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“Let’s Show Them What a Fight We Can Give Them”

The Black Lung Movement in West Virginia

By Catherine Moore

Black Lung marcher
A marcher holds a grim message during a black lung rally. Photographer and date unknown, courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries.

On January 28, 1969, an empty wooden coffin rested in the rotunda of the State Capitol while lawmakers bustled by. It was placed there by coal miners to call attention to a social cause that thousands of West Virginians would fiercely rally behind that year. Above it hung a short but affecting poem written by Mildred Mullins, the wife of a disabled miner:

“Compensation we are asking,
While alive and still gasping;
When life is o’er and hymns are sung,
Then they’ll know we have black lung.”

Though America had been highly dependent on the Appalachian coalfields to fuel the industrial revolution and two world wars, until the late 1960's there were few laws either protecting coal miners from the significant dangers of their occupation or compensating them for the results. Instead, miners relied mostly on their own knack and luck to keep themselves out of harm’s way.

In some cases, this was enough. But all the luck and talent in the world could not protect them from the tiny coal dust particles, fine as talcum powder, that were constantly filtering through their lung tissue as they worked. Years of breathing the dust left many men disabled, in pain, hopeless, out of work, and with no possibility of adequate compensation, or even acknowledgment.

Despite several important medical conferences held on the topic in Elkins during the 1950's, black lung was, on the whole, not accepted as an authentic disease by the medical community. Some doctors even went so far as to claim that coal dust might be beneficial to workers’ health because of the comparatively lower incidence of tuberculosis among miners and because they believed it caused the men to cough up dangerous silica.

Then, in 1968, a movement spread through the coalfields of West Virginia that changed everything. Throughout that year and perhaps earlier, small groups of disabled miners from Fayette and Kanawha counties met informally in each others’ houses to discuss what could be done about their situation. They were frustrated by what they felt was an unwillingness on the part of the United Mine Workers (UMW) leadership, in particular union president Tony Boyle, to confront mine operators about safety and health.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.