Poor People's Campaign

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Of the many songs born out of labor strife in America’s coal camps, Florence Reece’s classic 1931 union song “Which Side Are You On?” is one of the best known. “Which Side Are You On?” is a song written in 1931 by activist Florence Reece, wife of Sam Reece, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky. In 1931, the miners and the mine owners in southeastern Kentucky were locked in a bitter and violent struggle called the Harlan County War. In an attempt to intimidate the family of union leader Sam Reece, Sheriff J. H. Blair and his men, hired by the mining company, illegally entered their home in search of Reece. Reece had been warned and escaped but his wife, Florence, and their children were terrorized. That night, after the men had gone, Florence wrote the lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?” on a calendar that hung in their kitchen. She took the melody from a traditional Baptist hymn, “Lay the Lily Low”, or the traditional ballad “Jack Munro”. “Which Side Are You On” became an anthem of labor struggle, as the folk process transformed it in different ways. Pete Seeger and various workers organizing unions as part of the Congress of Industrial Organizations picked up the song as their own, changing lyrics to fit the situation at hand. Song leader Zilphia Horton and others at Highlander Folk School transmitted the song to new groups of southern workers who came there to learn about organizing. The song eventually passed over from the union movement to the black freedom movement.