I live in Richmond, Kentucky, at a northern stretch of rural Appalachia that extends from Lexington, KY to Knoxville, TN. As the crow flies, that is 172.4 miles of lightly populated, deeply impoverished turf crying out for a major organizing effort. It is this space I would like to discuss.
First, a few quick facts from the United States Census Bureau, flawed as it may be. In the small city where I reside, the median family income is $50,783 per year. Twenty miles south of here, it is $28,586. In Richmond, the official poverty level is 17.7%, the food insecurity level is 15.2%, and 88% of residents graduated high school. Twenty miles south, the poverty rate is 31.5%, with food insecurity at 30.6% and graduation at 65%. Eastern Kentucky University is Richmond’s largest employer with around 3,000 employees and 16,000 students. Twenty miles south, 75-80% of those with jobs work for businesses with fewer than 10 employees. In Richmond, using census terminology, 8.6% of the population is Black/African American. Twenty miles south, that population is 1.3%.
Second, there are active labor organizing campaigns, particularly in education and the public sector. Unfortunately, the coalfields that were once the center of union activity no longer exist. Those companies have devolved into dozens of small operations that regularly declare bankruptcy and reemerge under a new name, employing 10 to 25 workers at a time. There are fair housing campaigns and, in a few locations, small tenant unions. Organizations are addressing racial justice and white supremacy. Some activist groups have formed in opposition to prisons and over-criminalization.
In other parts of that broad swathe of land, there are local environmental organizations, most of which are sponsored or supported by rural outreach groups based in Lexington and Knoxville. Many of those larger groups are led by women of color, while their memberships are predominantly white and male. The issue of who should lead the struggle is not a question here, and the question of who should be sent out to do the spadework in Prestonsburg, Hazard, Harlan, Manchester, Corbin, and Somerset is also not in doubt. People with occupational and family connections or history in the area should make the first contact.
The history of anti-capitalist organizing in rural areas is well documented. The Western Federation of Miners initiated fabled strikes in Cripple Creek, Leadville, and Telluride, Colorado, as well as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The Cripple Creek strike was broken by the state militia in 1904, resulting in the creation of the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW aggressively organized the mining and lumbering industries of the Pacific Northwest throughout the early 20th century. In the deep South during the 1930s, many of the early organizers fighting Jim Crow laws were members of the Communist Party, who united workers against racism, hunger, and fascism. One of the most important sections of the CP during the Depression was District 179 in Birmingham, Alabama, which also coordinated organizing in Tennessee and Georgia.
Organizing in rural agricultural communities also exhibits a long tradition. The Socialist Party of Oklahoma was well-represented in the Farmers Alliance and Farmers’ Union. Similarly, the Grange — founded right after the Civil War — gave farmers a powerful collective voice as Gilded Age capitalists were amassing huge fortunes. At its peak in the 1870s, the organization counted nearly one million members. The Grange emphasized public education and the inclusion of women. Grangers played key roles in both the Anti-Monopoly Party and the Populist Party, and they constituted some of the first and strongest voices critiquing extreme wealth inequality. As the organization’s declaration of purposes states, “We desire a proper equality, equity, and fairness; protection for the weak, restraint upon the strong; in short, justly distributed burdens and justly distributed power.”
Reflections on the West Virginia coal wars point to the vital role of rural organizing. In the early 1900s, coal miners in southern West Virginia faced desperate circumstances. Below ground, they withstood some of the worst working conditions in America. Above ground, they dealt with a brutal mine guard system that controlled the politics and economy of the region. Mountaineer families from the hollows, African Americans from the Deep South, and European immigrants from Hungary and Italy all came together to fight for the right to unionize. While West Virginia coal powered the industrial revolution, the struggles that took place in these mountains deserve greater attention. From the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek Strikes to the Battle of Blair Mountain — the largest insurrection in U.S. history outside the Civil War — the West Virginia coal wars are vital struggles in organizing history.
The pitfalls of organizing in rural areas of Kentucky are immense. First, there is the local political economy. Rural areas are marked by a lack of social mobility and economic autonomy as well as low wages, decaying infrastructure, and an absence of public services. While online organizing is gaining popularity elsewhere in the country, most of Eastern Kentucky still relies on dial-up services — if residents even have internet. Local political and economic power is concentrated in the hands of regional bankers, land developers, local politicians, local businesses.
Raw political power is found in the elected sheriffs and county judge executives who run massive patronage operations and have near-total control of daily life. The sheriff responsible for law enforcement and tax collection often acts as a local political tyrant or modern equivalent of a feudal lord, all while rates of criminalization increase drastically. Sheriffs are also the defenders of white supremacist ideology through legal and social channels; many proudly wear Three-Percenter patches on their uniforms. The sheriff of Laurel County recently organized a public burning of University of Kentucky athletic gear after the college basketball team produced a social justice video (Support of UK basketball used to be a primary rite of passage in eastern Kentucky).
Organizing is further hampered by space and distance, community social norms, and time. When I was a much younger organizer in West Philadelphia and State College, Pennsylvania, comrades worked together in densely populated areas. Living at 45th and Baltimore in West Philly, there were always five or six people available to leaflet, canvass and perform other necessary tasks. That is not the case in rural areas. During the Blackjewel Coal blockade, organizers were tasked with contacting about 40 people to assist with childcare, food supplies, and participation in the blockade itself. These folks lived in six counties with an expanse of 120 miles east to west and 80 miles north to south. A task that would have consumed two hours in Philly took our volunteers three days.
