Harlan County War

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Harlan County War
Part of the Coal Wars
File:Harlan county war.png
Date 1931–1932
Location Harlan County, Kentucky, United States
Parties to the civil conflict
Striking coal miners;
United Mine Workers
Mine operators;
Private guards
Lead figures
Deaths: Undetermined
Deaths: 5

The Harlan County War was a series of coal mining-related skirmishes, executions, bombings, and strikes (both attempted and realized) that took place in Harlan County, Kentucky, during the 1930s. The incidents involved coal miners and union organizers on one side and coal firms and law enforcement officials on the other.[1] The question at hand: the rights of Harlan County coal miners to organize their workplaces and better their wages and working conditions. It was a nearly decade-long conflict, lasting from 1931 to 1939. Before its conclusion, two acclaimed folk singers would emerge, state and federal troops would occupy the county more than half a dozen times, an indeterminate number of miners, deputies, and bosses would be killed, union membership would oscillate wildly, and workers in the nation's most anti-labor coal county would ultimately be represented by a union.


In the throes of the Great Depression, Harlan County coal owners and operators, in an effort to expand national dependency on their fuel, chose to sell below cost. On February 16, 1931, in order to prevent operating at a loss during this period, the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association cut miners' wages by 10%. Capitalizing on the general unrest created within Harlan's already-impoverished labor force, the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) attempted to organize the county's miners.[2][3] Employees who were known by their bosses to be union members were initially fired and evicted from their company-owned homes. However, before long, most of the remaining workforce had struck out of sympathy.[4] Only three of Harlan's incorporated towns were not owned by mines, and hungry and evicted workers and their families sought refuge in them, primarily in the town of Evarts. They found sympathy there with spurned politicians and business owners who wished to see the company stores vanish.[4]

At the peak of the first strike, 5800 miners were idle and only 900 working.[5] Those who worked were protected by private mine guards with full county deputy privileges, who were legally able to exercise their powers with impunity outside the walls of their employers.[5][6] They operated under sheriff J.H. Blair, a man who made his allegiance to the business owners clear: "I did all in my power to aid the operators… there was no compromise when labor troubles swept the county and the 'Reds' came to Harlan County."[7] The citizens of Harlan, for their part, lost any illusions they may have held about impartiality in law enforcement. Songwriter Florence Reece reported:

"Sheriff J.H. Blair and his men came to our house in search of Sam – that's my husband – he was one of the union leaders. I was home alone with our seven children. They ransacked the whole house and then kept watch outside, waiting to shoot Sam down when he came back. But he didn't come home that night. Afterward I tore a sheet from a calendar on the wall and wrote the words to 'Which Side Are You On?' to an old Baptist hymn, 'Lay the Lily Low'. My songs always goes to the underdog – to the worker. I'm one of them and I feel like I've got to be with them. There's no such thing as neutral. You have to be on one side or the other. Some people say, 'I don't take sides – I'm neutral.' There's no such thing. In your mind you're on one side or the other. In Harlan County there wasn't no neutral. If you wasn't a gun thug, you was a union man. You had to be."[8]

Strikers exchanged gunshots with private guards and local law enforcement, and strikebreakers were set upon and beaten.[9][10][11] The most violent unprovoked attack by mine workers occurred on May 5, 1931, and became known as the Battle of Evarts. The miners lay in ambush for cars carrying company men, and shot at them. Three company men and one striker were killed in the exchange of gunfire.

In response to the violence, the Kentucky National Guard was called in. The strikers expected protection, but upon replacing deputized mine guards, the National Guard broke the picket lines instead.[12] On May 24 a union rally was tear-gassed, and Sheriff Blair rescinded county members' right to assemble. By June 17, the last mine had returned to work. No concessions were given by the mine operators, and UMW membership plummeted.[13]

In the wake of the UMW failure, the openly Communist National Miners' Union made a brief play for Harlan County. Though most workers felt disillusioned with organized labor structure, the NMU's radical ideology gained some traction: ten local lodges sprang up before the Harlan County NMU was officially chartered. The smaller but more passionate NMU made greater relief efforts than the UMW had, opening several soup kitchens throughout the county.[14] Ultimately, their attempts at strikes, while weak in surrounding counties, were utter failures in Harlan, where only a fraction of the workforce walked out in 1931 and 1932.[15] Ultimately, a combination of events broke the NMU's foothold: local labor organizers, many of them clergy, learned of the Communist leadership's animosity toward religion and denounced the organization, Young Communist League organizer Harry Simms was killed in Harlan, and the Red Cross and local charities, who had been unwilling to take sides in a labor dispute, began giving aid to blacklisted miners who were unemployable as the NMU's financial troubles necessitated the closing of its soup kitchens.[16]

Under the auspices of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which promoted the right to organize one's workplace and outlawed discrimination and firing based on union membership, approximately half of Harlan's coal mines, those in the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association, were run as open shops from October 27, 1933 - March 31, 1935. An open shop allows union membership but does not mandate it. However, wages at these mines came into step with the rest of the nation. Despite headway by the unions, the battle for Harlan county between labor and capital continued in earnest. Sheriff Blair was voted out of office in 1933 and died in 1934, replaced by T.R. Middleton, a candidate who ran on a pro-union platform, and who ultimately proved far more corrupt than Blair had been.[17] The National Guard was once again called in on December 8, 1934, requested by UMW organizers who had been threatened by bosses and deputies. The troops promptly escorted the union men to the county line.[18] As national political support for the NIRA dwindled, capital gained the upper hand, and when the United States Supreme Court struck down the legislation's pro-union National Recovery Administration portion, shops with union presence in Harlan dwindled from eighteen to one.[19]

Where the NRA had been toothless in Harlan, the Wagner Act of 1935 proved itself a far greater thorn in the side of Harlan County's mine operators. It outlawed yellow-dog contracts, company unions, blacklists, and discrimination on basis of union activity, all tactics employed by coal companies.[20] While coal interests across the nation fell into step with the new legislation in 1935, Harlan was as resistant to federal meddling as it had ever been. On July 7, a group of deputies, enraged at a public celebration of the Wagner act, dispersed the crowd by beating several miners.[21] 1935 proved to be a turbulent year, even for Harlan; troops were deployed to maintain order in the county three times. On September 29, troops were dispatched on behalf of the miners for the first time in the Harlan County War, the governor referring to the beatings and harassment at the hands of the mine guards as "the worst reign of terror in the history of the county."[22][23] He protected the miners despite the fact that a car bomb had killed Harlan County Attorney Elmon Middleton several weeks prior.[24]


Author and activist Theodore Dreiser conducted an investigation under the auspices of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners (NCDPP) of the American Communist Party. With contributions by John dos Passos, Samuel Ornitz, and others, Dreiser produced a report called Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields. The Dreiser Committee also discovered the labor folk singer Aunt Molly Jackson and her younger half-brother Jim Garland, putting them on a tour of 38 states to raise funds for the strikers.[25] Also, during the strike Florence Reece, wife of organizer Sam Reece, wrote the labor standard "Which Side Are You On?"

California labor activist Caroline Decker first became involved in union activities during the Harlan County War, when she and her sister participated in relief activities for striking miners.[26]

The 1976 documentary film Harlan County, USA, winner of the 1977 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, focuses on similar labor violence of the 1970s but refers to the 1930s violence as context. (Florence Reece appears in the film.) The 2000 television movie Harlan County War starred Holly Hunter.

See also


  1. STRIFE IN KENTUCKY IS LIKENED TO WAR: Investigator Who Was Jailed ...New York Times. Nov 18, 1931; pg. 18.
  2. HARLAN WAR TRACED TO PAY-CUT REVOLT: Subsequent A.F. of L. Unionizing ... By LOUIS STARK. Special to The New York Times. New York Times Sep 29, 1931; pg. 3
  3. LIMIT IN WAGE CUTS REACHED IN HARLAN: SCENE IN HARLAN COUNTY (KENTUCKY) INDUSTRIAL STRIFE. By LOUIS STARK. Special to The New York Times. Wide World Photo. New York Times (1923-Current file); Oct 3, 1931; pg. 13
  4. 4.0 4.1 Which Side Are You On?: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39, by John W. Hevener p.32
  5. 5.0 5.1 Which Side Are You On?: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39, by John W. Hevener p. 46
  6. Which Side Are You On?: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39, by John W. Hevener pp.39,40
  7. Which Side Are You On?: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39, by John W. Hevener p.39
  8. http://www.laborheritage.org/?p=249
  9. Harlan Coal Fields Face Civil War; Kentucky County Is an Armed Camp, By LOUIS STARK. Special to The New York Times.; Sep 28, 1931; pg. 1
  10. MINE TRIAL WITNESS TELLS OF WHIPPING: He Asserts Union Men Applied ..; New York Times; Dec 1, 1931;
  11. HARLAN MAN LASHED UNTIL HE COLLAPSED: Witness at Jones Trial Says ...New York Times (1923-Current file); Nov 27, 1931; pg. 6
  12. Which Side Are You On?: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39, by John W. Hevener pp. 42-45
  13. Which Side Are You On?: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39, by John W. Hevener p.47
  14. Which Side Are You On?: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39, by John W. Hevener p. 56-88
  15. Strike Closes a Few Mines. New York Times; Jan 2, 1932; pg. 12
  16. Which Side Are You On?: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39, by John W. Hevener p.79
  17. JOHN HENRY BLAIR.: Sheriff of Harlan County, Ky,, in Mine Labor Difficulties. New York Times; May 12, 1934 pg. 15
  18. KENTUCKY TROOPS MOBILIZE IN HARLAN: Company Is Called Out as the Mine ... New York Times; Dec 9, 1934; pg. 2
  19. Which Side Are You On? The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39 by John W. Hevener P. 81-123
  20. Which Side Are You On? The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39 by John W. Hevener p. 128
  21. Which Side Are You On? The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39 by John W. Hevener Pp. 130-131
  22. TROOPS WATCH AS HARLAN VOTES: Turbulent County Ballots Heavily but ...New York Times; Sep 8, 1935; pg. 27
  23. TROOPS AGAIN MOVE ON HARLAN COUNTY: Occupation of Kentucky Area ... New York Times; Sep 29, 1935; pg. N10
  24. BOMB IN AUTO KILLS KENTUCKY OFFICIAL: Harlan County Attorney ... New York Times; Sep 5, 1935; pg. 17
  25. Which Side Are You On?: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39, by John W. Hevener, page 67
  26. "Witnesses to the Struggle," Anne Loftis, University of Nevada Press, 1998, p. 46

External links