On Saturday night, the Washington Redskins beat the Philadelphia Eagles, a victory that qualified the team for the NFL playoffs for only the fifth time in the past 20 years. The Redskins’ rare post-season appearance will give opponents of the team’s nickname another platform to make their case for changing the name to something less offensive.
I believe I have found the answer to the controversy that will make almost everyone happy. Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, should change the team’s name to the Washington Rednecks in honor of the legions of coal miners, both black and white, who fought wars against oppressive coal operators for the freedom to work and live with dignity.
The Washington Redskins have a huge African American fan base so the fact that a large number of the coal miners who fought for the right to unionize in the early 20th century were black should make these fans proud. At the time, the United Mine Workers of America, unlike other trade unions, treated black and white worker as equals. African Americans also were hired as UMWA organizers. When striking coal miners took over a large part of West Virginia in 1921, the union members forced local business owners to desegregate their establishments and serve all their union brothers, both black and white.
Many fans of the Redskins are working class folk, so naming a team after a large group of coal miners who battled industry barons for better working conditions should serve as a source of historical pride for them. The men and women in the coalfields were warriors who put their lives on the line and inspired legions of workers across the nation to do the same. American football is a game of violence and the fact that the coal miners of West Virginia did not back away from fighting for a better life would be the perfect inspiration for the team’s players.
How is the term Redneck associated with black and white West Virginia coal miners? Redneck referred to the red bandanas West Virginia miners wore around their necks to show they were union members and to differentiate their own from detectives, mine guards and strikebreakers. “If you said the word redneck in 1921, it was not a joke. It wasn’t a caricature. It was referring to violent rebels. It was referring to pro-union people,” Chuck Keeney, an expert on West Virginia coal miner history and a professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, said in an interview.
West Virginia officials believed it was important to paint the rebel miners as ignorant and standing in the way of progress. At the time of the mine wars, from the late 1890s through the Battle of Blair Mountain in the early 1920s, officials insisted the only reason miners were revolting was because they had an innate cultural backwardness. But the coal miners effectively countered the narrative of the West Virginia elites. The workers embraced the term Redneck, with their red bandanas becoming a symbol of solidarity and pride.
What are the links between Washington, D.C., and West Virginia coal miners who worked 300 miles away?
The Rednecks of West Virginia have a direct connection to the Washington, D.C., area: their sacrifices helped to modernize the region and keep the lights on. The Capitol Power Plant in Washington, which serves the Capitol building, the Library of Congress and other nearby government buildings, has used hundreds of thousands of tons of West Virginia coal during its lifetime, coal produced by courageous Rednecks in southern West Virginia. Before it shut down a few years ago, the Potomac River Generating Station, which generated power for consumption in Washington, D.C., burned coal mined and produced by Rednecks and their descendants.
Rednecks have influenced members of Congress and helped draft important legislation. In 1968, a number of militant miners, including retired Rednecks, organized the West Virginia Black Lung Association, which successfully led a campaign to get passed in the 1969 session of the West Virginia Legislature and signed into law making coal workers’ pneumoconiosis a compensable disease. The miners also played a vital role in the enactment of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, a law the U.S. Congress passed that helped to improve workplace safety and healthcare for coal miners not only in West Virginia, but across the United States.
The Redskins could tweak their colors of burgundy and gold to red and black to symbolize the bandanas worn by the West Virginia coal miners. The options for uniform design and mascots abound. The team could use a picture of a miner wearing a helmet and lamp and holding a rifle. Or the team could adopt a shovel and a pick, two tools that symbolize the dangerous underground work of coal miners, for its jersey and helmet design. Fans could wave red bandanas at every home game to cheer on their Rednecks.
Today, the term redneck conveys something entirely different than what it meant to the militant coal miners of West Virginia. Changing the Washington football team name to the Rednecks could go a long way toward dispelling the word’s modern day racist, hateful and ignorant connotations. By adopting Rednecks as its nickname, the Washington football team could expand its fan base into a large part of Appalachia where the local populace, facing hard times due to the demise of the coal industry, would be proud to root for a team that honors its heritage.