What has been narrated before is entirely based on written, official records. It brings the sad story of Harlan County's downtrodden coal miners to the chronological point where I was assigned to organizing duties in Harlan. Mentioned earlier was a District 19 convention called by District President William Turnblazer. Its purpose was to plan and organize a renewed campaign to bring the benefits of unionism to the drudges who slaved in Harlan County coalmines. I was working in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at the time, field man for the UMWA in charge of the coal mine workers in the Sequachia Valley and Tracy City Areas. I asked Bill Turnblazer to assign me to Harlan County. He said he thought I was nuts. He said: "The men who go into Harlan County will probably come out feet first." However, he finally yielded and put Tom Jones in my place in southern Tennessee while I joined the forces in Harlan County. The convention was an enthusiastic one. The International Union pledged its support through various speakers, including several District officials — Pat Pagan, District 5 (Pittsburgh); William Blizzard, District 17, (Southern West Virginia); William Mitch, District 20 (Alabama); Ed Morgan, District 23, (Western Kentucky); John Saxton, District 28 (Virginia); Sam Caddy, District 30 (Eastern Kentucky); and Fremont Davis, District 31 (Northern West Virginia).
Each of these Districts loaned one or more organizers to work in the drive, which was to be headed by District 19 Vice President "Tick" Arnett. The list of their names almost constituted a UMWA "Who's Who" of that day and time. By Districts, this militant group was: District 2, George Green; District 5, Pete Jackson; District 6, Tom Ferguson (who was shot) and Shorty Mclntyre; District 12, Paul K. Reed and Jim Mitchell; District 17, George Blizzard and Millard Cassidy; District 19, L. T. Arnett, Bill Clontz, Marshall Musick and George Titler; District 20, Melton Youngblood; District 23, Matt Bunch, International Representative; District 28, Fred Scroggs; District 30, Frank Hall, Milt Hall and Ted Clark; and District 31, Fred Stubbs and Ray Kelly.
As a first step we planned to load up in cars and go to the forty-eight mining towns in Harlan County to enroll UMWA members. It was mentioned earlier that we were thwarted by a so-called quarantine, which the LaFollette Committee believed had been imposed by Harlan County officials to prevent us from holding large-scale organizing rallies. I believe that Committee was one hundred percent right. The County Health Officer, Dr. William P. Cawood, imposed the quarantine. He said there was a polio epidemic but an investigation revealed there were only five polio cases in the entire county. I believe the Harlan County coal operators made a deal with Dr. Cawood, promising their political support for his nephew, Herbert Cawood, a candidate for High Sheriff, in return for a quarantine that would slow up the union's organizing efforts. Under this edict not more than two people could congregate. The churches and movie houses were closed. The schools were not, nor were the saloons and beer joints, because the Sheriff and his henchmen had a vested interest in the sale of liquor.
All was quiet until January 22, when we moved into the New Harlan Hotel. On that date, we met in one of the hotel rooms until midnight, discussing our plans for the next day. Whatever plans we made were radically changed almost immediately because we had scarcely gotten to sleep when the hotel was tear-gassed. This renewal of the thugs' "reign of terror" has already been mentioned. The LaFollette Committee recorded “Tick” Arnett’s version of it. I remember it well, myself. I shared Room 214 with Arnett. He awakened me and said "Buddy, they are dynamiting the hotel." The first thing I heard was a sputtering that sounded like a fuse spitting. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window to see if there was any method of escape, but there was not. It was sixteen feet to a brick-covered alley and no fire escape. Arnett then got his lungs full of smoke and realized it was tear gas. He opened the door and kicked the bomb down the hall.
The bomb looked exactly like a torch used to show a dangerous place on the highway, or a mark to show a standing truck at night, but the smoke from the bomb was another thing entirely.