Time and space are mere parts of a much larger problem. Communities in eastern Kentucky operate on social norms built around work, extended family, and often church. Organizers can’t simply roll into town or venture out to a rural home; they have to arrange an entrée. I’ve lived in eastern Kentucky for 34 years and remain an outsider. When we try to initiate contact in these rural spaces, we must take great care to build relationships slowly and then extend those relationships through friends and blood relations.
Locals are quite hesitant to engage. If an “outsider” shows up in town, her presence is immediately the source of gossip and often official inquiry by the sheriff. The people who are being organized or recruited face social pressures. If they are seen as “making trouble,” their families will be reminded that uncle Joe has a school bus driver job, that brother-in-law Jim works for the county road department, and that cousin Susan is a local school teacher. Those folks, too, will receive warnings about their wayward relative. If our contact is lucky enough to own a house, the tax assessor will drop by.
All this is complicated by the fact that there are very few, if any, places to meet. Meeting in a diner or restaurant is a public event and will be widely reported as such. The mythical “Red Brigade of Appalachia” is not likely to be granted the use of the basement of an evangelical church or a room at the courthouse. The problem is further complicated by labor. Most people have irregular work schedules. Because of low wages, their constantly changing 40-hour work week is extended through an informal gig economy, in which they work additional hours for cash payments. Families are given high priority, with at least one weekend day consumed by a family gathering. Finding time is as difficult as finding space. Building relationships is thus a slow, long process that requires a great deal of discretion.
It is also worth noting that there are other “organizers” in place. Rural Kentucky has at least five organized Neo-Nazi groups, two Christian Identity groups, two KKK klaverns, a well-organized band of Proud Boys, and around 47 sovereign citizen militia groups. They are well-armed, omnipresent, highly confrontational, and well-integrated into rural politics and law enforcement. Security for organizing efforts is among our highest priorities.
With all that said, there is no shortage of issues and points of entry available to organizers. There are environmental issues, including pollution from coal mining, water contamination, and chemical pollution. Rural healthcare is also integral to a region where life expectancy is considerably lower than in urban areas, and drug addiction much higher. In the early 20th century, the railroad and coal corporations introduced heroin into their company towns, believing that drugged and docile workers were easier to control.
Today, while a doctor or a hospital may be difficult to access, pain centers are not. In the 20-mile stretch of road between Prestonsburg and Pikeville, KY there are eight pain centers that distribute synthetic opiates for anyone in need. Business is booming at local jails, and proposals for evermore federal prisons are a local economic growth strategy. Schools are underfunded, teachers are underpaid and denied participation in Social Security, and school buildings are in disrepair. Rental housing is often provided by family, friends, and small-time landlords, which complicates the prospect of tenant unions.
That said, there have been some small local successes in the Appalachian counties of Eastern Kentucky in recent years. As mentioned above, the Blackjewel blockade and mutual support efforts in the seizure of miners’ pay were highly successful. A train carrying their last loads of coal before the bankruptcy was blocked on the tracks for weeks, and miners got their pay, but the bankruptcy and company closure prevented any unionizing efforts. However, the subsequent dumping of massive amounts of waste from the mine has resulted in new environmental justice efforts.
The water crisis in Martin County has likewise led to some robust efforts. Under heavy pressure, repairs were made to the water system. The cost of those repairs, however, was passed on to citizens causing massive increases in water bills, so the organizing and protests continue. In Pikeville, The Nazi-Sovereign Citizen-Traditional Workers Party rally was greeted with a large protest bringing together hundreds of citizens. The opposition was vocal and angry, and it is safe to say that the fascists were more than a little surprised.
In reaction to police shootings, especially in the Breanna Taylor case, large anti-racist marches took place in some very unlikely places: 800 people protested in Richmond; more than 400 in Hazard; and 200-300 in Bloody Harlan, Prestonsburg, and Whitesburg. As a result, organizing efforts against white supremacy have continued to gain strength. At the same time, about 600 people in Letcher County organized against the construction of a new federal prison. Despite enormous political and business pressure, the prison proposal was withdrawn; however, there are still four federal prisons in the region, so the fight for abolition has only just begun.
In the US, 95% of all land is classified as rural, with 21% of the population occupying that land. While an emphasis on urban organizing is justified, revolutionary socialists should pay attention to what is happening beyond city walls. While this discussion has focused on Kentucky, a state with 1,826,673 rural residents, rurality is not unknown elsewhere — central Pennsylvania; northern Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota; significant sections of the plains and Rocky Mountain states; western Oregon and Washington; and much of New England is also rural.
The conditions, obstacles, and opportunities are different in each of these places, but we ignore them at our peril. Rural organizers may be as spread out the populations they represent — and they may each have unique perspectives, organizing targets, and strategies — but they are all working toward the goals the revolutionary left espouses. Their efforts may take longer, and they may have a great deal of work yet to do, but they can learn from, enlighten, and contribute to the organizing discourse. Our goals are large, so should be our reach.
Alexander, B. 2017. Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town. St. Martin’s Press.
Gaventa, J. 1982. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. University of Illinois Press.
Goldfield, M. 2020. The Southern Key: Class, Race & Radicalism in the 1930s & 1940s. Oxford University Press.
Kelley, R. 2015. Hammer and Hoe. University of North Carolina Press.
Neel, P. 2018. Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict. Reaktion Books.
Stanton, M. 2019. Red, Black, White: The Alabama Communist Party, 1930-1950. University of Georgia Press.