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Justified and Harlan County

on Wed, 04/04/2012 - 00:00

In the pilot episode of the FX drama Justified, US Marshal Raylan Given is transferred from Miami to a more rural landscape. “I grew up in Kentucky,” he states in regards to his new assignment. “I don’t want to go back there.” Despite such reluctance, Givens is tailor made for the region. In many ways, he is a throwback to the Federal lawman of old, a gunslinger intent on establishing his own brand of justice. “I don’t pull my sidearm unless I mean to shoot to kill,” he later remarks, adding a John Wayne-style swagger and Clint Eastwood intensity to the comment. “That’s its purpose, to kill, so that’s how I use it.”

His hometown of Harlan County is likewise a throwback to the rural communities of yesteryear. Residents of the area are polite yet dangerous, laid back but ruthless. At the end of the day, they are the type of citizens who look out for their own and do not look kindly upon strangers interfering in their proceedings. Harlan County is also a small enclave of historical importance, with a series of local uprisings against the mining companies that served as the primary form of financial means during most of the Twentieth Century. The battles between striking miners and their employers in the region are legendary, earning the community the nickname “Bloody Harlan.”

All of these elements are intertwined throughout the narrative of Justified as Raylan Givens returns home decades after escaping the area and must come to terms with both his upbringing and childhood roots. The past thus infiltrates both Justified and Givens, just like the real Harlan County of old inevitably does with its own current population. G.C. Jones lived through the turmoil and growth of the Kentucky community during the majority of the last century, and his memoirs serve as a testament to the determination and willpower of the region to survive no matter how difficult the hardships that arise may appear.

“Jones—whose life spans the age of Harlan County, from the 1920s, when it was a thinly settled agrarian region in which styles of living changed but little since settlement days, through the bloody coal wars of the 1930s, to the collapse of the coal industry in the 1950s—has given us, in the powerful and refreshing idiom of the people, a social and economic report as well as a folkloric history of life there,” Cratis Williams writes in the preface to Growing Up Hard in Harlan County (University Press of Kentucky, 1985). G.C. Jones indeed lived a full life that parallels the history of the region, from running supplies via horse-and-carriage up the dangerous mountains of Kentucky, to working on paving the first roads of the county, to laboring in the coal mines and assisting in the unionizing of his fellow workers. Despite being from a different era, however, many of Jones’ experiences are still key elements of the Harlan County of Justified.

Harlan County had two sheriffs during the first three seasons of the television series, both of whom were not above corruption. Hunter Mosley, who served in the position during the first year of Justified, was on the payroll of a Miami drug cartel. By allowing the syndicate organization to move their merchandise through Harlan County, Mosley was free to crack down on the Crowder crime family as well as limit the distribution of drugs in the region. “I had a lid on Harlan,” he explains to Raylan Givens. “Crime went way down after I came in.” The original motives of Mosley are thus sincere and even beneficial to the community, much like the first sheriff that G.C. Jones encountered in Growing Up Hard in Harlan County. That lawman was willing to look the other way in regards to bootlegging, for instance, in exchange for a jug of the illegal alcohol. Other sheriffs of Harlan County, however, were more sinister in nature.

“The sheriff had lost his bid for reelection, and the Harlan County Coal Operators Association (the mine owners) had selected a man of their own choice to run for sheriff,” Jones writes. “After this man’s election, he hired every criminal he could find in surrounding counties and a lot in our own county. He put badges on their shirts and big guns on their hips. Then the mine owners would move them into a nice big company house and give them a new fast car. They would drive their shiny new car through the coal camps with blinkers on and the siren screaming, up to some non-working miner’s house. Leaving the blinkers flashing, they would jump from the car, one carrying an automatic shotgun, the other with a long padded billy-club loaded with lead dangling on one side.”

During season three of Justified, Sheriff Tillman Napier likewise takes bribes from dubious businessmen in exchange for protection. Although neither Napier nor Hunter Mosley served on the county payroll during any of the numerous strikes by local miners, Boyd Crowder offers his own evaluation of past sheriffs when he confronts Napier at a political debate. “Now I know you weren’t there, Mr. Napier,” he begins, referring to the most recent altercation between Harlan miners and the mine owners. “But there sure were a lot of men there who looked like you. Men standing on the company side, laughing at all us hillbillies who were just trying to stand up for what we believed in.”

Although the coal miners of Harlan County had to withstand beatings and death threats in the factual Kentucky enclave, they still found comfort within the closed-knit community and its laid-back lifestyle. On numerous occasions in Growing Up Hard in Harlan County, G.C. Jones remarks about the kindness and generosity extended to him by other members of the town, and the simple joy of sharing stories and even singing songs by the campfire. In one anecdote, Jones and his friends are visited by fellow Harlan County resident Will Roark, his wife and two of their sons.

“As they gathered around the fire everyone rose up to greet them,” Jones remembers. “Mrs. Roark asked if we would like to hear some old-time singing with music. We all welcomed it. Mr. Roark twanged his fiddle strings to catch the tone he wanted to play. He then stroked his bow over the strings. His wife stepped up near him and said, ‘I would like to sing with me son one of all mountain people’s favorites, ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion.”’ After the first verse, everyone started to clap and joined in with the singing. We sure enjoyed their company till about ten o’clock.”

Although a murderous marijuana farmer with a unique version of motherly love, Mags Bennett exhibited many of the same traits during the second season of Justified. Despite the growing hostilities between her family and Raylan Givens, for instance, she still invites the US Marshal to join them for dinner at a picnic gathering. A subsequent shindig by the Bennetts includes an old-school Kentucky musical group, replete with banjo and clog dancing for entertainment. Later—with her sons gathered around on the front porch and the day sky turning to evening—Mags is asked to sing a song for the group. Although initially reluctant, she soon belts out “High on the Mountain” with gusto nonetheless.

G.C. Jones is truthful about growing up hard in Harlan County. He was forced to leave home at the age of thirteen when his overbearing father threw him out of the house, struggled to forge a living for himself during the years that followed, and even had his life threatened more than once by thugs employed by the coal mine owners because of his efforts at unionizing his fellow workers. Raylan Givens, meanwhile, had an unloving father who used to beat the young boy and his mother. Givens also found work within the coal mines of Kentucky as a teenager only to escape the hard life of Harlan County by enrolling in the US Marshal Service.

Country musician Darrell Scott composed a song that was later popularized by Brad Paisley entitled “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Fortunately the epitaph did not hold true for G.C. Jones, who retired in his later years to the state of Florida and died at the age of 75. “I look back and remember and I feel bad for all the bloodshed and pain and suffering we knew,” he concludes in Growing Up Hard in Harlan County. “But then I go home again and look at what came out of it all. The house is full all the time with the children and grandkids that come visiting us. And I can look across the room at Mae and think again that I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Regardless of the ultimate fate of Raylan Givens, suffice it to say that the same blood runs through the veins of the US Marshal from Justified that ran through G.C. Jones decades earlier—the blood of Harlan County, Kentucky.

Anthony Letizia

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