Fifty hotel guests, men, women and children, rushed from the top floors to the lobby. Many of the women were hysterical and crying from the tear gas. The day clerk was sleeping in the hotel and wore a wooden leg. In his hurry to get out of his room and see what was the matter, he got his wooden leg on backward and it wouldn't tract. Shortly Mclntyre came out of his room and filled his face with Five Brothers (tobacco). He looked like a chipmunk in chinkapin time. Matt Bunch pulled his trousers on over his nightshirt and looked like a ghost. Melton Youngblood came running out of his room with a Luger in his hand. Five minutes after the tear gas bombs exploded outside our rooms, two hand grenades were thrown between the fender and the hood of two automobiles parked in front of the hotel across the street from the L & N depot, breaking all the windows in the depot. The two cars, both new, were demolished. One was a Dodge, belonging to Frank Hall; the other a Buick, owned by Milton Hall. The blast sounded like an earthquake.
Half an hour after the explosion, two deputies, John Hickey and Frank White, came into the hotel lobby. It was later learned that they were the men who committed the crime. It was also revealed that the bombs came out of the Sheriffs office.
When Arnett found the bomb, he turned it over to the chief of police, Avery Hensley, who in turn gave it to Sheriff Middleton, who destroyed the bomb so that the evidence could not be used against him. He contended that the bomb was given to the prosecuting attorney to take before the grand jury but the prosecuting attorney denied seeing it.
I was subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury in the matter and Daniel Boone Smith, the prosecuting attorney, was presenting the case to the jury. Hs asked me if I knew what blew up in the cars and I said they were blown up by hand grenades. He asked me how I knew and I told him I had used them in the army. Parts of the outside of the grenades were picked up on the street. Anyone appearing before the grand jury could see that Attorney Smith was not interested in indicting anyone. He seemed intent on whitewashing the matter, if possible, which was exactly what happened.
After this whitewash, we were unable to operate from headquarters in Harlan County. Some of us worked out of Pineville, Bell County, while others lived at Pennington Gap, Virginia. Sheriff Middleton had told the boss thug, Ben Unthank, that it was "open season on union organizers." Their thuggery immediately proceeded at an accelerated pace, acts of violence coming thick and fast until the LaFollette Committee moved in. The list of violent acts below, all of which have been described earlier, shows just how frenzied the operators' thugs became in their campaign to destroy the UMWA: January 31 — Marshall Musick and his wife ambushed at Lejunior, Kentucky. February 6 — Polio quarantine lifted by Dr. Cawood. February 7 — Young Bennett Musick murdered by killers who were paid $100 each by Ben Unthank.
February 8 — Tom Ferguson wounded and three cars shot full of holes when deputies ambushed UMWA organizers near Verda. February 20 — Hugh Taylor and Dave Sollenberger shot, robbed and left for dead by Frank White and Wash Irwin. April 24 —Lloyd Clouse murdered by Bill Lewis to prevent him from testifying before the LaFollette Committee or in court. From March 22 until April 9, little organizing was done in Harlan because both organizers and operators were in Washington testifying before the LaFollette Committee. On April 21st, President Turnblazer called me to Jellico and told me that the ordeal in Harlan had made a nervous wreck of "Tick" Arnett. The tear gas in the hotel had also seriously affected the lungs of Melton Youngblood, who never saw another well day. However, he stayed on until the county was organized. Bill Turnblazer gave me a check for $3,000 to establish a payroll and told me to go into Harlan County, establish headquarters, pick up half a dozen local organizers, and go to work. I hired Bob Hodge, Matt Hollars and Bob Owens, all from Morley, Tennessee, and Virgil Hampton, Ed Beane and Jim Westmoreland. Hampton and Beane were from Black Mountain and Westmoreland was from Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Matt Bunch stayed on with us.
We established headquarters in the Turner Building in Evarts. This building covered a whole triangular block with a road all the way around it. (The Turner Building served as part of the fortress in the battle of Evarts in 1931.) Evarts is an incorporated town. The Chief of Police, Floyd Lewis, a coal miner, was pro-union. He deputized all organizers as city police. Every night from midnight until morning, one man stood guard watching out of the windows on each side of the building to see that no one blew it up.
