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Life Arts    H1'ed 4/16/19

Rednecks with Short Memories - West Virginia, Birthplace of Democratic Socialism

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The Coal Town System West Virginia coal operators built small, company-owned towns for their miners to live in. The coal towns were almost always unincorporated; there were no ...
The Coal Town System West Virginia coal operators built small, company-owned towns for their miners to live in. The coal towns were almost always unincorporated; there were no ...
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I dedicate this article to my dear and respected friend Jerry Policoff who encourages and inspires me with his conviction that progressive is not extreme, it has only been framed as such by those who fear it.

The term redneck gets thrown around alot in West Virginia and is a common insult used towards West Virginians by those outside looking in. The word conjures up pejorative images of rough looking white men with big trucks, emblazoned with rebel flags, "hootin an hollerin" and shootin' their guns.

These images, disdained by some, worn as badges of honor by others, show the extent to which the word has been corrupted from its original meaning. The nature of human beings to have short memories only hasten the process.

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When WV voted for Donald Trump, I can't say I was completed shocked. Obviously he successfully sold his brand of populist snake oil to the voters, preying on their sense of pride and hope for a better economic future. More importantly, he understood that Hillary's attack on coal, although perhaps a better environmental policy, was a direct attack on the history of West Virginians and showed her complete lack of understanding of who we are at our core- the working class.

The saddest part for for me was in realizing that many West Virginians themselves have but a vague remembering or no knowledge at all about how we became "rednecks". So many have forgotten the origin of the miners' labor movement, born from the exploitation, abuse and violence of their ruthless employers.

Given its history, West Virginia should be one of the most radically socialist states in the nation. So what happened? How did this state go from a vastly union supporting state to a state who overwhelmingly voted for a capitalist billionaire?

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Let's go back in time...

They emerged from the tunnels, eyes squinting even in the subdued light of an almost setting sun. Their faces black, the shine of their hair dulled by the layers of thick coal dust caked into the very scalp. Their eyes, sharp and bright against the dark backdrop of their visage, spoke without words of the exhaustion they felt. Their bodies, from the youngest to the oldest, at differing stages on the path to destruction, would continue on the next day, as inevitably as the next coal car in its turn, eventually disappearing into the darkness of the mine for the last time.

The work is brutal. The days are long. Conditions are dangerous. Explosions and cave ins are common. Children work alongside adults.

It was the late 1800s. The life of miners in lower WV at this time in many ways, exemplifies in the clearest of terms, the great lies of capitalism. The capitalist mantras of "hard work is all you need to get ahead", "those who fail are just lazy" or "the free market is only the way to a free society" are all obvious contradictions when examined in the context of a time when capitalists made all the rules.

In rural mining towns, companies owned and controlled every resource. They owned the housing where the miners lived, the stores where the miners shopped. And to complete the cycle of control, the miners were paid in scrip, not money. The scrip was only good for the purchase of goods from the company store and the payment of rent in company housing.

This meant simply asking for higher wages would have no effect on their standard of living because the company could just raise the cost of rent and goods to equal that of the miners pay.

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By the way, the coal company didn't pay by the hour. They paid by the ton of coal and work like shoring up questionable, dangerous passages were done without compensation. By controlling every aspect of the economic ecosystem the coal company could insure that the income of miners after paying expenses would always be less than zero. This put them in a perpetual state of indentured servitude. It was simply reinvented feudalism.

Of course the companies tried to portray this system as paternalistic. As "taking care of every need" of the miner. But in practice, mining towns were prison camps. The coal company also owned the land, the bridges, the roads and the private lawmen that were paid to mete out "justice", the notorious Baldwin-Felts thugs.

Striking workers were not permitted on company property, including roads and bridges, and the company guards were permitted to fire on and kill miners who dared to trespass. Advocates of capitalism often pontificate that workers who don't like their jobs should "vote with their feet", a ridiculous notion when one considers life under these conditions.

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Michele Goddard Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

I was born in 1970 in Wheeling, WV and have lived here all my life. I come from mostly Irish Catholic coal miners and railroad workers. My original academic interest was in teaching foreign languages studying both French and Spanish in High (more...)
 

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5 people are discussing this page, with 7 comments  Post Comment


Michele Goddard

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The trend towards socialism as working conditions deteriorate and workers suffering is greatest is observed in various labor movements. As conditions improve the tendency is for workers to fall victim to anti socialist propaganda. Socialism however continues to reemerge every time conditions decline and each time propaganda is ramped up to drive it back.

Submitted on Tuesday, Apr 16, 2019 at 1:02:39 PM

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David Watts

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Michele, you just proved my point. I told you after reading your first article that you posted when you first joined OEN, you write really well. Excellent, educational article. Keep writing. :)

Submitted on Tuesday, Apr 16, 2019 at 11:51:49 PM

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Michele Goddard

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Thank you so much for your kind words. This site has been the first attempt I have ever made at sharing my writing (thanks in great part to Jerry) He and I started emailing about issues and he suggested that I could try to write and I took a cha ce and did. I have also found a community here who are interested in serious engagement on the issues, passionate people who want to make a difference and that is invaluable.


