I don’t much like country music, in general, although I will make exceptions for Johnny Cash and bluegrass fiddle tunes (really a different genre altogether). But today, the band once known as the Dixie Chicks has changed their name to The Chicks and released a video that challenges the idea that country music is solely the realm of racist rednecks. (The Chicks have actually been doing this since 2003, when they lost fans by opposing the Iraq war.)
But that reminded me of a fact of history: the radical meaning of the term redneck. It started its life as the stereotype we’ve come to associate with it–a rural, uneducated, usually poor, possibly bigoted person from the south; the term might refer to a sunburn acquired from hours working on farms. The OED finds the term in circulation as early as the late 19th century. But then, in the 1910s and 20s, in West Virginia, coal miners — whites, Blacks, and various immigrants–were at the forefront of the labour rights movement. Many wore red bandannas to protect themselves from coal dust, and so the term began to be used–derisively at first, but soon claimed by the miners themselves–to refer to a labour rights activist–and so, someone suspected of Communist leanings (the red colour, of course, now associated with the Russian Revolution). The attempts to unionize were met with force from mine owner and the enforcers and lawmen they hired in a series of conflicts known as the Coal Wars. Gradually, however, the unions gained ground, despite repeated union-busting efforts by the mines.
The labour unrest culminated in August – September 1921 in an outright armed conflict, known as the Battle of Blair Mountain, in one of ununiounized areas. Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 coal miners who were looking to unionize with the United Mine Workers first fought security forces hired by the mine owners. Eventually, the National Guard was called in, and over 100 people were killed, in what is now recognized as the largest uprising since the Civil War. In the aftermath, close to a thousand miners were indicted for charges such as murder and treason against the State of West Virginia. A few were acquitted, but many were jailed for years. Union membership in West Virginia plummeted, and it wasn’t until 1935 that southern West Virginia mines were able to unionize.
West Virginia’s politics today remain decidedly red–in the modern political sense of supporting the Republican party. But two years ago, striking teachers there donned red bandannas to call out their union heritage. Miners in a coal industry that is seen as doomed still recall their own radical roots, even as the power of the unions has dwindled. In 2016, that meant voting for Donald Trump, who seemed to acknowledge their feeling of being left behind, but in recent years more left-leaning politicians such as Bernie Sanders have attracted support. There is perhaps no other state where income inequality is so prominent, where the rich work to stoke up conflict between the poor–particularly racial conflict–as a way to keep themselves in power.
It seems that undercurrents in the narrative of the South are starting to emerge to challenge the dominance of the idea of the Confederate golden age, as evidenced by the move to take down statues of Confederate war heroes. But that legacy is deep-rooted, and it will take more than just a song to make real progress in the battle against racism. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.