He said if miners picketed his mine he would slaughter them

Posted by | April 10, 2012

By January 1, 1941, Harlan and Bell Counties were 95 per cent organized. The only nasty non-union outpost was the Fork Ridge mine just across the Kentucky line in Tennessee, a short distance from Middlesboro. The mine was operated by C. W. (Dusty) Rhodes, president and general manager. Searchlights were placed on the tipple and plug-uglies guarded the mine property with tommy guns. Every time a union organizer attempted to talk with a Ford Ridge employee, he took his life in his hands.

Rhodes was a large, reckless young man who arrogantly told union men that if miners attempted to picket his mine, he would slaughter them. For months, he and Bob Robinson, a former Tennessee highway patrolman, had been parading around with their Tommy guns and challenging the miners to a fight. More than half of the employees had been signed up by the UMWA, but Rhodes ignored their demands and hired more thugs.

On April 15, 1941, the union decided to post a picket line in the safest place they could find. The pickets chose stations where they could take cover in case they were attacked by company guards, and then moved to a strategic place near the mine. When the caravan of cars came to a stop at the state line and started to unload, the fifty pickets were greeted with a broadside from fifteen or eighteen armed guards who had word they were coming and had preceded the pickets to the state line. On the first volley, one picket was killed and more than a dozen were wounded, nine seriously enough to be hospitalized.

When James Ridings, A. T. Pace and George Gilbert, union representatives, were getting out of their car, Gilbert was shot in the leg, and Ridings, in addition to having his necktie shot off, also had his clothes perforated by bullets. The pickets took cover behind trees, rocks and cars and returned the fire, killing Rhodes, the company president, E. W. Silvers, company vice president, and Robinson, the company guard.

Sam Evans, a union member, was killed. The nine men in the hospital who were jointly charged, along with Turnblazer, Ridings and Pace in the Tennessee murder warrant were: R. W. Lawson, Bell County deputy sheriff; Alford Smith; Walter Pilly; Earl Alley; John Holland; Clayton Webb; Millard Forester and A. J. Napier. Some of these men were from Kentucky and some from Tennessee.

The battle raged across the state line and more than a thousand shots were fired.

This was the last gun battle in southeastern Kentucky and/or Tennessee over the UMWA’s right to organize. The feudal coal barons learned a valuable lesson from this encounter, namely that times were changing. They could no longer murder miners like dogs with impunity and with the protection of state governments. They had been taught that workingmen, for the first time in American history, were thought of as first-class citizens.

Thinking back, I realize that the Harlan County gun thugs in reality got nothing for their efforts to drive out the union. Most of them died violent deaths.

The ones who survived or died natural deaths had their consciences to live with. How they did it, I do not know.

source: “Hell In Harlan,” by George J. Titler, pp 213-15, BJW Printers, 1972

2 Responses

  • Elizabeth Robinson says:

    This written by UMWA organizer Tidwell is not a factual account of this gun battle. Don’t believe everything you read. There is always two sides to every story.

  • Tom Mathews says:

    Brother Tidwell may not have been a professional historian but his recall of the UMWA struggle against the coal barons has the ring of truth.
    These were the same kind of greedy employers who worked little kids half to death in their coal breakers and cheated the coalminers out of their hard-earned wages.
    There was an old saying:
    “Miners mine coal and the company mines the miners.”
    This is an important story and a great website.

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