Harlan County, USA lays bare the incredible lives of coal miners in a province in Kentucky. Harlan County miners risk their lives working in hazardous coal mines, without proper safety measures, medical or retirement benefits. Listening to the narratives of former coal miners we see men in their declining years, decayed from years of being exposed to toxic dust. While watching these men I wonder what exactly they were working for, if not to one day be able to live comfortably in their old age. These men worked strenuously all their lives just to wind up as poor as they were from the start and dying of black lung disease. The bravery and diligence of these men is mind blowing, but we are also given a perspective of another remarkable group of people in the community, the women. Its hard to imagine the lives of the women of Harlan County, who must tolerate the fear of not knowing whether their husbands, fathers and children will come home that evening. From the scene where a mother must bathe her daughter in an uncomfortable basin because they have no hot running water, it is evident that these women are living under harsh conditions and are just as sick of it as the men. One of the ways in which women conveyed their stories of despair and willpower to make a change is through song, with lyrics that are real and passionate.
They take your very life blood, they take our children’s lives
They take fathers away from children, and husbands away from wives.
Oh miner, won’t you organize wherever you may be
And make this a land of freedom for workers like you and me.
-“Come On All You Coal Miners” Sarah Ogan Gunning
The women of Harlan County play a significant role in the coal miners strike, we see large numbers of them on the picket lines with signs hanging from their necks trying to spread their word and collect donations. They put themselves in an equally dangerous position as the men, flooding the streets and blocking scabs from getting to the mines, risking getting shot at by gun thugs. These women are selfless and armed, and are willing to die in order to make their point made. They play an important role in the influencing the community, having meetings to promote the strikers and to encourage more members of the county to join them. Eastover Mining president, gives his views on the initiative of the women in Harlan County, saying “I would hate to think that my wife would play that kind of role. There’s been some conduct that I would hope that U.S. women wouldn’t have to resort to.” After witnessing the conditions these people lived in and how much they risked just to make barely enough to live, it is obvious why these women were acting out. These mining companies are blind to the fact that it is their ignorance that have left nothing else for these women to do but “resort” to such extreme conduct. Harlan County, USA is a incredible story about the working soldiers of America, both men and women- who fought to better their lives with a passion that is still uplifting to see four decades later.