Union coal miners in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania fostered multiracial solidarity through both their adoption of the nickname "redneck" and their wearing of red bandanas. This image of unified, class-conscious redneck miners contrasts markedly with the traditional image of the politically unorganized, race-conscious redneck farmers. The term redneck, used to mean a poor, rural white southerner, first emerged sometime in the last decades of the nineteenth century. According to the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), one of its earliest appearances in print dates from 1893, when Hubert A. Shands reported that in Mississippi speech red-neck was used "as a name applied by the better class of people to the poorer [white] inhabitants of the rural districts" (OED2, 13:422). The compound word redneck, most scholars of the American language agree, originally derived from an allusion to sunburn, and the prevailing view is that southern planters and the urban middle classes used the epithet to describe those white farmers, sharecroppers, and agricultural laborers who had sunburned, red necks from working long days in the fields (Roebuck and Hickson 1982:3). Scholars have further speculated that white farmers and sharecroppers in Mississippi, Georgia, and other states of the Deep South first began to be called "rednecks" during Reconstruction when some of them "stubbornly refused to wear the cool, wide-brim straw field hats" favored by black freedmen and instead opted for "sweaty, narrow-brim wool hats" that exposed their necks to sunburn as they worked in the fields (Bowles and Tyson 1989:47). But unlike these red-necked farmers and sharecroppers, who consciously attempted to distinguish themselves in dress from African Americans during Reconstruction, union miners embraced redneck as a way to undercut, rather than to heighten, racial distinctions during the coalfield wars of the 1910s and 1920s. For striking miners, then, the red handkerchiefs functioned as a display of multiracial union solidarity against the coal-mining operators, hired gun thugs, and National Guard troops, thereby shifting the focus from each striker's race or ethnicity to the unifying symbol of the bandana and their collective interests as workingmen. Of course, the class solidarity symbolized by the red bandanas was grounded in miners' shared experiences as an occupational group and as union members. And there was a certain occupational logic to this symbolic obliteration of the polarizing issues of race and ethnicity, since all miners emerged from underground with blackened, grimy faces, arms, and hands smeared with coal dust, which obscured their race and made them all of one color.
But for union miners, the redefined nickname redneck signified suggested far more than simply union loyalty and class allegiance. As the above songs suggest, union coal miners fashioned around the reclaimed term redneck a distinctly class-conscious masculinity. Organized miners constructed their notions of proper and honorable masculine roles chiefly in opposition to the "unmanly" behavior attributed to company guards and strikebreakers. Union miners saw themselves as inherently different than the cruel-hearted gun thugs and cowardly scabs, who were cast as class traitors and company toadies-literally, in the miners' richly descriptive, sexually suggestive language, company sucks and company licks-who felt no sense of allegiance to their fellow workingmen. Nor were the miners like the money-grubbing coal operators who, they believed, exploited miners' backbreaking labor rather than doing honest work themselves. Redneck miners, in contrast, demonstrated their manhood by providing for their wives and children, collectively siding with the union during strikes, and fighting for their rights as U.S. citizens. They refused to kowtow to the coal companies, be intimidated by hired gunmen, or betray fellow strikers by working as scabs. During the Harlan County coalfield war of 1931-1932, Florence Reece, the wife of a NMU miner, captured these gendered distinctions in her famous labor anthem, "Which Side Are You On?" Two verses and the chorus follow:
Just the opinion of a US Marine fighting for the country that he loves!