by midtowng | 5/13/2008 06:51:00 PM
On August 3, 1986, Florence Reece passed away at the age of 86. She was one of the greatest poets, songwriters, and social activists to ever come out of the Kentucky hills. Her signature song was "Which Side Are You On?"

The song is probably second only to The Internationale as a favorite for striking workers everywhere. It's a simple and powerful song that is only upstaged by the story behind it, and that's the story I want to tell.

You can here Pete Seeger sing it here.
And if you want to see her speak, just click here.

“there exists a virtual reign of terror (in Harlan County), financed in general by a group of coal mine operators in collusion with certain public officials: the victims of this reign of terror are the coal miners and their families... a monster-like reign of oppression whose tentacles reached into the very foundation of the social structure and even into the Church of god... the homes of union miners and organizers were dynamited and fired into...It appears that the principal cause of existing conditions is the desire of the mine owners to amass for themselves fortunes through the oppression of their laborers, which they do through the sheriff's office.”
- 1935 state investigatory commission report

Harlan County is in the south-east corner of Kentucky, tucked up the Virginia border.
In the early 1930's the coal operators exerted almost total power in the area. The sheriff and his deputies were on the company payrolls through a private deputy system until 1938. They controlled the local elections to the point that the state had to throw out the entire 1931 results because of the levels of fraud. Even the local judges and ministers were being paid by the coal companies.
Because the the miners lived in company housing and paid no property taxes, they were barred from jury service. Thus the juries in the county were often filled with coal company officials, merchants and farmers. And then there's the fact that about two thirds of the residents of the county lived in company housing.

The coal companies themselves were all large corporations, as all the small operators had been squeezed out in the previous decade. U.S. Steel owned the mines near the town of Lynch. Detroit Edison owned the King Harlan mines. The town of Benham was owned by International Harvester. The big Kayu mine at Coxton was part of the Mellon holdings.

"I did all in my power to aid the coal operators."
- Sheriff John Henry Blair

Harlan County had no health department, no welfare agency, no social workers. There was simply no government in the area that wasn't owned or influenced by the mine owners. Because the county lacked a middle class (outside of a few small farmers) there was no group to mediate during the strike.
Naturally when conflict between the all powerful and the desperate arose in these conditions, violence was inevitable.


On February 16, 1931, the local coal owners cut wages by 10 percent.
The miners, who lived only a little above the poverty level in good times, began to suffer. Local efforts to organize led to a wildcat strike. The general idea was that they "would rather strike and starve than work and starve." Belatedly the UMW began to organize as the strike spread to neighboring Bell and Knox counties.
By the middle of March the UMW conducted a series of marches to the various mines recruiting members. By early May the miners had recruited at last 8,000 members. Joining a union was a bold move because it meant immediate firing and blacklisting, plus eviction from company housing, and it was legal because of yellow-dog contracts the miners were forced to sign.
The local sheriff brought in thugs from other counties to try and bully the miners. The hatred between the two camps grew intense.

The Red Cross refused to send aid for an industrial dispute, and the bankrupt UMW was husbanding their meager reserves for an official strike. Inevitably the miners and their families began to literally starve.

The night of April 23 saw the first food riot. Several grocery stores were looted that week. In response, local judges declared injunctions against strike leaders.

As the strike drug on the miners became dissatisfied with the UMW and began abandoning it for the more radical I.W.W., as well as forming an independent union called the All Workers Union. Neither union caught on. It was in June of that year that the socialist National Miners Union showed up. Before long it had 4,000 members, which was probably due to the fact that they dispensed food and clothes at their rallies.

The Battle of Evarts

On the morning of May 5, dozens of strikers, about half of them armed, began gathering near the small town of Evarts on a road leading to a Black Mountain mining camp. The sheriff's office quickly organized an armed convoy for a group of supply trucks scheduled to pass through town.
As they slowly crept through Evarts, a shot rang out. No one knows who fired first, but we do know that it was followed by a barrage from the miners. Deputy Sheriff Jim Daniels, who had recently declared that he was "coming down to clean up the whole damn area," lie dead. Two other deputies died as well, as did one miner. In all about 1,000 shots were fired.

Bloody Harlan

The response was immediate and severe.

"[Since the first of the year] in practically every homicide which has occurred in Harlan County...officers figured prominently."
- 1935 Harlan County Grand Jury report

The county of Harlan entered a state of siege. Schools were closed. All the mines in the Evarts area were shut down. Random sniping erupted for days later.
The National Guard arrived two days later.

