This website was created on occasion of the 100th anniversary of the "Alabama Coal Strike" in America

1920 - 2020

Despite being formally abolished by Lincoln, chattel slavery was still widespread in the United States, especially in the South. The southern bourgeoisie, descendants of the slave-owners, placed several laws that effectively kept it in place.

One method was the use of forced labor (such as "chain gangs") from prisoners, primarily African-Americans, many of whom were arrested for failing to pay unfair debts to white landowners or were even framed for different crimes with no hope of defending themselves and were then wrongfully imprisoned for the sole purpose of providing the judges and policemen with extra money and the bourgeoisie with free labor.

A large number of the African-American prisoners in Alabama, among other states, were leased to railroad and coal companies. Working conditions were abominable, workplace injuries and deaths were common, workers were regularly beaten and degraded by the bosses if they did not meet daily quotas, and they were given little food and no pay whatsoever, just like in the Antebellum South.

To make matters worse, the coal bosses fiercely resisted any attempt to unify and unionize the miners. They promoted racial chauvinism and Jim Crowism among white miners, had the Ku Klux Klan infiltrate unions "in the interests of white Protestant miners". The black petty bourgeoisie also promoted racial hatred and class collaboration among black workers in order to have the white bourgeoisie protect their narrow class interests.

However, the United Mine Workers made a large push to expand their union into Alabama and resist the attempts to shut down their activities. They had purged several members of the KKK, successfully organized thousands of black and white workers, and planned a statewide strike against the coal companies.

On September 7th, UMW President John Lewis authorized the statewide strike and up to 15,000 (more than half of the 27,000 miners in the state) joined the strike. Alabama Governor Thomas Kilby, who was known as the "business governor", deployed the State Militia to shut down the strikes.

Alabama Governor Thomas Kilby

The strikes would escalate on September 16th when a group of strikers killed the Corona Coal Company's general manager Leon Adler as well as a company guard. In response, white mobs indiscriminately attacked African-Americans and a black miner, Henry Junius, was murdered and thrown in a shallow grave near Roebuck within the first few weeks of the strike. In December, a group of state troopers randomly fired at a black business district in Pratt City (a part of Birmingham) with machine guns and several houses were dynamited. Thousands of miners were also evicted from their company homes and left homeless.

On December 22nd, union official Adiran Northcutt was taken out of his house by Company M of the Alabama National Guard and was shot dead by Private James Morris. He also attacked Northcutt's son-in-law Willie Baird, who in self-defense, killed Morris and fled into the woods before surrendering himself to the authorities 3 days later. On January 5th, 9 members of Company M stormed the jail Baird was being held in, overpowered the sheriff on guard, lynched Baird and then riddled his body with bullets. The guardsmen were later acquitted and former Alabama Governor Comer outrageously said that the lynching had "some element of self-defense in it".

Despite the bold efforts of the striking miners, including the dynamiting of a train carrying scab coal, the UMW eventually sought a resolution and met with Governor Kilby, who refused the union's demands for union recognition and wage increases and refused to reinstate the striking miners, saying:

"It is rather difficult to understand how such a large number of men could be induced so deliberately to disregard such an obligation of honor. The only explanation, perhaps, lies in the fact that from 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the miners are Negroes. The southern Negro is easily misled, especially when given a permanent and official place in an organization in which both races are members."

The UMW, showing their true capitulationalist colors, complied with Kilby's settlement, ending the strike on February 1921 and closing down their offices in Alabama and would not return for another 10 years. The UMW later joined the AFL-CIO and became a full-fledged yellow union that does nothing for the thousands of American miners struggling with unsafe working conditions but empty reforms that are easily disregarded by the mining bosses whenever possible.

The strike, which left 16 dead and many more wounded, was a major defeat for the miners and the "slavery by a different name" would continue in Alabama and the South for many years before being gradually phased out due to increased awareness. Despite this, forced labor is still common in the American system and inmates have almost no human rights whatsoever. Some states and law enforcement agencies and officials, including the ultra-fascist and former Sheriff of Maricopa County Joe Arpaio, later reintroduced chain gangs and other brutal forms of penal labor as part of a fascist "get tough on crime" initiative that still disproportionately affects African-Americans and other minorities.

The strike and the conditions that led to it teaches the American proletariat many important lessons:


That in addition to the paycheck-to-paycheck wage slavery that the vast majority of Americans are subject to, chattel slavery never died, but has lived on under different names and under the guise of "justice". Under the current conditions of American fascism, all forms of reaction and backwardness, including chattel slavery and institutional racism, are alive and well and the bourgeoisie is neither willing nor capable of ending it, despite their hypocritical claims that they've "made mistakes, but learned from them".


In the class struggle, there can be no capitulation to the bourgeoisie. The betrayal of the UMW was a great defeat for the striking miners and did nothing to change the miserable system that they were bound under. This shows that the proletariat must form revolutionary unions that truly represent their class interests and unwaveringly and uncompromisingly fight for their class interests and ultimately for the overthrow of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and its replacement by the dictatorship of the proletariat which is the only way that worker's rights can be guaranteed.














They killed black miners.