West Virginia Rises

Did you know that in 1974, there was a major rebellion in Kanawha County, West Virginia? Thousands of outraged citizens worked together to shut the county down. Parents kept their children home from school, buildings were bombed, people were shot, students walked out of class, and workers went on a general strike. What injustice could spark so much mayhem? In West Virginia, it could be a number of things…

The previous winter, an impoundment holding a few hundred thousand gallons of toxic sludge collapsed in Logan County. A torent of coal sludge rushed down the holler in the early morning hours killing over 100 people and literally wiping three towns off the map. In a 1998 interview with the Charleston Gazette, one survivor recalls the death of her mother. “We all just started drifting with the water,” she says. “We were all hanging onto Daddy, and this big old car came and hit Daddy in the side and knocked Mommy loose from him. And I was hanging onto her. Me and Mom got separated. The last time we saw Mommy, she was going down the river hollering for help.”

Pittston Coal, the owner of the dam, claimed the tragedy was an “act of god.” Three independent studies claimed otherwise. A citizen’s commission concluded that, “Officials of the Buffalo Creek-Pittston Company are guilty of murdering at least 124 men, women and children living in the Buffalo Creek Hollow.” Even though Governor Arch Moore had yet to effectively cancel lawsuits against the company (that would come in 1977, 3 months before leaving office), West Virginians had plenty to be angry about. This was cause for rebellion, was it not??

Of course it was, but this wasn’t why thousands of West Virginians hit the streets in 1974.

Citizens of Kanawha County were up in arms because the school board voted to buy 305 textbooks deemed by a conservative board member as “unpatriotic, unchristian, and trashy.” In the chaos that ensued, 9,000 school children were kept home by parents boycotting the schools, two elementary schools were firebombed, miners throughout west virginia and kentucky went on strike, and picketers effectively shut down the city.  Fundamentalist preacher (who is still active) Marvin Horan led the movement to recall the books. Even after the school board rapidly changed its mind, Horan refused to call off the boycotts until three on the school board were fired. Horan even publicly prayed for God to kill them.

I should note that in 1921, West Virginians did rise for something good. It was the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest uprising in U.S. history notwithstanding the Civil War. 10,000 miners marched to Mingo County to liberate their brethern who had been jailed or killed for striking.

In my lifetime, I would like to see southern west virginia rise for another good reason.

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