‘Mighty Harlan County,’ film about the Blackjewel miners, will be shown through the Battle of Homestead Foundation 

by Jody DiPerna

On May 11, the Battle of Homestead will show the film ‘Mighty Harlan County,’ followed by a conversation with film director Jared Hamilton moderated by the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. 

UPDATE:  The May 11th event at 7:30 is the roundtable discussion with the filmmaker. Viewers will want to view the film, “Mighty Harlan County” beforehand. Links for both the film and the discussion can be found here.

In July, 2019, corporate malfeasance in the Appalachian coalfields reached a new low when Blackjewel Mining unexpectedly fired 1,700 miners in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming and refused to pay their back wages.

In Harlan County, Kentucky, a handful of miners mounted an immediate resistance. The miners posted up on the railroad tracks to block a load of coal — coal that they had dug and for which they were unpaid — to be moved. They were joined by their families and other supporters. By physically occupying the tracks for two months, they prevented the last coal train, with a load valued at more than a million dollars, from leaving until they and their colleagues were paid in full. 

Jared Hamilton is a photojournalist and filmmaker based in Whitesburg, Kentucky. When the Harlan workers organized and blocked the train tracks, he got in his car with his equipment and began filming. Hamilton was with the miners during the extraordinary blockade and he traveled with them to court appearances throughout the bitter legal battle.

Like Barbara Kopple’s 1976 film, ‘Harlan County, USA,’ which documented a violence-marred, bitter coal strike in Harlan County, Hamilton lets the miners and the people on the ground do the talking. ‘Mighty Harlan County’ is an extraordinary account of this battle and essential addition to documenting and understand labor history and labor resistance.  

“‘Mighty Harlan County’ depicts the core values of the union spirit,” said Battle of Homestead Foundation president John Haer. 

The roundtable panel will be Hamilton, Lou Martin and Kipp Dawson. Martin is an associate professor of history at Chatham University, and an honorary member of the UMWA Local 1440. Martin is a founding member and President of the Museum Board of the Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, West Virginia. His book Smokestacks in the Hills: Rural-Industrial Workers in West Virginia is about the steel and pottery workers of Hancock County, West Virginia, where he grew up. Dawson is a retired member of UMWA Local 1197 in Washington County, PA. She was an underground coal miner in Bethlehem Steel’s (84 Mining Company’s) Cokeburg/EightyFour mine, 1979-92, active both in the UMWA and in the women miners organization, the Coal Employment Project/Coal Mining Women’s Support Team. She is part of a national project to collect, record, store, and make public the oral histories of women coal miners.

The discussion will be moderated by Jody DiPerna, senior writer and editor of PINJ, who grew up in the shadow of Allegheny Ludlum Steel Mill and USWA Local 1196.

This is a free online program presented by the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and the Battle of Homestead. The film will be shown on Thursday, May 11th at 7:30. The discussion will follow. 

Register here for the panel discussion.

This story has been corrected to reflect a change in viewing format. Viewers should watch the film in advance of the panel discussion on May 11th.

This story has been updated to include biographical information for the panel discussion.