The Place of Justice
Reviewed by Tal Stanley
Vol. 17, No. 3-4, 1995 pp. 27-29
Justice in the Coalfields, directed by Anne Lewis. Camera: Andrew Garrison, Herb E. Smith, Joseph Gray, Tom Kaufman, Jerry Johnson. Sound: Anne Lewis, Alex Milenic. Assistants: Buck Maggard, Jim Branson. (Appalshop, 1995, 57 minutes.)
Many of us can trace the development of our social consciousness to particular events that had a galvanizing effect upon the way we understand not only ourselves, but the places and cultures in which we live. Although our social consciousness is continually shaped in the context of the relationships and places of our lives, these central events often retain their force as we push our understanding of their historical importance. Sadly, in many cases these galvanizing moments are not ones in which we can point to the courageous stand we made or the way we joined with others to struggle for justice. During the 1989 United Mine Workers of America nonviolent civil disobedience strike against the Pittston Coal Company, I was living and working in Wythe County, Virginia. Every Sunday afternoon hundreds of Virginia State Police gathered at the Division Headquarters outside of Wytheville, the county seat, to be briefed before traveling into Russell, Wise, and Dickenson counties to enforce Virginia’s right-to-work law against the striking miners and their supporters. Despite my woeful lack of understanding of all the issues at the time, I knew that more was at stake than the enforcement of law and the miners’ demands for a living wage. In the years since, I have come to understand the strike’s deeper issues of justice and to see my own standing-by as a complicity of sorts in systems of injustice.
Anne Lewis’ provocative and skillfully produced documentary of the strike, Justice in the Coalfields, has had a profoundly formative influence not only on my understanding of the struggle, but larger issues of American culture and Appalachian collective politics. Filmed during the strike and in the five years since, Justice in the Coalfields is a remarkable oral history narrated by persons on both sides of the nearly year-long dispute. By talking with retired and disabled miners, and the children and spouses of miners, the film clearly traces the fearful social impact of the Pittston Company’s decision to cut health and pension benefits of retired miners and their
families. That what was at stake in 1989 has always been at stake in the coalfields and elsewhere in industrial capitalism is vividly represented by Bascom “Bear” Deel, a retired miner, telling how his father was “mashed up in the mines” by a slate fall. Deel then tells how his mother, dispossessed of home and property by her husband’s former employers, worked for five dollars a week cleaning houses in Clinchco, Virginia in order to keep the family together. With film clips from John L. Lewis’ 1947 testimony to Congress, Justice proves that health benefits for miners and their families has been a hard-won measure, an ongoing community and region-wide concern, and constantly under attack by the management of the coal industry and Taft-Hartley.
Within this social and historical context, Justice in the Coalfields effectively represents four issues at the center of the strike that remain contested territory in both Appalachia and wherever people organize for social justice. First, through oral histories of labor activists, strikers, state police, and Pittston officials, we are brought to understand the damage done by the right-to-work laws in Virginia and throughout the South. These divergent testimonies demonstrate that instead of a defense of liberty (as its proponents suggest), right-to-work legislation is usually enacted to extend the power of corporations, justifying the hiring of “replacement workers,” the use of federally and state-paid armed force against collective bargaining, and condoning the use of private security personnel against strikers. The social importance of this film is never greater than when in a moment of irony of extraordinary clarity, senior U. S. District Judge Glen Williams, who levied millions of dollars of fines against the UMWA strikers for their nonviolent actions against right to work laws, describes the Virginia State Police presence in Southwest Virginia as “the imposition of martial law.”
Second, Lewis’ work draws in sharp relief the conflict in the American consciousness between middle class individualism and values of collectivity. With extended excerpts from interviews with Martin Fox, director of public affairs of the National Right To Work Committee, and Bradley McKenzie, a local miner and organizer of the student resistance during the strike, Justice lays bare the economic and political interests that are at the heart of the rhetoric of economic individualism. Fox describes strikers’ activities as “goon behavior,” and belies the Right To Work Committee’s hidden agenda by refusing to “see workers in the plural, only in the singular.” The Fox excerpts clearly show the deep interconnection between right-to-work laws, an ideology of individualism, and the self-interests of multinational corporations. Against Fox’s politics, a youthful looking McKenzie indicts not just the policies of the Pittston Company, but the ideologies, injustices, greed, and inconsistencies of an entire global economic system. McKenzie gives voice to a resilient, placed collectivity: “You stick up for me, I’ll stick up for you, . . . we have the right to fight, . . . the community has rights …” In Justice in the Coalfields, Bradley McKenzie becomes an organic intellectual who enables us to see ourselves and society in new ways, making possible new understandings of collectivity and new struggles for justice.
