The Real Meaning of HillbillyHistorians in the News
But looking back, I wish I had realized that my redneck roots didn’t contradict the other parts of myself as much as I was raised to believe. The conservative community I felt alienated from had forgotten its progressive roots. The fact is, in the early 1900s rednecks and hillbillies weren’t backward; they were ahead of the times.
During the West Virginia mine wars in the 1920s, rednecks formed a multiracial coalition of coal miners, and they forced cafeteria workers to serve everyone in the same room. Rednecks organized through the Industrial Workers of the World and the United Mine Workers of America, both of which are still active today. Miners led strikes, protests and even armed clashes against coal companies. In the 1940s, Woody Guthrie, the writer of “This Land Is Your Land,” performed at union meetings and composed “All You Fascists Bound to Lose.” He also performed with Pete Seeger, who would play “Which Side Are You On,” written by the musician and activist Florence Reece in the midst of labor unrest in Harlan County, Ky.
At the same time that my roots were rotting, students hundreds of miles away in West Virginia were also being alienated from this heritage. In the 1920s, a coal-funded nativist organization called the American Constitutional Association began a decades-long campaign to obliterate stories about the Battle of Blair Mountain. It was the largest armed labor uprising since the Civil War, led by a group of miners who in 1921 were fed up with deadly working conditions and being paid with company scrip, a kind of miner currency that could be used only at company stores.
That cover-up campaign continues. According to the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum director, Mackenzie New-Walker, many state schools are still heavily influenced by coal companies, whose owners and executives sit on university boards and donate to high school football teams. The American Constitutional Association and the coal companies made sure students didn’t know about the miners who wore red bandannas and organized an integrated army of immigrants, whites and African Americans decades before Brown v. Board of Education made it to the Supreme Court. The bandanna wearers were called “rednecks,” and at the time, it was an insult. Their activities were even a crime.
Chuck Keeney, a professor, historian and the great-grandson of the labor leader Frank Keeney said the miners were sworn to silence about the Battle of Blair Mountain to protect their comrades. But that caused them to lose control of their narrative. Today, redneck culture has become less about building solidarity among working folks and more about supporting white nationalism. Urban Americans often think of rednecks as backward, and make jokes about us being uneducated and inbred.
“The stereotype is a backward, culturally ignorant group of people,” Mr. Keeney said. “People don’t know the history of these resistance fighters.”
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