Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2021. It has been republished with an updated dateline for 2022’s Labor Day holiday.
There’s a certain set of descriptors we often hear in conjunction with the word “redneck:” drunk, wild, backwoods, hick, hillbilly. Communist generally isn’t one of them. But that’s the association coal barons tried to draw in the early 20th century to discredit their striking workers.
Just take the example of Police Chief Sid Hatfield of Matewan, West Virginia, who helped defend local miners during the bloody, decades-long West Virginia Mine Wars. He was a member of the Hatfield clan, which had a fierce rivalry with the local McCoy family. In August 1921, he was gunned down on the steps of a West Virginia courthouse by armed detectives hired by the coal operators. At the time, historians say he was portrayed as a wild hillbilly who got what was coming to him. The only problem is the infamous Hatfield and McCoy feud had been quiet for two decades by then, and Hatfield was a caring policeman who walked drunk coal miners in the area home instead of arresting them.
At the same time that the coal operators were trying to frame Hatfield as a “redneck,” they were also trying to paint striking coal miners as “reds” — highly organized communist instigators, says Wilma Steele, historian and board member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. Somehow, coal companies in West Virginia wanted folks around the country to believe rednecks could be both unmanageable and primitive as well as foreign militants coming to overthrow the U.S. government. Sometimes, the words were even used interchangeably.
“They shot one of those Bolsheviks up in Knox County this morning,” a local coal baron said of a Young Communist League organizer, according to a 1932 New Republic piece later republished in Patrick Huber’s journal article “Red Necks and Red Bandanas.” “He didn’t give the redneck a chance to talk.”
Huber says in his text that seeing the word Bolshevik — the leftist organization founded by Vladimir Lenin that eventually became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union — might surprise readers. But the contempt behind the word, he writes, is hardly new. It’s unclear whether Harry Sims, the 19-year-old “redneck” fatally shot in Knox County, actually considered himself a Bolshevik, but historians said miners who held communist sentiments weren’t connected to foreign governments — they simply didn’t like capitalism.
“Redneck in Our Own Way:” Labor Conflict and Union Solidarity
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed labor uprising in U.S. history. At the time, miners were fed up with low wages, dangerous jobs and endless debt to their employers. They were also furious about the murder of their friend Sid Hatfield. After his assassination, pent-up rage boiled over and the miners formed an army of about 10,000 to fight the coal companies. They finally surrendered after federal troops were called in. But during the battle, coal operators tried to make miners seem like a menacing threat. Lon Savage’s Thunder in the Mountains mentions a telegram that Walter R. Thurmond, president of the Logan Coal Operators Association, sent to a congressman.
“Unless troops sent by midnight tonight, the Town of Logan will be attacked by an army of from four to eight thousand reds,” it warned.
The first time I saw that telegram, I assumed “reds” was short for redneck, a term that Steele says union miners reclaimed as a badge of honor after coal operators tried to use it to disparage and insult them. During the Battle of Blair Mountain, striking miners wore red bandanas in a display of solidarity, and the nickname “redneck” stuck. According to Huber’s history of the Battle of Blair Mountain, redneck was always used as a pejorative, although in the century before the Mine Wars it referred to racist, poor, white Southerners. Huber writes that during the 1920s and 1930s, it also came to mean “a Communist” and was used by coal operators to denigrate miners in the Appalachian coalfields. After the Mine Wars, the meaning changed once again.
“During the last four decades of the twentieth century, redneck also referred to a miner who was a member of a labor union, particularly one who was on strike,” Huber wrote. “This last, now-obsolete meaning… provides insight into how… the United Mine Workers used language and symbols to foster union solidarity among racially and ethnically divided miners.”
While Huber writes that meaning is obsolete, historians like Steele are enthusiastically bringing it back, handing out red bandanas to anyone who will listen. Steele says “reds” is actually a reference to communist and socialist activity, not an abbreviation for redneck. Invoking that term was intended to imply that the miners were secretly foreign agents.
“Coal operators chose that term to scare people with,” Steele explains. “Associating them with the communist reds in other parts of the world coming to overthrow the government. They used it on people of lower class, especially Black people [and] immigrants. We accepted that identity of solidarity. We were the only group that used [redneck] in our own way.”
“Our own way” was a pro-union, pro-labor identity — not an anti-American one. And historians have said that while some miners weren’t capitalists, it’s hard to know how many identified as communist or socialist because many kept their views quiet. Still, they weren’t infiltrated by foreign agents; these beliefs were their own. The idea of a union miner might not quite line up with the idea of a militant communist. But fear, not logic, was always the coal operators’ goal.
