By Christopher Taylor
Senator Byrd’s family, like thousands of others in southern West Virginia, lived in a coal company town, Stotesbury. Byrd recalled that the coal company “touched the miners’ lives at every point,” and that its influence was “complete” and “ruthless.” In addition to the mine, the company owned virtually the entire town, from the miners’ houses to the church. Stotesbury’s only store was company run. Miners and their families purchased household goods there with company scrip—tokens which were only redeemable at that store. In those days, dissent was settled by mine guards who administered punishments ranging from evictions to “bloody scenes.”
As a Senator, Byrd put his influence to use when coal miners again fought for their rights in the late 1960s. Conditions had improved in the mines over the years, but change was not necessarily all positive. Years of increased mechanization (and the finer coal dust produced by machines) led to a generation of coal miners suffering from pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease—a debilitating and often fatal lung condition similar to silicosis. In 1969, a grassroots effort on behalf of coal miners resulted in legislation for the compensation of black lung victims passing the House and Senate. Although President Richard Nixon’s cabinet urged him to veto the bill, successful lobbying by Senator Byrd prompted him to sign it into law.
Three years later, Senator Byrd’s own Black Lung Benefits Act aimed to streamline and expand the earlier legislation by “providing faster service, better assistance, and clearer medical definitions of various black lung related health problems.” This measure was also signed into law by Nixon despite unanimous cabinet opposition. Here again, this was largely due to Senator Byrd’s efforts. After Byrd’s persistent phone calls and telegrams, Nixon staffer Clark MacGregor remarked that Senator Byrd was someone who would “not be put off.”
Byrd later proposed an amendment which would provide compensation and job training for the miners who would soon be unemployed, but the measure was considered too costly. It was defeated by one vote.
Senator Byrd did not provide a panacea for all the issues facing West Virginia’s coal mining families—but he certainly helped them in every way he could. Awarded just three years prior to his passing in 2010, the United Mine Workers plaque reveals the high regard that West Virginia’s miners held for Senator Byrd and his longstanding advocacy on their behalf.
Byrd, Robert C. Child of the Appalachian Coalfields. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2005.
Corbin, David A. The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd’s Encounters with Eleven U.S. Presidents. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2012.
Williams, John Alexander. West Virginia: A History. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press 2001.