We were there just a few days when we saw a young fellow riding into town one night with gun thug Frank White. When he got out of the car, we saw that he was drunk and had four sticks of dynamite and some fuses and caps in his pocket. The city police picked him up and threw him in jail for intoxication and Ed Blue, a union coal miner from Black Mountain, was put in jail with him to see what he could find out. Because he had come to town with Frank White, we supposed that his intentions were not honorable. The story the boy told was that he worked at the Cook & Sharp mine at Shields; that the commissary closed at five o'clock in the evening and it did not open until after he went to work in the morning. He said he needed the dynamite for a rock shot and after he bought the dynamite, he decided to come to Evarts, so he brought the dynamite with him. I think the boy's story was correct because in those days in Harlan County, miners had to purchase with their own money explosives used in their work. The next morning I met Bryan Middleton on the streets of Evarts. In spite of the face that he was Theodore Middleton's brother, he was friendly to the union. He asked me: "Why don't you keep that fellow in jail?" I said: "We have nothing on him. We must turn him loose." Bryan then made me an offer. "I'll hire you a witness," he said.
That was the first time I had a proposition made to me to suborn perjury. Witnesses could be hired for five or ten dollars to testify to anything you wanted. I was shocked by his statement and so told him. This was just an example of how men were "railroaded" in Harlan County by the Sheriff and his deputies when they wanted them out of the County. They could hire a witness to testify to anything they wanted. Another gimmick was to plant moonshine whiskey in a car, get a search warrant to search the car and send the owner to jail for moonshining or handling moonshine liquor.
Three days after we had established headquarters in Evarts, Virge Hampton and Ed Beane reported to me that they had organized all the mines on the Clover Fork and on Yokum's Creek above Evarts, and set up local unions. They had organized Gaino, PVK, Cook & Sharp, Bergers, High Splint, Louellen, Clover Splint and Woods. To get into these camps, they had to avoid such thugs as Bob Eldridge, Frank White, Lee Ball, Wash Irwin and a dozen others, including Ben Unthank and his roadrunners.
We held a big rally the following Sunday in an orchard at the same spot where Peggy Dwyer had a meeting shot up three years before. About five thousand men, women and children turned out to hear the speeches. In order to keep the place from being shot up, we sent miners into the mountains overlooking the meeting place, with high-powered rifles and shotguns, to stop any thugs who might try to repeat what had been done to Peggy Dwyer earlier. We intended to stop them before they got started. While I was speaking at the rally, our men on the mountain made themselves visible on top of some large rocks. Some of the women panicked until they were told they were union men, placed there for our protection. A few days later, Earl Houck and T. C. Townsend, United Mine Workers attorneys, came to Evarts on legal business for the organization and asked us where the thugs were. I told Ed Beane and Virge Hampton to show them around and as they left the office, they were followed by two carloads of deputies. They were not stopped, but when they returned to our office, they jokingly said the Sheriff made sure they were well protected. Another thing we had to overcome in our organizing drive was the accusation by our enemies, who constantly depicted us as red-necked Communists, atheists, and everything else, that was distasteful to the Mountaineers' code. But we overcame this. We had in our group four ministers of the Gospel, and as we billed our mass meetings, the circulars used in advertising the meetings always announced the speakers as Reverend Matt Bunch, or Reverend Matt Hollars, or Reverend Marshall Musick or Reverend William Clontz.
In one meeting at Lynch, we advertised all four of these preachers as speakers. It was very effective and spoiled the company union's propaganda that the union organizers were evil men. In fact, it drove them nuts. One of our circulars read as follows:
TO THE MINERS OF BENHAM AND LYNCH ORGANIZATION CAMPAIGN UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.
"By orders of the International Officers of the United Mine Workers of America, the organization of Benham and Lynch has been turned over to International Representatives Matt Bunch and George J. Titler, who have been in charge of organizing the commercial mines of Harlan County, under the jurisdiction of District No. 19. An entire change in policy will be inaugurated and the policies of the International and District Organizations will be carried out to the letter." "Local unions at both Benham and Lynch will start holding secret meetings and a new tabulation of our membership will be taken. If you are in favor of a bona fide Labor Union, join the UMA of A."