“These damned miners thought we came here to help them.”
- Lt. Col. Sidney Smith

The militia began making arrests. 29 men are indicted for “banding and confederating” in the killing of the three deputies. No arrests are made in the case of the dead miner.
The ACLU later made a report detailing who was arrested. Here's a short list:
May 20- Rev. Frank Martin arrested for criminal syndicalism and held on $10,000 bond for urging 1,500 men to join the union. Criminal syndicalism carries a penalty of 21 years at hard labor.

May 2 - A Union meeting outside Harlan Courthouse dispersed with tear gas bombs. Knoxville News-Sentinel says: “There was no disturbance to justify the breaking up of the meeting.”

Other incidents in May: Gill Green, 67-year-old colored preacher, slapped into jail soon after saying that the sheriff and his gunmen were “with the operators. The operators bought and paid for them on Election Day.” Held in jail for weeks without charges.

John Gross, local organizer for U. M. W., on pretext of being taken to see the sheriff, is led to a lonely hillside, where his captors tell him: “Damn you, we’ve got you where we want you; we’re going to kill you if you ever open your mouth about the union.”

June ll - Joe Chasteen, owner of a miners’ meeting-place, shot to death by Bill Randolph, coal guard for the Three Point Coal Co., owned and operated by Elmer Hall, brother-in-law of Judge Jones.

June l - Frank Perkins, union miner, held for criminal syndicalism because he possessed I. W. W. literature.

Car of Jessie Wakefield of New York, International Labor Defense representative, is dynamited. The car had been used to carry relief to miners.

July 18-Bruce Crawford, editor of “Crawford’s Weekly” in Norton, Va., shot in leg from ambush as he crosses a bridge in Harlan. Sheriff Blair had previously announced his intention of suing Crawford because of articles appearing in his paper.

Home of Jason Alford, union sympathizer, dynamited.

It was around this time that Sheriff Blair's private office got the nickname of "The Whispering Room" because the sheriff often pointed a gun at his victims while saying, "Say your prayers."

When the court docket opened Judge Jones, who's wife was a member of the Coal Operators Association, told the Grand Jury, "No one belonging to a ‘Red” organization had any right to look to this court or to any other court in the country for justice.”
When a defense attorney presented an affidavit to have Judge Jones disqualified for his connections with coal interests, the attorney is fined $30 and threatened with contempt of court.

By this time the strike had been effectively crushed, but the crackdown by the coal owners went on.
August 30 - Deputy Sheriff Lee Fleenor drives up to soup kitchen, turns headlights on men standing in doorway, opens fire, killing Joe Moore and Julius Baldwin, striking miners, and seriously wounding Baldwin’s brother.

Sept. 26 - Jim Grace, N. M. U. organizer from Wallins Creek, beaten mercilessly by group of deputies.
"It seemed like the old feudal system argument that the slave can have nothing to say as to his master's treatment of him."
- Knoxville News-Sentinel, 1931

It was around this time that Florence Reece enters the story. She married Sam Reece at the age of 15. During the strike Sam was a union organizer.
During this strike, the sheriff, J.H. Blair, led his gang of thugs on a violent rampage, beating and murdering union leaders. They found themselves at the Reece's home, where Reece was alone with the children. She held her ground, asking the sheriff, "What are you here for? You know there's nothing but a lot of little hungry children here." Then she somehow got word to her husband not to come home, while the sheriff and his thugs kept watch at he door. The men ransacked the house in search of Sam, to no avail. While Florence waited inside for her husband, she wrote the song on an old wall calendar, to the tune of "Lay the Lily Low".

Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I'll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
And I'm a miner's son
And I'll stick with the union
Till every battle's won

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Oh, workers can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?

Don't scab for the bosses
Don't listen to their lies
Us poor folks haven't got a chance
Unless we organize


The labor unrest in Harlan simply wouldn't go away. The coal owners cracked down on any attempt at organizing, and the miners naturally resented it. The violence continued year after bloody year, until the term "Bloody Harlan" become an infamous term in labor's history. Even after the Wagner Act was passed under FDR and many other coal regions began to be organized, Harlan County remained in its semi-feudal state until 1939, when another major strike erupted. This time, with the backing of federal law. the miners finally won their union.




Blogger Ralph Brauer on 5/14/2008 10:04 PM:


One of the best accounts of the Harlan County War I've read. Years ago I taught a course on Appalachian History and was fortunate and humbled to spend time with Loyal Jones and the folks at Berea. They would be very pleased to see this great essay.

Besides some wonderful writing, the illustrations really add a lot.

Nice job.

Any comments about what is happening in Harlan today?


Blogger KcM on 5/15/2008 1:52 PM:

"Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody's shouting.
'Which Side Are You On?'"