Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America; Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908-21

Elliot J. Gorn, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001)

Brian Kelly, Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908-21 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001).

John Sayles’s 1987 movie, Matewan, captured for modern audiences all the elements of pre-New Deal class warfare in America’s coalfields. Melding fact with fiction, Matewan is the story of a 1920 strike in southern West Virginia that results in a shoot-out between miners and company “gun thugs” from the Baldwin-Felts Agency. The film vividly and accurately depicts violent coal operator resistance to the United Mine Workers; the squalor and hardship of life in the temporary encampments set up by strikers and their families when they were evicted from company housing; the tensions between black, Italian, and white Appalachian miners created by management’s “divide and conquer” tactics; and the important role of “outside organizers”-represented in Matewan by a fictional former Wobbly, Joe Kenahan, who is dispatched to Mingo County by the UMW to aid the strike.

Successful at defusing racial and ethnic discord and overcoming miners’ suspicions about him, Kenahan nevertheless fails to keep their struggle on a non-violent path. Before he is killed in the crossfire between capital and labor in the film’s final scene, a local UMW activist tells him: “You expect too much of people, Joe. You’re still after that One Big Union. Most of us, can’t see past this hollow.”

Students of labor history wishing to delve deeper into the themes explored so ably in Matewan now have two new books to consult-Elliot Gorn’s Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman In America and Brian Kelly’s Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908-1921. A professor of history at Purdue, Gorn provides a rich portrait of the life and times of organized labor’s leading “outside agitator” in the early 20th century, when female union leadership was largely unknown. His book covers every miners’ strike and labor cause célèbre that Mary Harris Jones aided anywhere in the country over three decades. Kelly’s volume, on the other hand, is a far more focused but no less valuable account of UMW organizational efforts that were brutally suppressed in a single state. A lecturer in the School of Modern History at Queens University Belfast, Kelly has produced a detailed, footnote-studded academic work that is still extremely readable.

In the pre- and post-WW I strikes rescued from obscurity in Race, Class, and Power, UMW members provided a rare display of what Kelly calls “working class interracialism” in the deep South. This aroused the ferocious opposition not only of local coal operators but of every other defender of white supremacy, from the Birmingham business establishment to the Alabama KKK. To undermine the allegiance of its African-American members, the UMW’s race-baiting foes even enlisted the help of the state’s “small but influential black middle class”-a coterie of ministers, minority business owners, newspaper publishers, and other community leaders “who warned black miners to steer clear of the ‘white man’s union.'”

Read together, Gorn’s and Kelly’s histories thus explore the complexities of race, class, and gender in the coalfields, as all three came into play during early UMW attempts to challenge the economic and political power of management. Gorn’s discussion of Mother Jones’s unique, if contradictory, persona is particularly interesting. His biography recounts how this Irish immigrant-who was not only working class and female but poor, old, and widowed-accomplished the astonishing feat of becoming one of the best known public figures of her era. In the process, she organized hundreds of unemployed workers to join “Coxey’s Army” in its mid-1890s march on Washington; barnstormed for the Socialist Party as one of its most effective educational speakers; participated in the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905; championed the Mexican Revolution in 1911; and was still rallying strikers and campaigning to free political prisoners in 1924-at the age of 87!

Throughout her long career, Jones may, as Gorn puts it, “have clung to an antiquated nineteenth-century view of separate [male and female] spheres and virtuous republican motherhood,” but she helped overturn prevailing “gender conventions by insisting that women speak out on public issues.” “In a culture that still preferred females to be frail and ineffectual, her voice rose loud and clear” on countless picket lines and at hundreds of union meetings. In her non-stop “hell raising” among UMW members in Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, she rallied both strikers and their wives, often under the most desperate conditions. Her message was always the same: “we will express our opinions, powerful men will not intimidate us, even from jail we will be heard.”

Among those who responded to Jones’s call for working class solidarity were African-American miners, for whom she had nothing but the highest praise, declaring them to be “among the staunchest unionists in West Virginia.” (Her views on Asians were far less enlightened, and she long supported mainstream labor’s racist opposition to Chinese immigration.) The first miners’ strike she supported was a nationwide UMW walkout in 1894. According to Gorn, that struggle was “especially militant” in Alabama, where 5,000 strikers marched through Birmingham in a “monster parade” against the use of prison labor in the mines. “For the first time in this district,” one newspaper reported, “no distinction as to color was made. Negroes marched in companies sandwiched between the white men. A negro and a white miner carried a banner to which was inscribed, ‘The Convicts Must Go!'”

The UMW failed to win recognition and collective bargaining in Alabama in the 1890s-or as a result of the later strikes chronicled by Kelly. (Coalfield unionization finally succeeded in the state only in the 1930s as part of broader CIO organizing involving the steel industry as well.) To defeat the miners’ periodic rebellions against the misery of their existence, Alabama coal operators played the race card in sophisticated fashion.

At the nadir of UMW influence in the years following its 1908 strike, they patched together a system of labor relations that grafted the most advanced model of labor management in the world onto more traditional methods rooted in the region’s slave past. In the coal camps and mine villages throughout the Birmingham district, an ambitious reform program inspired by northern-based welfare capitalism coexisted with convict labor, the company “shack rouster,” and the whip. The centerpiece of the operators’ project was a system of racial paternalism that aimed to take advantage of existing racial divisions and the relative vulnerability of black workers under Jim Crow to erect a permanent barrier against unionization.

In analyzing how this system worked to pit black against white miners, Kelly rejects the school of labor history associated with former NAACP staffer Herbert Hill, a well-known critic of “the myth of the UMW’s benevolence to the black worker.” According to Kelly, Hill’s “positing of a fixed overriding attachment to racial supremacy on the part of white workers” fails to take into account “the obvious fact that coal operators themselves exercised far more control over the racial division of labor than the UMW ever did”:

In Alabama, where the UMW fought against the convict lease and the notorious subcontracting systems (both of which weighed heaviest upon black miners), the elusiveness of equal treatment for blacks had less to do with white miners’ racism than [with] the union’s inability to match the operators’ awesome power.

Kelly shows how tens of thousands of miners struck-and stuck together-for extended periods in walkouts ultimately crushed by the intervention of the state militia in both 1908 and 1920-21. This “pragmatic interracial collaboration” may not have always reflected “full equality” between blacks and whites in the Alabama UMW but it does, Kelly argues, demonstrate “the singular potential for joint struggles around material interests to break down racial divisions.” White miners do not emerge from Race, Class, and Power “as egalitarian knights” but rather as “a more complicated and varied mass.” Although “deeply inscribed by the pathological culture in which they developed, their ideas on race were subject to change in the protracted social crisis that industrial confrontation” produced in the Alabama coalfields.

Reviewed by Steve Early

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