— So Much to be Angry About, by Shaun Slifer (West University Press, 2021)
The upsurge of social justice movements and radicalism that characterized the Sixties had an equally dynamic correlation in the so-called “movement press”, the many independent print shops across the United States that published pamphlets and other political materials aimed at everyone from college students to blue-collar workers. Many of these outfits were little more than an offset press run by a handful of volunteers in charge of everything from typesetting and hand stapling to selling copies in a street corner, but their enthusiasm and commitment often made up for what the publications lacked in production values.
One such publisher was the Appalachian Movement Press (AMP), which operated from 1969 to 1979 in Huntington, WV. AMP was the only movement press in the entire region. Its catalog consisted primarily of reprints of earlier political tracts but also included magazines (such as MAW: Magazine of Appalachian Women, likely the first feminist magazine in Appalachia) and poetry and journalistic booklets. Even though AMP sought to explore regional history and culture from a political activist lens, it was part of the milieu of the New Left, the name given to the disparate movements and groups that emerged during the 1960s, including organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (which had a chapter in Huntington) and the Youth International Party, also known as the Yippies. As a matter of fact, AMP was started by two student activists, Tom Woodruff and Danie Stewart, who sought to have their own press to publish the Huntington SDS’s newspaper, Free Forum.
In delving into this forgotten chapter of Appalachian activism, Pittsburgh artist and writer Shaun Slifer, creative director at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, has undertaken a painstaking work of historical reconstruction. The AMP’s publications are hard to find and live largely in university library collections. In order to fill in the chronological gaps of an undocumented cultural phenomenon, Slifer interviewed many of the people involved in the project as well as researched in places like the Appalachian South Folklife Center, founded by poet and activist Don West and his wife Connie, a teacher and community organizer.
In The Shadow of Don West
The connection with West is no coincidence, as his work and stature as an elder statesman of the old guard of Appalachian activists loomed large when Woodruff and Stewart decided to launch AMP. Born in northern Georgia, West was a militant labor organizer and an accomplished poet. He was 63 years old when AMP’s founders approached him for support. He became a friend and mentor to Woodruff and, in turn, AMP became the home for several of West’s poetry and history books.
Along with a history of AMP, So Much to Be Angry About reproduces some of the publishing house’s titles. These include a true bibliographical curiosity titled Lazar & Boone Stop Strip Mining Bully to Save Apple Valley & Buttermilk Creek. Subtitled “a story for children & mature adults,” it is a purported children’s book that tells the story of how anthropomorphic animals in an idyllic rural community fight against a bulldozer and the ravages of strip mining.
Another highlight is a reprint of a journalistic investigation on the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood in Logan County, WV after a precariously-built coal slurry impoundment dam managed by the Pittston Coal Company collapsed. Nearly 130 million gallons of wastewater were released upon 16 coal towns, killing 125 residents and leaving nearly 4,000 homeless.
The Pittston Mentality: Manslaughter in Buffalo Creek was first published in Washington Monthly and reprinted by AMP. As it often happens when reading West Virginia history, the article has striking parallels to other incidents – for example, the Sago Mine disaster of 2006 or the Upper Big Branch explosion of 2010 – and describes a similarly ineffectual response by state authorities. Its eloquence helps the reader better situate AMP’s trajectory within the state’s cultural and political history and elevate it from a historical curiosity into an integral chapter in the fight for social justice in the region.
Handsomely designed and visually appealing, Slifer’s book is an invaluable work of recovery and historical memory.
Born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, Gonzalo is a fiction writer with books published in Spain, Italy, and Chile. His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.By Gonzalo Baeza