My daughter told me yesterday that she had made a post on Facebook about the tragedy at Notre Dame and how it impacted her. She said that there was literally no reaction to it. She said that people will have long back and forth threads about nonsense and will compliment her appearance but she said, "I wrote something of aubstance and meaning from my heart and shared it and there was only silence." I said, "Well it os Facebook" (Which I deleted after the Cambridge Analytics debacle)


She read what ahe wrote to me and it was very moving. I told her she should sign up on OpEd and share it here. I told her that people don't always agree here but she would find the type of discourae she is seeking. I hope she does.


Thank you for your support.


Tale Care,


Michele

Submitted on Wednesday, Apr 17, 2019 at 12:00:53 PM

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Jerry Policoff

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I am so thrilled that Michele dedicated this essay to me. I think it originated when I asked her how she could be descended from coal miners and spent her entire life in West Virginia and yet is, and probably always has been, a strong and articulate progressive. I guess I was one of those people she mentions who stereotyped West Virginians, and I must humbly admit that I was wrong to do so.

Thank you Michele.

Submitted on Tuesday, Apr 16, 2019 at 3:41:21 PM

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b. sadie bailey

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What an eye-opening, well-written education on the history of socialism and how the coal miners in West Virginia (and elsewhere) were treated by the elitists who used them and didn't care a whit about their lives or wellbeing. I've learned a lot reading your essay.

I agree that it's wrong-headed for environmentalists to blame workers - the workers should never be blamed. they are used as expendable commodities - pawns of the elite, who care not ONE BIT for them or the lan- rape they're making these people perform. Elitists care only for their own profits; workers and the environment be damned! When we all finally wake up to that, we can do something for both.

Since the miners were offered no other choice than mining by the mega-capitalist corporate mercenaries, what should we have expected them to do? We have to do better than this for our workers AND our environment. Humanist socialism seems a step in that right direction.

Submitted on Tuesday, Apr 16, 2019 at 10:23:42 PM

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Thank you so much for your comments. People in this valley are suffering so much even at thia moment. We are suffering in poverty, heroin, depression, lack of health care not to mention many miners suffer black lung, emphysema, and other health effect. Cancer rates are high. My grandfather died of mesothelioma from working in a local factory. Of course West Virginians have done a lot to contribute to their own poor health with diet and smoking (another corporate endorsed, health destroying addiction) but I am thankful that people like you can recognize that many of these "choices" come back to being ill I formed because of corporate media dominance and deaperately trying to make a living off of whatever industry was in the area. They just want to work and raise their families.


I'm glad you got something from the story. There are so many resources about this topic I learned after starting to write about it. I approached it juat as a personal experience of what I knew about WV experience but as I looked up what I had learned from passing down of stories to verify it was all accurate I found and entire segment of literature written about WV labor movement and even I learned so much more.


This goes to show how these stories are being buries in the academic literature and are not mainstreamed. It works better for the capitalists to turn environmentalists against miners. Thankfully you and I and many others are smart enough to not fall for their divisiveness. We can join forces and show the entire country that we can do better, for the people and the planet.


Take care,


Michele



Submitted on Wednesday, Apr 17, 2019 at 11:51:33 AM

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Great article, thanks.

However, "redneck" has another meaning, probably more authentic.

Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redneck

"Redneckis a derogatory term chiefly but not exclusively applied to white Americans perceived to be crass and unsophisticated, closely associated with rural whites of the Southern United States.[1][2] Its usage is similar in meaning to cracker (especially regarding Texas, Georgia, and Florida), hillbilly (especially regarding Appalachia and the Ozarks),[3] and white trash(but without the last term's suggestions of immorality).[4][5] [6] "

"Political term for poor farmers

The term characterized farmers having a red neck caused by sunburn from hours working in the fields. A citation from provides a definition as "poorer inhabitants of the rural districts ... men who work in the field, as a matter of course, generally have their skin stained red and burnt by the sun, and especially is this true of the back of their necks".[9] Hats were usually worn and they protected that wearer's head from the sun, but also provided psychological shade from closer scrutiny. [10] The back of the neck however was more exposed to the sun and allowed closer scrutiny about the person's background in the same way calloused working hands could not be easily covered.

By 1900, "rednecks" was in common use to designate the political factions inside the Democratic Party comprising poor white farmers in the South.[11] The same group was also often called the "wool hat boys" (for they opposed the rich men, who wore expensive silk hats). A newspaper notice in Mississippi in August 1891 called on rednecks to rally at the polls at the upcoming primary election:[12]

Primary on the 25th.
And the "rednecks" will be there.
And the "Yaller-heels" will be there, also.
And the "hayseeds" and "gray dillers," they'll be there, too.
And the "subordinates" and "subalterns" will be there to rebuke their slanderers and traducers.
And the men who pay ten, twenty, thirty, etc. etc. per cent on borrowed money will be on hand, and they'll remember it, too.


By , the political supporters of the Mississippi Democratic Party politician James K. Vardamanchiefly poor white farmersbegan to describe themselves proudly as "rednecks," even to the point of wearing red neckerchiefs to political rallies and picnics.[13] "

Also, it is true:

"Coal miners

The term "redneck" in the early 20th century was occasionally used in reference to American coal miner union members who wore red bandanasfor solidarity. The sense of "a union man" dates at least to the 1910s and was especially popular during the 1920s and 1930s in the coal-producing regions of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.[15] It was also used by union strikers to describe poor white strikebreakers.[16] "

Submitted on Thursday, Apr 18, 2019 at 2:19:21 PM

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