Third, Lewis’ documentary illustrates the widening disparity between law and justice. Miners who had once been employed by Pittston and were not allowed to return to work after the strike, discuss their sense of loss and betrayal. Their witness makes tangible the link between corporate business interests and the judicial system, and raises the question of the availability of justice for persons and places without the economic power to secure it. Moreover, the voices and experiences of these people refuse us the possibility of easy and simplistic answers and conclusions about the strike. The Pittston strike did not bring in a new day. Justice raises the difficult questions of our own standing by and the complicity of the
UMWA leadership in the ambivalent resolution to the strike. In April 1989, 1,700 miners went on strike, in February 1995 only 470 of those worked for Pittston. The Pittston corporation continues mining coal. The “replacement workers” whose voices and experiences are represented in the film bring us to question the justice of a system in which a worker earning five dollars an hour could not make enough money on which to live and in order to feed his family was convinced to take a striker’s job. By expanding ideas about what justice is, the film shakes loose the regional stereotypes and comfortable class complacency in which we often live. The ambiguity of the strike’s results and the meagerness of social justice to which it testifies implicate us all . In Appalachia, in the South, in workplaces everywhere, there is still dark trouble, still deep suffering, still “plenty of law but little justice.”
Finally, Justice in the Coalfields dramatically conveys the importance of place identity and the social connections of a place in any effort to collectively empower people to work for social justice. Justice brings us to know the coalfields of Southwest Virginia and Appalachia as places both of stunning natural beauty and of deep social conflict. The coalfields become in this film a conflicted place, the culture of which has been forged out of years of exploitation, resistance, struggle, and moments of human courage, dignity, integrity, and beauty. Through the refusal of local restaurants and gas stations to serve state troopers, to “Camp Solidarity” as a “free space” for people to see new possibilities for collective futures and social justice, this was and continues to be a placed-struggle. In the words of people committed to each other and to that place, the film argues that future struggles for social justice and change must first understand the values and lessons of placed-resistance. If collective struggles for social justice are to be effective, we must first give attention to those traditional institutions and concepts too often glibly and condescendingly dismissed as conservative and reactionary: country, God, church, home, family, community. The placed-resistance and collective struggle of the Pittston strike were born when those traditional experiences and that long-known place were threatened by the policies of a company that cared not for any place. Anne Lewis’ concentration on the values and experiences of the Southwest Virginia coalfields point both to the strength of that community and to the calculated, professionalized abstraction of Mike Odom, president of Pittston, from the people of the coalfields who produce Pittston’s wealth.
Whether in the voices of high school students supporting the strike in front of the courthouse in Clintwood, Virginia, a retired miner sitting in the shade of his home,or Gail Gentry paralyzed from the chest down by an accident in a Pittston mine, his health benefits to be taken away and jailed for his nonviolent acts of civil disobedience; whether in the voices of young women as they are carried to jail by Virginia State Police or strikers talking of their families as they occupy the Moss Three Preparation Plant–Justice In the Coalfields is empowered by the dialects, hopes, values, and social connections of those places. The film shows well that this was not just a UMWA struggle, but that a wide diversity of the people in the Southwest Virginia coalfields and beyond came together in support of each other. ‘They’re not talking about strangers, they’re talking about family.”
I have used this film in college classes with students who often think of Appalachians in terms of stereotypes and class prejudices. Generally, these students have never been asked to view critically the social values and lifestyles they have unquestioningly received from American popular culture. They often assume the availability of justice. After seeing Justice in the Coalfields, students unfailingly are silent for long stretches, but then ensues a protracted discussion of social justice, class and regional stereo-types, and the necessity of social change. The film offers a good opportunity to discuss the values of collective struggles for justice and the importance of place for political and social identity. It challenges the forces of race and gender by showing that everyone has a stake in this continuing struggle. The power of Justice in the Coalfields is demonstrable as students often refer to the film in subsequent papers and discussions.
Despite the questions and the sense of betrayal and unfinished work, despite the long, long struggles ahead, Justice in the Coalfields overflows with the power of that place and the values of people working together to forge a new future of social justice there. There is a militancy in Elaine Purkey’s singing, and in Buford Mullins’ vision there is an authority that challenges the old order to its foundations: “these mountains belong to the people–always have, always will.”
A native of southwest Virginia, Tal Stanley is studying American regionalism and Appalachia at Emory University’s Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts.