I just want to be clear, when I spoke at the protest Sunday evening, Aug. 9, I did not nor have I ever said anything negative about coal miners, despite the false claim made by the opposition in attendance. I have met a few coal miners in my life and found them to be lovely people. What I did say to the young man waving a Confederate flag with “redneck” scrawled over it, is that the term “redneck” comes from the attempts to unionize among coal miners.
In the book “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia” by Elizabeth Catte (a very good book, I highly recommend it), which I was introduced to in the podcast “Dolly Parton’s America” ( a very good podcast, I highly recommend that too, because who doesn’t love Dolly Parton?), the origin of the term “redneck” is expertly explained. In the early 1900s, it was used as a derogatory name for coal miners who attempted to unionize. It was another way of calling them “communists” or “reds.”
In 1921, the coal miners in West Virginia protested for the right to unionize. It was a huge protest of 10,000-plus workers and they were met with violence from their companies, law enforcement and even the National Guard. Many miners died. Before the uprising, mine managers attempted to prevent unionizing by dividing the miners against themselves along racial lines. Coal miners were very diverse, Black and white, Chinese and other immigrants. So union organizers decided to reclaim the title “redneck” to unify the workers. They all wore red bandanas and identified themselves as rednecks instead of by race or national origin.
With that newfound unity, they participated in one of the most significant protests for worker’s rights in the history of the United States: The Battle of Blair Mountain.
I chose to speak about the term because of the irony; people protesting for basic human rights for Blacks were confronted by a group who deny a Confederate statue is racially insensitive and divisive, all while waving a flag that said “redneck.” If you refuse to believe in the historical reality of this term so many of you proudly claim as your own, that’s your business. But it does not change actual history. Just as you may claim the Confederate statue in the courthouse square is about history when, in actuality, it is not. The statue was designed to be a touchstone for white supremacists and continues to be so to this day. For reference, this article sums up the history and racially divisive motivations for constructing such monuments all over the South: https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/confederate-statues/.
The protesters who want to remove the Confederate statue from the courthouse square, including myself, are closer to redneck patriots than their opposition, in my opinion. We are a diverse group from all backgrounds who live in and love the city of Gainesville and do not wish to see it racially divided. This is the entire purpose of protesting for its removal: to unify the diverse cultures within the city.
If honoring the Confederacy is important to a proportion of Cooke County residents, I say we build a new monument for the Civil War, not just the Confederacy. Let the monument tell the story of both sides and the truth about slavery. Let it honor the sacrifice of every soldier — Union, Confederate, white and Black. Let’s build a monument that the rest of this country can use as a model. That way both sides of this argument can be unified in our patriotism and proudly call each other rednecks.
Michelle Angus, Gainesville