Among coal miners, Harlan County, Kentucky, is known as "Bloody Harlan." The name comes from a series of United Mine Workers strikes and labor-management battles which ended in a gunfight between deputized mine guards and miners on May 4, 1931, in the tiny community of Evarts. When the smoke had cleared, the bodies of three guards and one miner were found, and an undetermined number of other dead and dying had been carried away into the mountains.
Soon after the "Battle of Evarts," novelist Theodore Dreiser led a citizens' group to Harlan County to find and publicize the bloody facts. The group included John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, and a number of other writers and artists. Now, forty-three years later, Harlan County is again gripped in a UMW strike, this time at the Brookside mine of the Eastover Mining Company, and another citizens' group has been formed. Arnold Miller, who was an active coal miner until three years ago and is now the reform-minded president of the United Mine Workers, has asked me to serve as a member of a "Citizens Public Inquiry into the Brookside Strike."
It was Miller who defeated W. A. ("Tony") Boyle for the national presidency of the UMW in 1972 in an election closely supervised by the federal government. Prior to Miller's election, the union had become corrupt, dictatorial, and a frequent collaborator with the mine owners. In 1970, Joseph Yablonski had led a rank-and-file revolt against Boyle, and Yablonski and his wife and daughter had been brutally murdered by killers hired with union funds. Now, Tony Boyle is among those who have been convicted of complicity in the murders, and Arnold Miller is the head of the revamped union. The Brookside labor dispute erupted spontaneously soon after Miller's election. He decided to make Harlan County a test case in the UMW's new, more aggressive organizing efforts.