"The personnel of the new organizing staff will be: Rev. R. A. Music, Rev. Wm. Clontz, Rev. Matt Bunch, and others who are well-known and highly respected by the people of the community." "If you have not joined this great organization, get in touch with Matt Bunch and his bunch of organizers who will explain the principles and benefits of the world's largest and greatest labor organization." "The only bona fide collective bargaining agency for the coal miners of America."
"Get on the band wagon of the union that has brought 7 hour day, 35 hour week, time and a-half for overtime and 200 percent increase in wages to 97 percent of the coal miners in America in the last 4 years."
WILLIAM TURNBLAZER, President of District No. 19
GEORGE J. TITLER, International Representative in charge of Organization in Harlan County.
Too much credit could not be given to these four preacher-organizers, Marshall Musick, a Missionary Baptist; Matt Hollars from the Church of God; William Clontz, a Methodist, and Matt Bunch, a Presbyterian. Each one preached a different religious doctrine but all preached the same union doctrine. These men had a way of blending the emoluments of collective bargaining with the spiritual benefits of being a Christian. The Missionary Baptist teachings of Marshall Musick and the Church of God's version of Matt Hollars appealed to me most strongly. They preached short sermons. Bill Clontz was too long-winded. William Turnblazer said of Clontz: "Never expect to hear all of Clontz' sermon if you are going to catch a train."
T. Pace was making the arrangements for a convention banquet in Middlesboro in 1936. He reported to Turnblazer that he had a problem — if he asked Clontz to speak, he would talk too long, and if he didn't, Clontz would be offended. Turnblazer suggested that they call on Clontz to ask the blessing. Clontz prayed so long that the food got cold. Yet it was strange how some of our members thrived on long speeches. After Clontz talked for two hours, they would holler for more. Clontz missed his calling — he should have been a United States Senator. He was a natural for a filibuster.
Matt Bunch, an ordained Presbyterian minister, came from a different bread of cats. Matt was long, tall and lean, and smooth as a school marm's elbow. He married Laura Smiddy when they were both kids and had a large, fine family. They were inseparable. When the campaign started and we (seven men) moved into the Turner Building on the square in Evarts, Matt and Laura moved into an apartment close by, also owned by the Turners. When a wave of terror would break out and it became necessary to stand guard at night, Mrs. Bunch stood guard with a shotgun while Matt slept.
Matt was the only preacher on the staff who always packed a gun and a Bible. When he was not making organizing speeches, or in the pulpit preaching the Gospel, he was doing missionary work attempting to convert some heathen like me.
One evening we were going down the Cumberland River from Harlan to Wallins Creek to relieve an organizer who was trapped by some thugs. I was carrying a shotgun, Matt a 38 Colt. As we traveled along the road at sixty miles an hour, Matt proceeded to give me a lecture on how I was neglecting my spiritual life. In fact, he told me I was plumb wicked. What Matt was telling me was probably the truth, but I was a trifle nervous, heading into a probable gunfight, and his advice did not appeal to me at that time. I said to Matt: "What are you going to do if we get into a fight and you are forced to kill a thug in self defense? You go around with a Bible in one pocket and a pistol in another. If you are forced to kill a thug, you will sit down on a stump and search your Bible for a way to justify your deed. If that happens, and I was you, Matt, I would search in the Old Testament. You might find something comforting under the Mosaic Law." Matt never converted me but at least he started me thinking in a different direction. Some day his preaching might bear fruit.
Once when Matt was addressing a large mass meeting on Sunday at Evarts, I was out mingling with the crowd, attempting to find out how effective his talk was, and I asked Luke Slavey and Dewey Hensley what they thought of it. Dewey said: "That's a damn good sermon" and Luke said: "He is a hell of a good preacher."
