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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

One mining union embodies egalitarian mountain spirit

As West considers gender roles within organizing groups—he thinks that women emerged as leaders more in some areas than in others—he defends the National Miners Union against charges of racism, claiming that they embodied the mountain spirit of egalitarianism and meritocracy.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
Were they in the leadership? How would you compare the roles of men and women?
DON WEST:
Well, in different places it would be different. Now in Atlanta I would say that women predominated locally in the leadership. The youngs and the Washburns and so on. Here, John Anderson's wife was a very strong character and a very good type of leader. She was quite good here. And Walt Picard's wife. I think Walt Picard will be named in some of those papers. He was a local cotton mill worker. We wrote a pamphlet under Walt Picard's name. I thought I had that pamphlet and I looked for it. It was printed. About a thirty page pamphlet. I think you might could use it. It was called the Burlington Dynamite Plot. We wrote it under Walt's name. I did an introduction for it. I really did much of the pamphlet. It would have been mixed. Quite a few women, cotton mill women. Then from here I went over to my wife's home in east Kentucky. I worked in the coal mines some over there. It was a pretty rugged kind of existence. There were no jobs in that period, you know. You just sort of shifted around trying to do things that you wanted to do when you're working… whenever there was something that got started, like any kind of an organization…. If you could get something started, why it was all to the good. And in Kentucky that's where I knew Molly Jackson and Jim Garland. People like that. I guess Jim Garland's home was the first place I went in Kentucky. He lived there near Pineville. Kettle Island, Bell county. He was an unemployed coal miner who had been active in the miners union. See, I'd known the miners union while there at LMU in '29. They were active in MU, national miners union. I've always thought that the National Miners Union had a lot to do with setting the quality of attitude on the race issue. I don't quite go along with the Guardian and some of the left wing publications who are so critical right now of the miners union leadership on the issue of racism. I don't quite see it. Some of them have raised this as the main issue, the main thing that the miners union leadership is a racist leadership. I can't quite see that. I don't think Arnold Miller is. Arnold is not the greatest leader in the world maybe. But I just don't think that Arnold Miller is a racist. Now there are racists everywhere, you know, as I se it. But I think these people are working against that. And in the miners union there has never been a rampant kind of exclusive attitude toward the black people. The NMU came in. It had a one hundred percent policy of absolutely no discrimination. And I think when the NMU was beaten out and beaten down that this attitude, this policy, influenced the later development of the United Mine Workers in the area. For example, in McDowell county, right down below us in West Virginia, we have an old miner who mined thirty-three years. He's on our staff at Pipestem. A member of our board. He tells about for two years in his life he had to hide out. He was an organizer in McDowell county and he had to skip around like a criminal. But he said when they got their first local organized in McDowell county there were a few blacks there. See in McDowell county in 1850 there was not a single black person. They had no slaves. But now its the greatest per capita black of any part of West Virginia. Because they brought in blacks as scabs and strikebreakers. But the white miners, in McDowell, in those coal mines, they have worked, talked to the black men, and got them to see, you know, the necessity for unity and cooperation. And the first local of the Miner Workers union that was set up in McDowell county elected a black man as president. The majority of the local were whites, but they elected a black man. I said to Burl Collins "Why did you do that?" "Well, we thought he was better qualified for the job." So this thing that the miners union is a racist union, I just don't think is quite right. I don't mean to say there's no racism, because there is. But it's not the ugly kind of thing.