Lasting Stereotypes and Harm, from Hillbillies to Pillbillies
Unfortunately, the Mine Wars weren’t the last time Appalachians would be painted as backwoods, primitive, and worthy of fear or contempt. Elizabeth Catte, author of What You’re Getting Wrong About Appalachia — and the editor of my own forthcoming book about rednecks — has covered the forced sterilization of Appalachian people. Catte says Charles Davenport, the director of the Eugenics Record Office, once said Virginia’s mountains were full of “mongrels,” and called hillfolk “a badly put together people.” In her book, Catte notes that individuals were sterilized if they were deemed unfit.
“Eugenicists of the past were preoccupied with the fiction that people they perceived as socially undesirable would outpopulate [them],’” Catte said via email. “All non-white people were socially undesirable (keeping in mind that who counts as “white” shifts over time), as were disabled people, immigrants, and poor white people.”
Forced sterilization ended — in most states — by mid-century. But ideas about poverty, who deserves help and who is unsalvageable remain. Catte says modern writers like JD Vance still use eugenicist principles and ideas to advance their conclusions. Vance, who recently announced a bid for the U.S. Senate, wrote the now-infamous “Hillbilly Elegy,” published in 2016. The memoir follows his Ohio family through drug addiction, poverty, and his eventual way out by becoming a Yale-educated military veteran — leaving out his current success as a venture capitalist. The problem is, according to Catte’s book, Vance’s memoir forces illogical conclusions on Appalachians, and some eugenicists even mentored him.
“He cites Razib Khan and Charles Murray…who earned their reputations writing very contested theories about race and genetics,” Catte says of Vance’s inspirations. “One obvious goal…is to make an argument that some people are beyond ‘saving.’ They become very unsympathetic.”
As an example, Catte says Vance found inspiration in a 2012 Discover magazine article by Khan, titled “The Scots-Irish as Indigenous People.” Certainly no Scots-Irishman was ever indigenous in the U.S., yet Khan wrote in the since-deleted article that “in traveling across America, the Scots Irish have consistently blown my mind as far and away the most persistent and unchanging regional subculture in the country.” He also called these families “clan-like.” Vance continued Khan’s conclusions and writes that Appalachian people have unique genetic characteristics with innate traits, positing that “the culture of Greater Appalachia is remarkably cohesive.” If the culture is cohesive, then it could be assumed that everyone fits the Amy Adams depiction of Vance’s mom—a hopeless drug addict who only causes pain and doesn’t want to accept help. Catte wrote that it’s not only an inaccurate depiction of a racially diverse region, but those ideas find a lot of sympathy with eugenicists.
“It turns out that if you create and sell a version of Appalachia as a place filled with defective people, eugenicists start paying attention to your work,” Catte wrote.
These kinds of harmful stereotypes about Appalachian people can have real costs. In May, news broke that pharmaceutical reps mocked the same communities they pumped full of opioids. Emails with Beverly Hillbillies parodies and jokes about “pillbillies” were circulated between top executives at AmerisourceBergen, one of the largest drug distributors in the country, according to The Guardian. Jayne Conroy, one of the country’s most prominent attorneys working to address the opioid epidemic, says it was shocking to see “pillbillies” and other slurs used against the victims of this crisis.
“It’s one thing to uncover documents showing that Big Pharma companies put profits over safety — we see that all the time,” Conroy says. “But to mock the people who were among the most deeply affected by…oxycontin and other prescription opioids, I just cannot understand that. It’s reprehensible.”
An AmerisourceBergen spokesperson said via email that some of the jokes and content were created outside the company and forwarded via email internally, and that the company operates as a wholesale distributor in an environment that at times lacked clear regulatory guidance.
“It is important to note that when these emails were sent, unfortunate terms like ‘pillbillies’ frequently appeared in news coverage surrounding the opioid epidemic,” a company spokesperson said via email.
Reclaiming the Radical Roots of Redneck
From “reds” to “redneck” and “hillbilly” to “pillbilly,” giant corporations across industries have used unflattering terms to demean, belittle and undermine the people of Appalachia for decades. These evolving slurs have contributed to violence and oppression against poor and working class people in the region for more than 100 years now — including Appalachia’s immigrant and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities whose stories are often neglected relative to those of their white neighbors.
Those who want to reclaim these words and fight back against whatever iteration of insult comes next can look to historians like Steele, who say we should take lessons from the past. Steele believes returning to the radical roots of the term redneck is incredibly important, and that a modern redneck believes in union solidarity, accepting people who might be different than us, and listening to everybody while sharing power and respect.
“My goal is to prove who you are is more important than [stereotypes],” Steele says. “The story of the redneck is all of us. We’re all important in that story.”