These four preachers, along with Virgil Hampton, Ed Beane, Jim Westmoreland, George Gilbert, Bob Hodge and Melton Youngblood, were all dedicated men who had decided to give the miners of Harlan County an opportunity to be free. They valued the union as greater than their own lives. They had all worked in the mines under the mailed fist and the Iron heel of the feudal barons.
Matt Bunch always contended the organization of Harlan County was under Divine Guidance and will prove it to you, because in eighteen months, no mass meeting was ever rained out. Mass meetings were held on every Sunday. This is the record. It always rained in Harlan on the Sunday we held a mass meeting in Black Star, and vice versa. Or so it seemed.
The organization grew by leaps and bounds. Around May 1st, the organizers went to work on the mines between Evarts and Harlan. They did well except at the Brookside and Kitts mines, which were owned by the Whitfield family. We organized the large mine at Verda owned by Harlan Wallins Coal Corporation. The general manager there was the now famous, or infamous, Pearl Bassham. Pearl had had his claws clipped in Washington by Senator LaFollette and his thugs were not so vicious as they had been previously. When we started up Martins Fork and Caterns Creek, we first came to the Elcombs mine run by an obese MD by the name of Doctor Butter-more. He liked the Union like a bee likes vinegar. A thug named George Shepherd guarded the bridge across the creek. When we got to Tway, we found the gate guarded by other thugs such as; Russ Collins, Tom Gibson, Lee Fleenor; and at Mary Hellen was "Big Ugly" glass-eyed Earl Jones who had the disposition of a gila monster. In the neighborhood of Lenarue and Crummies Creek, the organizers would encounter D. Y. Turner. Early in 1938, George Shepherd killed Turner. The organizers regarded this as progress — one bad thug less to deal with. Shepherd was acquitted. He pleaded self-defense.
Our headquarters in the Turner Building had two large rooms, one of which was used for an office. In the other room where the organizers slept were seven army cots. The first three and a half months in Harlan, no union organizer was allowed to carry a gun or a jack knife although it was not against Kentucky law to carry a gun, as long as you did not conceal it. We had been an unarmed platoon. This was to change.
Change In Strategy
We soon came to the conclusion that we could not fight convicts with powder puffs and kind words. We decided to carry guns in accordance with the laws of Kentucky, and every man was allowed to carry a pistol so that he could face as an equal the convicts parading as minions of the law. Our men were instructed that if the thugs attempted to stop them in the lawful pursuit of their duties, they were to meet force with force, but that they should use their guns only in self-defense. This also was a deterrent to bushwhacking. We called George Ward, secretary of the operators association, and warned him that the organizers were armed and intended to defend themselves when necessary. However, no one asked Turnblazer's approval of the change for fear of a veto.
Men who were hired as organizers were hired for their courage as well as for their ability to organize. Only one man on the force, Matt Hollars refused to bear arms. Matt was a Holiness preacher who had plenty of courage but depended on accomplishing his end by passive resistance and by preaching the Gospel as he went. Matt fit into the picture very well. He was absolutely fearless and went anywhere he pleased in the county and was not molested. We had observed that most of these crooks in Harlan County were cowards and were reluctant to get into a gunfight with anyone and would never start trouble unless they had the odds in numbers in their favor. They preferred bushwhacking.
We organized Verda and bought a hall along the highway just outside the camp. Every time we had a local union meeting, the hall was filled with from three to four hundred miners. Harlan-Wallins employed seven hundred fifty men at Verda.
In 1934, an incident occurred in the Hazard coalfield of Eastern Kentucky that returned to haunt me and UMWA organizers at Verda. At that time the reckless mountain men from Hazard began to flex their muscles. They began to realize the strength of the union. They had been plagued or harassed for years by a company doctor who, in their opinion, was a quack. After the field was organized, the mine committee at one of the mines in the Hazard field notified this company doctor to leave town because the men wanted to hire a real doctor. (Before the union was organized, the company hired the doctor and the men paid him.) He refused to obey and some one, or a group of men, placed a cow bell around his neck on a chain, put a padlock on it and told him to cross the mountain and never come back.