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Reliving a massacre

Remembering our ugly labor history

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The Marion Massacre
By Mike Lawing
Wasteland Press, 119 pp., $12

'Twas in Marion, North Carolina,
In a little mountain town;
Six workers of the textile
In cold blood were shot down.

--From "The Marion Massacre" by Woody Guthrie

In the early dawn of Oct. 2, 1929, the McDowell County sheriff and several deputies faced a group of workers outside the fence in front of the Marion Manufacturing Company, whose 600 employees had been on strike for four months.

Sheriff Oscar Adkins would later swear in court that the strikers opened fire first, although no weapons were ever found on any of the strikers. And, more important, none of the deputies was shot. When the dust settled, however, six strikers had been killed and 24 were wounded. Charges were brought against the sheriff, the mill superintendent, two mill foremen and 14 deputies. A preliminary hearing exonerated the sheriff, the mill employees and six deputies. Eight deputies were brought to trial on second degree murder charges, but a jury in nearby Yancey County quickly acquitted them. The deputies were the beneficiaries of a "Dream Team" of lawyers that included a future governor and U.S. senator as well as a future chief justice of the state Supreme Court. All of the strikers were fired from their jobs and evicted from their company-owned homes.

It was an historic moment in the history of labor in America. Sinclair Lewis came down and wrote six articles for the Scripps-Howard newspapers, later published as a union pamphlet entitled Cheap and Contented Labor, the phrase used to lure factories to the South. Socialist leader Norman Thomas contributed to the strike fund. Woody Guthrie wrote two (still unpublished) songs about the martyrs in the "Marion Massacre," as the Raleigh News & Observer headlined its report from the scene.

Mike Lawing grew up in Winston-Salem, but frequently visited relatives in Marion. He drove past the mill dozens of times, but had never once heard anybody mention what happened there. He was well into middle age when his father pointed to the site one day and started to tell him about it. The elder Lawing had three uncles working in the Marion and Clinchfield mills--two supported the strike, one was "loyal" to the company. Lawing's mother was related to a deputy accused of shooting at strikers as well as the attorney who represented the Union. "It was as if both sides were ashamed of what had happened, and nobody wanted to talk about it," Lawing says now. Only in recent years have we begun to see local historians or historians of any kind paying attention to the dramatic story of the efforts to organize labor unions in the textile mills in our state.

Fascinated by the story, Lawing began collecting information about the strike and its bloody aftermath. He interviewed everybody he could find and collected news reports of strikes in Marion. His research resulted in a series of articles published in the McDowell News, and he has now published the story in The Marion Massacre.

Lawing is modest about his efforts, explaining, "I am not a writer--I prefer to be thought of as a storyteller." The truth is, Lawing lays out the story in far more sensible and readable prose than the great muckraker Sinclair Lewis did.

Lawing traces the precise cause of the walkout at Marion to an overload of work that Lewis apparently did not know about. This extra work was on top of the 12-hour day that the men, women and children were expected to work every week for $13, minus the cost of housing and whatever they'd charged at the company store. All they were striking for was a reduction in the work load from 12 to 10 hours with the same pay. Lawing also explains how each of the major strikes in 1929--in Marion, in Elizabethton, Tenn., and in Gastonia--was unique and unrelated to the others. Tragically, the fiercely independent workers shared their bosses' fears of any kind of union that smacked of Bolshevism and Communism. And the bosses gleefully preyed on the workers' racism. Blacks could only get the most menial jobs in the mills. Joining a union, they said, "would mean your wives and daughters would be working right alongside a Negro." And the workers would continue to operate against their own best interests--until their jobs were outsourced to Communist China.

With admirable persistence, Lawing has succeeded in getting this story home to the folks in Marion and McDowell County whether they want to talk about it or not. After Lawing's articles were published in the newspaper, he was able to connect with many families who had ties to the incident, and their information helped him correct several mistakes. He has scheduled readings in Marion and the book is for sale in three locations there. If his book does not make it on any kind of statewide or national stage, at least he will have helped to erase the long conspiracy of silence and confronted the folks back home with the facts about this tragic event in local history.

Mike Lawing will read at The Book Market in Carr Mill Mall on Saturday, April 16 at 1 p.m. and at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham on Monday, May 9 at 7 p.m.

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