“He had organized the union, and that is why the company killed him.”
Nearly 70 years after the murder of Reverend Captain Leonard Butler, his daughter Vida Butler Rouse remembered the community gatherings where he spoke to the guests with a bullhorn.
Standing on the porch of a two-room schoolhouse, Rouse said, Butler spoke about the need for union protection for the workers who lived in the mining community of Edgewater, Alabama. There, miners struggled financially and endured Black Lung disease and other health problems. A pastor, NAACP member, and high-ranking union member, Butler educated his fellow workers and advocated on their behalf.
The miners had a tough adversary. Edgewater Mine, a subsidiary of the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad (TCI), was a powerful force in the Birmingham area. Butler’s advocacy was a threat to the company’s control over the miners’ lives. And, according to Rouse, TCI would turn to eviction and then murder to silence her father.
A difficult life
Miners like Butler risked injury and death from respiratory diseases, explosions, and mine collapses. They inhaled black dust particles. At some mines, the ceiling was only four feet tall, requiring the miners to work on their knees using worn car tires as knee pads.
Rouse referred to Capstown, where the family later relocated, as “widows’ village” because, she said, “all the men died early that went in the mine.”
At the TCI-owned commissary store where miners shopped for everything from food to clothes, Black coal miners faced segregated check-out lines and excessive prices that left them penniless, Butler’s daughter told CRRJ.
“Well, you heard that song about ‘I sold my soul to the company store, at 15 times you shovel coal,’” recalled Rouse. “You do all this work, and when you got through you didn’t have any money left, because you would’ve gone to the company commissary and spent it all. The company got rich, and the people had nothing.”
A union emerges
At the time, the United Mine Workers of America sought to organize at the Edgewater Mine and elsewhere in the mines surrounding Birmingham. Having disbanded in the Birmingham district after a 1921 strike, the UMW organized a new Edgewater chapter after the National Industrial Act of 1933 secured for workers the right to unionize.
This union was more progressive than most.
“The United Mine Workers was unique historically in that they were one of the first unions to bring in Black workers,” Robert Woodrum, assistant professor of history, political science, and African American studies at Perimeter College at Georgia State University, said. “This was at a time when there was strict segregation, public meetings in Birmingham had to be segregated.”
Fifty-three percent of miners in the state were Black. If the union wanted to succeed in Alabama, it needed Black members like Butler. Butler went from representative to vice president of the Edgewater Local—the highest rank a Black member could hold at the time. “He was fighting to get black lung money,” his daughter said.
“[My father] knew too much about everything. They didn’t allow Blacks to know much. They didn’t want us to go to school,” said Rouse. “My dad knew a lot. He was a smart man, and he would help the people in the community.”
Captain Butler’s death
TCI retaliated. Sometime in the early 1940s, the company evicted Butler’s family—a wife and 13 children—from their Edgewater Village home.
Then, Butler was murdered.
Two employees, one of whom had previously killed a Black miner at a TCI commissary store, had been deputized by the Jefferson Sheriff Department to patrol TCI property and maintain racial order. On June 5, 1948, as Butler was on his way to work, he was shot four times by the TCI security men.
In subsequent testimony, the security men accused Butler of writing a letter to a white teenage girl whose family lived in Edgewater Village. The deputies also alleged that he had pulled a pistol on them when approached. This led the coroner to rule his death a “justifiable homicide.”
Rouse told CRRJ that her mother, Addie Butler, thought her husband was murdered and was determined to clear his name.
With support from the NAACP, she filed a civil suit against TCI’s parent company, the United States Steel Corporation. She won the case and was awarded $10,000 in damages. The company lost its appeal to the Supreme Court of Alabama.
In protest of Butler’s death, about 2,000 Black and white miners quit the mines, bringing business to a halt in all six mines.
Butler’s fight to give widows pensions finally became a reality two years after his death when the UMW and TCI signed a contract giving UMW control over the Welfare and Retirement Fund, thereby securing pensions for miners and their families.
“I can’t really overstate how important this was to the union because an old coal miner is a person who has had a rough life,” said Woodrum. “Physical labor is dangerous work. It takes a toll on you.”
This story was adapted from an essay by Noah Isaac Lapidus, NUSL ’20.