Misunderstood Mountain Folk
So-called Rednecks and Hillbillies have a History of Labor Activism
By Dave Arnold
I had the privilege of being born in the hill country of southern Illinois. It’s a beautiful wilderness, though somewhat isolated. While I view my rural past as a fortune of birth, because of its geography some people refer to me and others of the same ilk as “rednecks” or “hillbillies.” These are often derogatory terms. I used to think so, but not anymore.
My viewpoint changed when I saw a documentary titled, “Hillbilly: The Real Story.” From the program, I learned the origin of the term and am now honored to be a redneck. Turns out that it has less to do with having a sunburned neck from working in the fields, or from being born poor and white in the hills of Illinois, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, or the hollers of Appalachia. I’m proud to say these terms have more to do with being a brave individual, including as a labor activist.
Moonshiners, Musicians and Miners
The documentary, hosted by Billy Ray Cyrus, explores how the label "hillbilly" may date to 17th century Ireland. It also confirms that disparaging labels like "hillbilly" and “redneck” are badges of pride for some folks like me. Through a large cast of characters — from immigrants, backwoodsmen and moon shiners to musicians, religious and political leaders — we learn of their contributions, which include establishing the first labor unions.
It explains that in August 1921 an estimated 10,000 union coal miners gathered outside of Charleston, West Virginia and marched to the southwestern coalfields. Their reason was simple: free their fellow miners from the oppression placed on them by greedy coal companies. To distinguish themselves from non-union miners and scabs, they all wore red bandanas around their necks, hence, they were called “rednecks.”
At that time, to be a redneck meant you were a professional trying to make a better life for yourself, your children, and your fellow miners. It was a compliment.
Part of the American Landscape
The two-hour documentary takes us to a place near the town of Logan, at Blair Mountain, where the miners’ army collided with an armed force organized by coal company owners. The two sides fought a large-scale battle for 10 days. The company’s hired goons brought machine guns, and dropped aerial bombs and poison gas. Finally, the declaration of martial law and the intervention of a federal force, headed by a bomber squadron commanded by Gen. Billy Mitchell, ended the labor war and forced the companies’ hired guns to throw down their arms.
This confrontation remains the largest battle ever staged in the continental United States since the Civil War. At least 50 men were killed with more than 100,000 miners, hired guns, and soldiers involved.
While I’m certain that no education support professional (ESP) has ever been involved in a gun battle over labor disputes at their schools, I have been on a few marches and know that many of my ESP brothers and sisters that have been in marches while on strike for fair wages and better working conditions. Several have marched on their state capitals in an effort to get fair funding for their schools.
The ESPs of today stand for the same things that the rednecks of West Virginia in 1921 did. We take pride in what we do and do it better than anyone else. ESPs not only work to make a better life for themselves, but also for their children and the school’s children.
Seen in A New Light
I have no idea when or how “redneck” became offensive, but when thinking of its’ origin I would then say the ESPs of today are every bit as much a “redneck” as the union miners of 1921.
We should always remember that it was their efforts and sacrifices that brought us many of the freedoms and rights that we enjoy today. Few people have ever heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain or know how the term, “redneck” got its start. That is evidence of how we take so much for granted.
Rednecks and hillbillies battled the British and created some of the most popular aspects of American culture today, like NASCAR, country music, and country ham. Maybe today’s children will someday look back on us and think of rednecks and hillbillies in the correct context.
(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.
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