1920 Alabama coal strike

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1920 Alabama coal strike
Date September 7, 1920 – February, 1921
Location Walker County, Alabama
Goals Union organizing
Methods Strikes, Protest, Demonstrations
Result defeat for the union.
Parties to the civil conflict
Alabama State Militia
Lead figures
Arrests, etc
Deaths: 16+
Injuries:
Arrests:
Deaths: 2
Injuries:

The 1920 Alabama coal strike, or the Alabama miners' strike,[1] was a statewide strike of the United Mine Workers of America against coal mine operators. The strike was marked by racial violence, and ended in significant defeat for the union.

Conditions[edit]

The strike was officially authorized by UMW president John L. Lewis to begin on September 7, and as many as 15,000 of the 27,000 coal miners in the state stopped work.[2][3] UMW vice-president Van Bittner was sent to the state to oversee the effort.

One main union demand was for union recognition, and one fundamental obstacle to union recognition was the fact that the UMW was racially integrated. Popular opinion was turned against the strikers almost immediately, particularly the disapproving black middle class, who saw racial solidarity and cooperation with capitalists as their only route to economic self-defense.[4]

Major operators in Alabama's coalfields were also still using convict labor under abominable conditions with no salary cost whatsoever, the convict leasing system, described by some as "Slavery by Another Name". Mines of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company had phased out convict leasing five years after its acquisition by U.S. Steel, but the mines controlled by Sloss Furnaces and Pratt Consolidated continued the practice until 1926.

The strike[edit]

The strike's first major confrontation happened on September 16, in Patton Junction, Alabama (in Walker County), where strikers killed the general manager of the Corona Coal Company, Leon Adler, along with a company guard. But African Americans bore the brunt of the violence: among many such threatening incidents, black miner Henry Junius was found in a shallow grave outside of Roebuck a few weeks into the strike. At least thirteen houses of strikebreakers were dynamited between September and December.[5] Also in December state troopers terrorized the small black business district in Pratt City with random machine gun fire.[6]

The Alabama State Militia and the state police had been called out by the governor, Thomas Kilby, known as the "business governor".[7] Once on site, state troop commanders typically placed themselves at the service of the coal companies.[8] By February thousands of workers had been evicted from their company houses and left homeless.[9]

Towards the end of February the enormous expense of conducting the strike with no progress led the union to seek a resolution. None other than Governor Kilby was accepted as arbitrator. Kilby's settlement flatly refused union recognition and any wage increases, and he refused to reinstate striking miners. Part of Kilby's March 9 decision read,

It is rather difficult to understand how such a large number of men could be induced so deliberately to disregard such an obligation of honor. The only explanation, perhaps, lies in the fact that from 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the miners are Negroes. The southern Negro is easily misled, especially when given a permanent and official place in an organization in which both races are members.[10]

The national UMW chose to adhere to Kilby's decision. The union closed its state offices,[11] and the strike prevented any union advances in the state for another ten years.[12] At least 16 people were killed in the strike, more than half of them black, with an uncounted number of wounded.[13]

Willie Baird[edit]

On December 22, 1920, local union official and itinerant Nazarine minister Adrian Northcutt of Nauvoo, Alabama was summoned out of his home by soldiers of Company M of the Alabama Guard.

After hearing seven shots fired in quick succession, Northcutt's son-in-law William (Willie) Baird rushed out to find Northcutt, dead on the ground, with Private James Morris standing over him. Baird shot Morris in self-defense, then fled into the woods. After three days Baird turned himself over to Walker County officials. On January 5, nine guardsmen of Company M entered the jail, subdued the sheriff on duty, lynched Baird, and riddled his body with bullets.[14]

The guardsmen were eventually acquitted. Former Alabama governor Braxton Bragg Comer would claim that the lynching of Baird "had some element of self-defense in it".[15]

References[edit]

  1. ^ http://norrit1.tripod.com/afl-cio/1920.htm
  2. ^ The emergence of the new South, 1913–1945, Volume 10 By George Brown Tindall
  3. ^ History of the Labor Movement in the United States: The T.U.E.L. to the end ... By Philip Sheldon Foner, page 228
  4. ^ Race, class, and power in the Alabama coalfields, 1908–21 By Brian Kelly, page 174
  5. ^ Black coal miners in America: race, class, and community conflict, 1780–1980 By Ronald L. Lewis, page 60
  6. ^ Race, class, and power in the Alabama coalfields, 1908–21 By Brian Kelly, page 187
  7. ^ http://www.archives.state.al.us/govs_list/g_kilbyt.html
  8. ^ Race, class, and power in the Alabama coalfields, 1908–21 By Brian Kelly, page 178
  9. ^ History of the Labor Movement in the United States: The T.U.E.L. to the end ... By Philip Sheldon Foner, page 229
  10. ^ The Survey, Volume 46 By Edward Thomas Devine, Paul Underwood Kellogg, Charity Organization Society of the City of New York, Survey Associates, April 29, 1921, page 52
  11. ^ "Everybody was black down there": race and industrial change in the Alabama ... By Robert H. Woodrum
  12. ^ The emergence of the new South, 1913–1945, Volume 10 By George Brown Tindall, page 337
  13. ^ Black coal miners in America: race, class, and community conflict, 1780–1980 By Ronald L. Lewis, page 61
  14. ^ Race, class, and power in the Alabama coalfields, 1908–21 By Brian Kelly, page 196
  15. ^ Race, class, and power in the Alabama coalfields, 1908–21 By Brian Kelly, page 196