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Monday, December 26, 2016

Florence And Sam Reece, Appalachian Heroes

Florence Reece

In November 1974, I was lucky enough to meet Florence and Sam Reece at a conference at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, TN.  That weekend conference would be the only time I would ever be lucky enough to be in their company.  Sam Reece was already seriously ill with a plethora of health problems, most of which were related to his life in the coal mines and perhaps to physical abuse which he suffered at the hands of coal company gun thugs during the Harlan County Strike of the late 1920's.  At that time, Florence Reece was still in very good health for her advanced age.  She regaled the group at the conference with numerous stories of the years she and her husband had spent fighting for union recognition for the coal miners of Harlan County Kentucky.  She also spoke at length about her song writing and especially about writing "Which Side Are You On?", one of the best known union organizing songs in American labor history.  They also spoke at length of the harassment they had both suffered from Senator Joseph McCarthy and The United States Senate Subcommittee On Investigations during the communist witch hunts of the summer of 1954.  At that time, Senator Joseph McCarthy was running rampant harassing union members, union organizers, liberal thinkers, writers, actors, and any other public or semi-public figure who spoke out on behalf of the working class.  

Sam Reece was working as a union organizer in Harlan County in the late 1920's and early 1930's.  At the time, Florence was simply a miner's wife and mother to her children.  As Florence Reece told the story, one night in 1931 anti-union gun thugs employed by Sheriff John Henry Blair and the coal companies raided their home in an attempt to jail, or perhaps even kill, Sam Reece for his union activity.  The gun thugs raided the house, terrorized Florence and her children, and ransacked nearly the entire house searching for any kind of union literature.  Sam had managed to escape into the mountains just before the gun thugs arrived.  Florence always said that after the company thugs left she was so angry at having her home violated that she ripped a sheet off a wall calendar and immediately wrote the lyrics to "Which Side Are You On?"   The song instantly began to grow into the world famous union anthem it still is today.  It has been translated into dozens of languages and sung at labor, peace, and other rallies for the underprivileged all over the world.  It made both Florence and Sam Reece famous.  For the rest of their lives they stood up for the rights of the working class, endured harassment and hatred, and never flinched to their dying day in the fight for the rights of the downtrodden.  

The story of Florence and Sam Reece  has  been told many times in many ways.  It has become at least one book, "Which Side Are You On?  The Story Of A Song" by George Ella Lyon.  The story has also been told as a play, "Which Side Are You On? The Florence Reece Story"  written by Edward Francisco and produced at Pellissippi State University.  The story of Florence and Sam Reece is a story of courage in the face of danger, resolution in the face of fear, and suffering in support of a cause for the good of humanity.  By the time Florence Reece died in 1986, more than fifty years after the song was written, she was famous enough that her obituary was carried in the NY Times.  Here is a link to Florence Reece's memorial on Find A Grave.  Here is a link to Sam Reece's memorial on Find A Grave. 

Here is a link to the You Tube Florence Reece version of "Which Side Are You On?"

Here is a link to the You Tube Pete Seeger version of "Which Side Are You On?"

Here is a link to the printed lyrics to "Which Side Are You On?" in both English and French. 

I will always be proud that I was able to spend time in the company of Florence and Sam Reece.  They were two of four people I have known who were pilloried by Senator Joseph McCarthy for their works for the good of humanity.  I learned a great deal from spending time in the company of such people.  I learned that good people must always stand up and speak out in the defense of good, just causes.  I learned that good, just causes do not always win out.  Constant effort is required from good people to support such causes.  Men and women such as Florence and Sam Reece, George Washington, Thomas Paine, and Mahatma Ghandi, and you my friend must stand up, speak out, and sometimes suffer if just causes are to win.  Sadly, America is entering such a period today.  A self confessed sex offender, career criminal and Fascist is likely to occupy the White House in the near future.  America could use several million people like Florence and Sam Reece today. 

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