One hundred years ago a militant miners’ strike set ablaze the Alabama coal fields. It took place right at the heart of the racism and violence of the 1920s US South.
The strike united black and white workers and shook the state’s rulers to the core.
US workers’ anger had been building throughout the First World War.
Historian Brian Kelly says that, “Miners put up with wage restraint and in Alabama employers denied the basic right to organise.
“The end of war leads to a release of long pent up frustrations. The Birmingham miners were part of a wave of post war strikes and industrial militancy that invited repressive clampdowns from Washington.
“But, given the explosive nature of the race question, and given the composition of the mining workforce, this wasn’t almost like any other post war strike.”
Brian says Alabama’s elite saw the strike “not only as a threat to industrial law but the racial hierarchy”.
His book, Race, Class and Power and in the Alabama Coalfields 1908-1921, shows how the colour line could break down on the picket line.
“Where else in the South would you see an armed standoff with blacks and whites standing on the same side against the police?” says Brian.
The strike began in September 1920, and the whole of Alabama’s ruling class mobilised to make sure it was defeated.
The Democrat party introduced martial law and mobilised National Guard soldiers to suppress the mine workers. On top of the might of the state, strikers were up against private armies hired by the bosses.
“Alabama was a violent place and lynching was still in the air,” explained Brian.
“Union organisers were lynched in the course of the strike.
“The coal employers in the Birmingham district were well armed and habitually resorted to armed violence.
All the major employers had small armies of detectives and armed men at their disposal and they operated according to their own law.
“Many coal camps were surrounded by barbed wire and Gatling guns—and miners were forced to rely on armed pickets.”
And the “press was filled with lurid accounts of what might happen to the ‘great white race’ if the strike succeeded”.
This miners’ fight was shaped by previous battles against Southern racism.
After the American Civil War of 1861-65, pressure from radicals pushed the victorious US state to oversee an era of “Radical Reconstruction” in the Deep South. Former slaves won the right to vote, over 900 black people were elected to public office and some states brought in mixed schools.
But the old slave-owning ruling class kept its power on the south’s plantations where many former slaves were forced to work as sharecroppers. And by the end of the 1870s, it had regained its control through a combination of electoral fraud and racist violence by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
Almost all black people, and tens of thousands of poor whites, were disenfranchised. And the Southern states’ rulers brought in “Jim Crow”, a series of laws governing strict segregation between black and white across society.
Brian says that while “white workers are deeply influenced by ideas around them” but there were periods when they broke with racism.
“I think lots of people on the left in the US see the South as monolithic and white workers as totally unwavering racists with no exceptions to that stereotype,” he said.
“In northern Alabama you had a tradition of left wing populism, which stretches all the way back to opposition to Confederacy during the Civil War.
“The Alabama miners’ strike is one episode of many in the south where you see black and white workers compelled to come together, often by sheer desperation.”
While many black people were forced to stay working on the plantations, Southern coal owners and industrialists around Birmingham needed labour.
They drew black people into the workforce. Between 1900 and 1920 around 50 percent of Alabama miners were black.
So the bosses worked hard to bolster Jim Crow and sow racist divisions among workers. Brian said, “Around Birmingham, in northern Alabama, you had a huge steel and iron complex that depended on coal.
“The steel employers were the founders of the KKK in Jefferson County and became the biggest Klan group in the US.
“They specifically aimed to stop attempts to organise black workers in steel.”
Brian explained that in the steel works there were a layer of skilled workers who were white and mostly members of old craft unions. These unions would only represent certain skill grades, not the whole industry, and had “no interest in organising unskilled African American workers”.
The situation was different in coal where “you don’t have skilled and unskilled in mines”.
“The workforce is mixed and the reality is it’s not possible to improve conditions for white workers without also taking up grievances of black miners,” said Brian.
“You do have convict labour, men and some women rounded up and handed over to the mine owners.
“They were overwhelmingly black and often used to break strikes.
“So the United Mine Workers union (UMW) is forced to take a position against the convict system—labour is, for all its faults, out in front against it.”
In response to mine workers’ unity during disputes between 1908 and 1920, the bosses tried to stoke racism by bringing in black strikebreakers from plantations.
But, says Brian, “One of the remarkable things about the strikes, is there’s very little evidence of racial attitudes.
“There are black strikers who shot at, and work hard to dissuade black strikebreakers.
“Despite the pervasiveness of racist ideas throughout Southern society, that a degree of unity across the colour line is achieved at all is incredible.”
But the leadership of the UMW was “very cautious about violating the racial protocols of Jim Crow”. Brian argues that the union had a “pragmatic inter-racialism” that “could lead to something deeper in the right conditions”.
“The conditions demanded some degree of interracial cooperation,” he said. “How far workers took this depended on if there were left wing anti‑racists around making the argument.”
Black workers didn’t just face opposition from bosses and white racists when trying to join the union.
Birmingham had a small but influential black middle class of preachers, businessmen and newspaper editors. By and large they bought into the ideas of black leader Booker T Washington.
Brian says Washington argued that a “white rabble was responsible for racism” and he “tried to form alliances with what he called a ‘better class’ of southern men”.
“He thought that they would deliver reforms, and of course they also paid his cheque.”
“In Birmingham the leadership of the black community bought into Washington’s policy of going along with white elites.
“They stayed out of politics and also stayed out of unions.
“The coal operators subsidised the black press in and around Birmingham which did its best to get black workers to stay away and break strikes. But the evidence I’ve seen, is that it had very little effect on black workers.”
Workers fought heroically for five months but the odds were stacked against them.
And as the strike dragged on, the union leadership looked to sign a deal and accepted Democrat governor Thomas Kilby as an arbitrator.
The result was a total defeat that decimated the union in the coalfield.
Brian says the “UMW leadership was too cautious to go all out” and worried about speaking out against Jim Crow outside of the workplace.
“The strike would have had to face up to political questions it had thrown up, and the UMW was hoping they could win on the cheap,” he explained.
“It’s clear in hindsight, the strike had no chance of winning unless it spread outside the coal industry and to other coal fields.
“It certainly could have spread to the majority of steel workers in Birmingham who were unskilled and African American.
“In terms of tangible organisation, the union was pretty much driven underground—that’s the scale of the defeat.”
And the defeat of the strike wasn’t just a defeat for the union. “The way that strike was defeated doesn’t do much to bring optimism to those who might have pushed for a break with Jim Crow,” added Brian.
It would be around ten years until the unions revived, but when they did, there was a revival of interracial unionism in the big battles of the 1930s.
And the strike remains a lesson of how, in the most difficult circumstances, it’s possible to build black and white unity against racism.