‘In Harlan County: Behind Kentucky Bars’ by Vern Smith from Labor Defender. Vol. 8 No. 2. February, 1932.

‘In Harlan County: Behind Kentucky Bars’ by Vern Smith from Labor Defender. Vol. 8 No. 2. February, 1932.

Correspondent for the Daily Worker (Bell County Jail, Pineville, Ky.)

(The following article was written in prison by Vern Smith, staff correspondent of the “Daily Worker.” Since this article was mailed two of the leaders of the strike, Joe Weber secretary of the Central Strike Committee and Bill Duncan, active in the strike relief, have been kidnapped. They were beaten half to death by coal company thugs. In the same period Jones and Hightower have been given life sentences. Rush protests to Governor Laffoon of Kentucky, to the Sheriffs of Harlan and Bell Counties, Kentucky, and to Claiborne County, Tenn., demanding the safety and release of the two arrested strike leaders)

THE STRIKE here, led by the National Miners’ Union, centers in Bell County, but is spreading through Harlan County, Ky., and Northern Tennessee. It is all one field, and all one strike against conditions of starvation which prevail in the whole area and are the worst in the world. These thousands of starving but fighting miners are opposed by some of the largest and most ruthless combinations of capital in this country; Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Sam Insull own the largest mines down here.

Naturally the coal operators own the courts, sheriff, and the rest of the government. Over in Harlan County Judge “Baby Face” Jones claims he doesn’t own mines, but admits his immediate family has them. Sheriff John Henry Blair of Harlan County is hooked in all sorts of ways with the companies and has a private army of 400 thugs, deputized by Blair but paid and under the orders of the operators. For a year they have raided, murdered and dynamited the miners.

Here in Bell County Judge Van Bebber was cross-examined yesterday by your correspondent (while the correspondent was on the witness stand testifying in his own defense against a charge of criminal syndicalism). Van Bebber admitted that he was in recent years manager of “a little wagon mine.” Further probing by Smith brought out that this “wagon mine” was the Log Mountain Coal Company, with mines at Hignite and Edgewood in Stoney Fork Hollow, mines at Mingo and Yellow Creek in Mingo Hollow and a mine at Davisburg. The judge finally admitted he had had charge of 500 company houses. Van Bebber shook his fist in rage but made no answer when your correspondent accused him of now owning mines through his family like Baby-Face Jones.

Under the lead of Deputy Sheriff Floyd Broughton of Bell County, gun thugs are rapidly being deputized and built into an organization such as Blair heads in Harlan.

With all this machinery in these operators’ control, four kinds of terror ravage the country. The first is plain, ordinary murder and violence, so far mainly in Harlan, but Bell County gun thugs have broken the picket line at Kettle Island, have pulled their guns on the relief station at Board Tree mine and have threatened many.

The next is evictions -so far 12 families have received notice at Board Tree.

Then comes injunctions. On the first day of the strike the National Miners Union as such and a group of local strikers were served with an injunction by the Pioneer Coal Mining Company in Straight Creek section. This injunction prohibited speaking to workers to ask them not to work for the company, prohibited distribution of any leaflets or literature whatsoever, prohibited asking anyone to join the union.

Then on January 13th the Straight Creek Coal Corporation served notice of application for a federal in junction, terms not stated in notice but naming everybody already in jail and about 80 local miners still out of jail. This injunction hearing comes up in Lexington, Ky., on January 16.

But the most dramatic form of terror was the direct attempt of the coal operators through Judge Van Bebber and the deputies of Bell County to smash union, strike, relief and defense headquarters and outlaw anybody working in them. On January 4 a half dozen deputies, a policeman and a game warden charged into the National Miners Union, Southern District headquarters at 105 Virginia Avenue, seized all union and International Labor Defense application cards and union dues books, seized also the Phil Bard Pamphlet, “No Jobs Today” and the mimeographed manual of the I.L.D. on “Workers’ Self Defense.” This literature is the sole evidence against all those arrested there–Vern Smith, Vincent Kemenovich, John Harvey, Ann Barton, Norma Martin, Julia Parker. Later near the office they arrested Margaret Fontaine, no literature and no evidence. Still later, the same day, they arrested in her room Dorothy Ross Weber, I.L.D. organizer, on no documentary evidence whatsoever and no evidence of any other sort. Wednesday, January 6, Attorney Allan Taub of the I.L.D. arrived in town, went around for less than two hours, all the time in the company of I.L.D. Attorney Stone (a local man) seeking witnesses of the raid. Within those two hours he was arrested first for criminal syndicalism.

In this state you have a right to an examining trial which can bind you to the Grand Jury or let you go. The examining trial of the first mine demonstrated still further the coal operators’ control of government here but was nevertheless used by the defendants to popularize strike issues. It was set for Tuesday and about 4,000 miners came to Pineville demonstrated, picketed the court house, and the jail, sent telegrams to the governor, etc. The prosecution postponed the trial and called in the Harlan gun thugs who mounted a machine gun on the porch of the Hotel Continental, ready to blow down these Kentucky miners. This did not prevent Prosecutor Walter Smith (County Attorney) from declaring when he did have the defendants in court: “One drop of Kentucky mountain blood is worth more than the blood of all the Reds in the world.”

The trial was postponed to January 7th. The same sort of demonstration took place then and prosecution had the trial postponed to January 9th, then actually called the case January 8th. Date was set only to fool the miners. The defense forced abandonment of this trick, after a long fight, and after still more argument forced the court to accept Taub as attorney in the case.

The defense put on Norma Martin, W.I.R. director, Ann Barton, writer, and Vern Smith.

On the stand, this trio of witnesses exposed the starvation here, the terror, and betrayals by the N.M.U. and V. Smith brought out the control of this court by the coal companies. Prosecutor Walter Smith made a speech reeking with invective, calling the defendants and defense attorneys “cattle,” “liars,” “vile” and declaring “if that thar stuff ( the literature) is really as insidious as it looks those who did it ought to be lined alongside a wall, not waiting for the electric chair …. “Here he was interrupted by defense attorneys who objected to his inciting a lynching in the court room. The defense put on several miners’ wives who testified to starvation and one miner Goodman, who testified Harlan gun thugs drove him from home and that his baby died of starvation. As soon as he finished testifying, Prosecutor Smith had him arrested right in the court room.

Van Bebber of course, held the defendants to the grand jury, which meets the last week in February, with a total bail for all of $93,000.

The I.L.D. staff consisted of Taub, Stone, two other lawyers, Taylor and Col. Bingham, and David Bentall of Chicago. They assailed the trial as a strike breaking scheme and argued the criminal syndicalism law is invalid because it contradicts Section 4 of the Kentucky Constitution. This section is entitled “Right of Revolution” and states the people “have at all times an inalienable and indefensible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may deem proper.” This section is a relic of pioneer days and the coal operators will probably do things to it in the near future.

Labor Defender was published monthly from 1926 until 1937 by the International Labor Defense (ILD), a Workers Party of America, and later Communist Party-led, non-partisan defense organization founded by James Cannon and William Haywood while in Moscow, 1925 to support prisoners of the class war, victims of racism and imperialism, and the struggle against fascism. It included, poetry, letters from prisoners, and was heavily illustrated with photos, images, and cartoons. Labor Defender was the central organ of the Scottsboro and Sacco and Vanzetti defense campaigns. Editors included T. J. O’ Flaherty, Max Shactman, Karl Reeve, J. Louis Engdahl, William L. Patterson, Sasha Small, and Sender Garlin.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/labordefender/1932/v08n02-feb-1932-LD.p

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s