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Blair Mountain march planned for June

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A group that wants to preserve Blair Mountain will re-create a historic march by thousands of coal miners from Marmet to the Logan County mountain this summer.

The march will begin June 6, almost 90 years after nearly 10,000 United Mine Workers members marched from Marmet down into Logan County to organize non-union coal miners.

The Battle of Blair Mountain, fought between Aug. 25 and Sept. 4, 1921, was the largest armed confrontation in U.S. labor history. Federal troops eventually helped force the miners to return home.

This summer's march, organized by the Friends of Blair Mountain, will demand preservation of Blair Mountain, now threatened by coal companies, including Massey Energy and Arch Coal, that hope to begin mountaintop removal mining operations on the historic site.

Marchers said Wednesday they would also support an end to mountaintop removal mining and increased rights for the labor movement.

"Miners fought for so many rights that Americans today take for granted," said C. Belmont Keeney, whose great-grandfather was a main UMW organizer of the 1921 march.

"They fought for freedom of speech, the right to assemble, the right to own their own homes, to be paid in American money and not company scrip. ... They fought to abolish the privately held armies of the coal operators and they fought for the right to join a union," said Keeney, who teaches history and sociology at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.

Salt Rock native Brandon Nida is coordinating efforts to organize the June march, which will end June 11 with a rally on top of Blair Mountain along the Boone-Logan county line.

"Most West Virginia politicians are in the pockets of the coal companies," said novelist and activist Denise Giardina. "Even Blair Mountain, the most important mountain in coal history, is threatened. We are walking for the protection of Blair Mountain, and all mountains, from mountaintop removal mining."

March organizers who spoke at a news conference Saturday said they wanted to get the UMW more involved with the event.

"We must work to make the United Mine Workers realize that this is a UMW issue as well and urge them to get on board," said Ken Hechler, former congressman and secretary of state.

UMW members should support the abolition of mountaintop removal mining, in part because those mines cut employment, said Perry Still, a retired coal miner and UMW member in Matewan.

In Boone County, the state's largest coal county, 2,053 miners working in underground mines produce more than 10 million tons of coal a year, Still said. The county's 1,086 surface miners produce nearly 12 million tons.

"I would like to see the leaders in our union join our protest," Still said.

Last month, UMW President Cecil Roberts wrote in The Charleston Gazette, "Blair Mountain is as close to sacred ground as there is for the UMWA. Though we may not physically own the mountain's land, its legacy is ours. ... We strongly support its preservation, for it represents the power ordinary people have when they decide to stick together and take up common struggle for the benefit of all."

Chuck Nelson, who grew up along the Coal River in Boone County, worked in the mines for 29 years, including eight years as a non-union miner after Massey Energy bought the mine where he worked.

"Massey was reluctant to hire union miners," Nelson said. "Massey brought people in from outside the area. Today, our towns are turning into ghost towns. And mountaintop removal mining is also destroying our communities."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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