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Chapter 26 - Medieval West Virginia

I have been in West Virginia more or less for the past twenty-three years, taking part in the interminable conflicts that arose between the industrial slaves and their masters. The conflicts were always bitter. Mining is cruel work. Men are down in utter darkness hours on end. They have no life in the sun. They come up from the silence of the earth utterly wearied. Sleep and work, work and sleep. No time or strength for education, no money for books. No leisure for thought.

With the primitive tools of pick and shovel they gut out the insides of the old earth. Their shoulders are stooped from bending. Their eyes are narrowed to the tiny crevices through which they crawl. Evolution, development, is turned backward. Miners become less erect, less wide-eyed.

Like all things that live under ground, away from the sun, they become waxen. Their light is the tiny lamp in their caps. It lights up only work. It lights but a few steps ahead. Their children will follow them down into these strange chambers after they have gone down into the earth forever. Cruel is the life of the miners with the weight of the world upon their backs. And cruel are their strikes. Miners are accustomed to cruelty. They know no other law. They are like primitive men struggling in his ferocious jungle-for himself, for his children, for the race of men.

The miners of Logan County were again on strike in 1923. I was with them. The jails were full of strikers, with innocent men who protested the conditions of their lives. Many of them had been months in jails. Their wives and little children were in dire want.

“Can’t you do something for us, Mother,” they pleaded.

A delegation of their wretched wives and half-starved children came to me. “For God’s sake, Mother, can’t you do something for us?”

I took the train for Charleston and went to see Governor Morgan. He received me courteously.

“Governor,” I said, “listen-do you hear anything?”

He listened a moment. “No, Mother Jones, I do not.”

“I do,” said I. “I hear women and little boys and girls sobbing at night. Their fathers are in jail. The wives and children are crying for food.”

“I will investigate,” said he. He looked me straight in the eye and I knew he would keep his promise.

Shortly afterward I received a letter from the Governor, telling me that all the prisoners were released but three.

For myself I always found Governor Morgan most approachable. The human appeal always reached him. I remember a poor woman coming to see me one day. Her husband had been blacklisted in the mines and he dared not return to his home. The woman was weak from lack of food, too weak to work. I took her to the Governor. He gave her twenty dollars. He arranged for her husband to return, promising him executive protection.

I was with the Governor’s secretary one day when a committee called to see the Governor. The committee was composed of lick-spittles of the mine owners. They requested that the Governor put “The Federationist,” a labor weekly, out of business. The Governor said, “Gentlemen, the constitution guarantees the right of free speech and free press. I shall not go on record as interfering with either as long as the constitution lives.”

The committee slunk out of the office.

I think that Governor Morgan is the only governor in the twenty-three years I was in West Virginia who refused to comply with the requests of the dominant money interests. To a man of that type I wish to pay my respects.

There is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice. Injunctions and guns, like morphia, produce a temporary quiet. Then the pain, agonizing and more severe, comes again. So it is with West Virginia. The strike was broken. But the next year, the miners gathered their breath for another struggle. Sometimes they lost their battle through their own crooked leaders. And once it was my duty to go before the rank and file and expose their leaders who would betray them. And when my boys understood, West Virginia’s climate wasn’t healthy for them.

Medieval West Virginia! With its tent colonies on the bleak hills! With its grim men and women! When I get to the other side, I shall tell God Almighty about West Virginia!

Next page: Chapter 27 - Progress in Spite of Leaders