At the beginning of August, 1917, a multiracial group of tenant farmers and other people mostly from Oklahoma, including the infamous abolitionist John Brown’s grandson, began what they hoped would turn into an armed uprising in Washington, DC, from different parts of the country, with the aim of putting an end to the imperial, capitalist war machine.
Hard-pressed tenant farmers from all backgrounds — white, black, brown, indigenous, women, men, including prominent indigenous women organizers — were involved with this abortive effort that became known as the Green Corn Rebellion. Less well-known than even this virtually unknown Oklahoma uprising is the fact that it was born out of a secret multiracial network known as the Working Class Union, with an estimated 35,000 members in Oklahoma alone, which had been waging a campaign of armed resistance and industrial sabotage against the landed gentry and the mine operators of the region for years.
Although most people reading this are probably people already fairly knowledgeable about historical events a lot of other people have never heard of, my guess is most of you have never heard of the Working Class Union in Oklahoma or their campaign of sabotage and armed struggle, or the fact that it was a consciously multiracial endeavor.
One hundred years ago this month, in August, 1921, in another part of the US, a multiracial uprising of union coal miners commandeered trains and cars across the state of West Virginia and emptied armories of their contents, as they marched to the town of Mingo, where a hundred of their fellow union miners were being held without charge by the corrupt authorities.
Somewhere around 15,000 miners engaged in three days and nights of crossfire with thousands of the more “well-to-do” members of West Virginia society, including every cop in the entire state and all the gun thugs the mine operators could find available to hire. It was an explicitly multiracial uprising, led by a union movement that had for decades been explicitly antiracist, acutely aware of the ways the bosses used the racial divide in the US to keep the working class in a constant state of conflict. So much of the labor movement of the day rejected this strategy and employed their own strategy of radical inclusion.
How thoroughly did the black miners of West Virginia feel about their part in the union movement in 1921? Of the 15,000 or so people laying siege to Mingo at the end of August of that year, an estimated 2,000 of them were black.
This was a multiracial uprising of unprecedented scale. During the three days that the miners were trying to liberate their comrades imprisoned in Mingo, dozens of people were killed, the total numbers never to be known. Thousands of women of all backgrounds were actively involved with the struggle, coordinating essential logistics like food and medical care for thousands of men under arms.
Just three months earlier in Tulsa, Oklahoma, planes dropped explosives on the black community of Greenwood, razing the entire neighborhood to the ground, killing hundreds of black people from the community in a racist lynch mob consisting of thousands of members of the white community in Tulsa. Refugees were interned and treated terribly by the authorities. People whose lives, homes, and businesses were destroyed never saw any compensation for their losses, or even any apologies worth mentioning. The intergenerational trauma stemming from this pogrom continues to this day.
The impact of this racist pogrom on the black people of Oklahoma and beyond is incalculable. The impact of learning about this horrible event — one of so many similar horrors throughout the history of this settler-colonial empire we call the United States — is also hard to calculate.
This is especially true when all you know about the history of 1921 is the Tulsa Race Massacre. Everyone should know about this massacre, in all its horrific detail. Everyone should know about the planes dropping explosives, and the systematic destruction of the city. Everyone should know about later efforts to hide the history, to pave over what remained of Greenwood with a highway.
But everyone should also know that the second time planes were used to drop explosives on people in the United States was in August, 1921, in West Virginia. And these planes were from the US military, flown in from bases hundreds of miles away, to drop bombs on a multiracial uprising of union miners.
There is so much more that can be said about what led up to both the Tulsa pogrom and the multiracial uprising in West Virginia, which both happened within months of each other in 1921. The impact of the unspeakably horrendous bloodbath known as World War 1, along with the terribly devastating global pandemic that it gave rise to, would be hard to overstate. Massively traumatized populations are more likely to take up arms in whatever circumstance. History demonstrates this pattern abundantly. Which doesn’t explain either of these events, but understanding 1921 in the context of 1918 is absolutely essential. 1921 didn’t happen in a vacuum.
The main point I would venture to make here is that we cannot begin to understand the realities and complexities of the present day, to say nothing of the history of this country, if when we think of 1921 we remember the Tulsa Race Massacre, but not the Battle of Blair Mountain.
And why would we do that? Don’t ask me. Ask the corporate and so-called “public” media in this country. Ask them why they ignore the biggest multiracial uprising in the history of this country. They’ll say they’re not ignoring it — look, West Virginia Public Television did a barely-funded little documentary about that, they may say.
But barely mentioning a major historical event is more or less the same as ignoring it, in terms of the impact on the populace. At this point, given the media coverage and the speeches of prominent politicians and so much more, the Greenwood pogrom may be said to have achieved the historical notoriety it so richly deserves. What an extreme example of what a white supremacist, settler-colonial mentality can achieve, under the right — that is, wrong — circumstances of population-wide PTSD and widespread poverty and unemployment, on top of the centuries of racist brainwashing from the top that has characterized colonialism from the beginning of the practice.
But in the face of such a longstanding history of white supremacy and settler-colonialism, is it not worth mentioning that so much of the labor movement explicitly rejected that nonsense? Is it not worth noting that an interracial army of union miners spontaneously organized an uprising in August, 1921, that had to be put down by federal troops? Is it not worth mentioning that none of the organizers of this multiracial uprising could be convicted by a jury anywhere in the state of West Virginia afterwards?
What do you think of when you think of West Virginia? Let me guess. Racist white hillbillies.
There is another America. You will not hear about it on television. PBS — and all the corporate networks — almost completely ignore labor history. Multiracial uprisings are completely ignored, as if they never happened. If we don’t learn about this side of our history, and only learn about the lynchings, nothing good will come of this “education.”
I have never heard Al Sharpton give a speech where he doesn’t mention the martyrs, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. Reverend Sharpton is not pandering to anyone by mentioning these three names like a mantra in every speech. He is educating the people, whoever is listening, about the multiracial history of resistance to class- and race-based oppression in this country.
Just as no one can understand the relevance of the Civil Rights movement without knowing about the multiracial Freedom Riders and other such efforts, the idea that so much of a society can know about the racist pogrom in Oklahoma in 1921, but not about the multiracial uprising in West Virginia three months later, tells you everything you need to know about what’s wrong with how education, and the media, function in this capitalist society.
For whatever it’s worth, in my role as a topical songwriter, I have written songs about all of the events I’ve mentioned here — the Green Corn Rebellion, the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the Battle of Blair Mountain. I did that because I think it’s so important that all of these things be remembered. I shudder at the thought of only knowing about one of these events without knowing about the others. What must that do to the spirits of so many people, led to believe that our history consists of nothing but racial division and subjugation.
There is another America. Remember it. Whether Jesus ever lived or died, I don’t know. But those miners died for you. You should at least know who they were. And then let’s all follow in their footsteps. Long live the multiracial uprising in the hills of Appalachia in 1921. Long live the Battle of Blair Mountain.