Growing up in eastern Kentucky, Michael Harrington felt the sting of stereotypes often leveled at poor and working-class people from the rural south: Rednecks, hillbillies, and trailer trash.
“It’s easy to get a chip on your shoulder about where you come from... or what your accent is,” says Harrington. That can be something that you carry with you... and it shows up with you wherever you go.”
To counter the weight of that prejudice, Harrington says he, like many other young white southern men, embraced a lifestyle of partying, Lynyrd Skynyrd music, and flying a Confederate flag.
“We gravitated toward that because of a sense of rebelliousness, a sense of defiance,” he says. “What we didn’t realize is what we were being coached into was taking pride in whiteness in a way that necessarily brought along racism with it.”
Now Harrington is part of Southern Crossroads, an organization that’s helping people in Appalachia and the South to find pride in their heritage and unite with people of color who have also been marginalized and oppressed.
“Through the work we do together, we change as people and we change the world around us,” says Beth Howard, organizing director for the group.
Southern Crossroads has been working behind the scenes for several years, but Howard says the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent Black Lives Matter protests forced the group to become more visible. She says it makes perfect sense to unite the interests of urban and rural individuals regardless of color who are struggling.
“A few people in power make billions of dollars while the rest of us suffer, and poor people and working-class people especially bear the brunt of that,” she says.
Organizing the Powerless to Challenge the Powerful
The organization has current projects in Tennessee and North Carolina, and is developing activities for Kentucky. Harrington says much of their work starts with listening to people.
“Once folks share their stories, we work together to come up with a plan of how do I start to organize a campaign in my local area that can be successful, that could lift up racial justice and lift up economics at the same time,” he says.
Howard says it’s important for people to understand that while they may feel powerless as individuals, there is strength in organizing a community to fight injustice, whether it’s economic, social, or racial.
“You start to see that there’s a lot more power for our situations to change when we come together,” she says. “It’s the only way we have power to challenge those with a lot of money.”
But people with power generally don’t like to give it up. Howard contends political leaders and the wealthy have long pitted poor whites against poor people of color.
“Racism is a tool that’s been used to divide working people for centuries,” she says. “It’s used because it’s successful.”
That’s why Howard wants her organization to work across traditional racial divides.
“Southern Crossroads is... about being at a crossroads and we get to make a choice,” she says. “Are we going on the side of defending black lives and defending all of our lives, or are we going to continue to believe the racist lies and rhetoric that keeps us separated?”
There is historical precedent for this work. Harrington points to the Battle of Blair Mountain, the 1921 uprising in West Virginia in which white and Black miners united to fight coal companies over the right to unionize. Even farther back, there was the effort of whites and enslaved people to declare Scott County, Tenn., its own state rather than follow Tennessee into the Confederacy. Those examples inspire Harrington.
“So we have to find ways to take pride in who we are and where we come from that is up front and direct about the racism that we want to see ended,” he says. “If we continue to take pride in racism, then we’re never going to build the coalition that we need to win the future that all Kentuckians deserve, whether they’re white, black, or brown.”
Both Harrington and Howard want southern and mountain people to create spaces to tell their own stories and chart their own futures. For too long, Howard argues, liberals and northern elites have defined southerners as ignorant racists
“That has allowed the right to come in and... claim Appalachia and the South, and we all suffer when that happens,” she says.
But if poor and working class individuals unite to tell their own stories and join in common cause with people of color, Howard and Harrington say the narrative can change.
“We’re hillbillies, we grew up poor, we grew up working class... We are worthy of good things,” says Harrington. “We’re defending black lives because of who we are, not in spite of it.”
On the Road to Engagement and Justice
Lexington hip-hop artist Devine Carama has taken his social activism not just to the streets, but to the roadways of Kentucky. He recently completely a walk from Pikeville to Paducah to raise awareness about racial justice and the importance of voting.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Carama says. “I just followed God’s call on my life at that moment, and it’s been a blessing beyond what I ever could’ve thought.”
Carama says next month’s election is the most important of his lifetime. That’s why he wanted to boost voter turnout in Kentucky above the 59 percent of registered voters who participated in the 2016 presidential election.
“That’s just unacceptable,” he says, “so my goal was to try to increase that percentage to 75.”
As he walked, Carama wore a Black Lives Matter t-shirt that he says generated some negative responses, but also many positive ones. It also provided fodder for interesting conversations with Kentuckians he met along his journey.
“I learned that a lot of our differences aren’t really rooted in hate, although hatred is definitely out there,” he says. “A lot of our differences is rooted in ignorance, generational upbringing, and not knowing any better, and the only way we can close those gaps is through conversation.”
“If we could have more of those conversations in society, I think we can tear down some of the walls that divide us,” says Carama. “From there, hopefully we can learn from one another and hopefully we can combat all the hate we’ve been seeing.”