the operators want him to. . . . I talked to the Red Cross lady over in Pineville. I said there’s a lot of little children in destitution. Their feet are on the ground. They have come so far. They are going to get pneumonia and flu this winter that will kill them children off.
Q. Did she offer to give you any relief?
A. No, because they was members of the National Miners’ Union. They said, “We are not responsible for those men out on strike. They should go back to work and work for any price that they will take them on for.”

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:

Please don’t go under those mountains
with the slate ahangin over your head,
Please don’t go under those mountains
with the slate ahangin over your head
An work for jus coal light and carbide
an your children acryin for bread;
I pray you take my council
please take a friend’s advice:
Don’t load no more, don’t put out no more
till you get a livin price.


This minin town I live in
is a sad an a lonely place,
This minin town I live in
is a sad an a lonely place,
For pity and starvation
is pictured on every face,
Everybody hongry and ragged,
no slippers on their feet,
Everybody hongry and ragged,
no slippers on their feet,
All goin round from place to place
bummin for a little food to eat.
Listen my friends and comrades
please take a friend’s advice,
Don’t put out no more of your labor
till you get a livin price.

Evarts is probably one of the few towns in the United States that still has democratic government. In spite of the fact that it’s hemmed in on every side by coal-company property, that the chief of police and town clerk were arrested and charged with murder after the battle in May and that the town policing was done all summer by company guards, at the November election they put in a pro-miner town council by something like 200 to 80 votes. Most of the men at present on trial for their lives come from Evarts, and as far as I could find out from talking around, they have the complete sympathy of the local population. It is in Evarts that the union movement started, and there the miners were first accused of being Reds when it was discovered by the Coal Operators’ Association that one of the U. M. W. of A. locals had taken out an I. W. W. charter. The miners on trial for murder are being defended by the General Defense Committee, the old Wobbly defense, that is unwilling to cooperate with the Communist-affiliated I. L. D. defending the criminal syndicalism and banding and confederating cases that have grown out of attempts to suppress the National Miners’ Union. So far as I could make out, the county authorities consider members of either organization equally without human rights. Possibly the I. W. W. occupies a slightly better position, owing to its connection with U. M. W. of A. officials who have contacts with state (Democratic) politics, and to its soft pedaling of class-war talk. But the real point is that the situation of the miners is so desperate that they’ll join anything that promises them even temporary help. I asked one man if he’d go to work again under the present scale, supposing he could get past the blacklist. He said, “You starve if you work an’ you starve if you don’t work. A man ‘ud rather starve out in the woods than starve workin’ under the gun.”

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.

Source: Dos Passos, John, “Harlan: Working under the Gun,” The New Republic, December 2, 1931, New Deal Network, (April 15,2014).

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