When Joseph Palumbo signed on to help organize a Black Lives Matter march in his Eastern Kentucky hometown of Hazard, he figured 50 people would show up.
The peaceful event drew about 10 times that amount.
The unexpectedly strong response is changing attitudes, including his own, about what’s possible in small towns across rural America.
“I think when more people see what’s happening in the smaller communities and the rural communities, it is going to blow a lot of minds,” he said. “It’s blown mine and I’m from here.”
The Daily Yonder interviewed Palumbo, who is 33 years old, about the June 6 march and civic activities that are growing out of it. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tim Marema: The number of marches, demonstrations, and other events occurring in small cities and towns has been called unprecedented and historic. Were you aware of that when you started organizing the event?
Palumbo: It hadn’t really dawned on me that this was history being made at the time.
I’ve got a long-time friend, Brandi Boggs. She reached out to me a few days after the George Floyd incident. She had an idea. She said God had spoken to her and given her an idea to gather a peaceful protest. She really laid the groundwork. She spoke with public officials, the Hazard Police Department as well as the sheriff’s department, and wanted to go about it differently. I know a lot of people say “peaceful protest,” and then it ends up being rioting and looting. Of course, we’ve got a small rural community. It’s not the same circumstances, but she still wanted to cover all her bases and make sure that there was no friction. She got the permit and she reached out to me, said she needed some help organizing and moderating.
From the start, we just came about it differently. At the end of the day, it worked out amazing.
Marema: What was the event like?
Palumbo: We ended up gathering at the City Courts downtown. We had a police escort. I was leading the march. Pretty much made a huge loop [through downtown Hazard] and went back to the City Courts, where we gathered everyone.
We then did the 8:46 kneeling a gesture to George Floyd and the manner he was killed. That struck home with a lot of people. Pretty much that was the heart, right there, of the entire march. I asked everyone to kneel. Then I had to think, well, there’s a lot of folks that probably can’t kneel, because I mean, that was excruciating anyway. I asked them to bow their hands if they couldn’t, but at one point you could look around and there wasn’t one person standing up. Everybody knelt.
Now, as far as the vibes down there, they were great. I never, never expected everybody to be there and be so supportive, from little kids to the elderly. They were all there.
The kids that showed up were amazing. That was what tugged at my heartstrings the most, personally — kids really supporting the cause and being engaged with this, and it actually mattering to them, you know? That was amazing to me.
We did have a few speakers. We had Happy Mobellini, the mayor. He introduced everybody. We had Steven Jones [pastor of Consolidated Baptist Church] speaking. Also, we had a HPD officer, James East. He led us in prayer, and we had Maria Braman [Appalachian Regional Healthcare medical officer] speak on how to [to prevent the spread of Covid-19], so it turned out great.
Marema: Are you from Hazard?
Palumbo: I am. I was raised here in Hazard. I wasn’t born here, but I’ve lived here since I was one or two years old. I moved away one time. I went to Lexington for school for a couple of years and ended up right back here. I pretty much came up here. This is my community.
Marema: People of color are under 10% of the Hazard population. Obviously there’s a lot of white support, if you have that many people participate. Were you aware of that support before? Is something different happening?
Palumbo: Well, when Brandi first mentioned this idea, I said we’re not going to get much traction. This is a great cause, obviously I was on board, but in the back of my head, I’m like, “Hmm, Hazard, Eastern Kentucky. I don’t know how much traction we’ll get,” but we still wanted to do the right thing regardless.
Realistically in the back of my head I’m thinking if 50 people show up, it’s going to be 45 white people and five persons of color. If that happened, fine, that would have been great. In the back of my head, realistically, that’s what I was thinking would happen.
However, at the end of the day, I looked around and saw a lot more black folks than I suspected I would see. Again, a lot of people came from out of town and surrounding counties. It seemed like there was quite a few black folks there that I did not expect to see there, or looking around, it was a lot more diverse than what I thought it was going to be.
Marema: There’s kind of a preconception that some small towns may not respond enthusiastically to racial justice issues. Do you think the march will change any perceptions of what it’s like to be in Hazard?
Palumbo: Absolutely. Yes. You’d be surprised. I mean, I’m seeing comments and messages. I’ve got emails and personal messages, on social media especially, of them giving props where props are due in this circumstance, because especially there’s a lot of black folks online, “Hazard? Hazard did this?” They’re seeing pictures of the protest, seeing the numbers of people that showed out. I mean, it’s just humbling. I think a lot of folks have been humbled, because they had no idea that they would receive that much support for this cause.
Again, I mean, it really took me aback. I was amazed. Looking around and seeing all the diversity, seeing the different ages of folks, seeing the city officials, police officers. People from every walk of life were out there. Yes, I think when more people see what’s happening in the smaller communities and the rural communities when it comes to this issue, it is going to blow a lot of minds. It’s blown mine and I’m from here, so I can only imagine what folks are going to think outside of the circle.
Marema: Another thing I’ve heard is a discussion of how much more engaged young people are in the issue, and that leadership is coming from a new generation. Is that how it felt to you when you were organizing and during the event?
Palumbo: Absolutely. I did notice when we put everything together, there were a lot of young folks in there with ideas, with ways to continue the good fight, not just stopping at the march. I mean, people left and right, 10, 12 years younger than me. They’re out there on the ground, a lot of young people in this area. Some would think, “Oh, well, the protest is over, good job, we’ll see you next year,” but that’s not what’s happening here. The peaceful protest group has transcended into engagement in making changes.
You know, people emphasize “be the change,” and a lot of young folks in this group and in this area and other places are walking the walk there.
Marema: Say some more about that. In this case, what does it mean to be engaged and walk the walk? What are folks doing?
Palumbo: Well, they’re definitely pushing the envelope when it comes to voting registration, getting people to vote, turning out. There’s a lot of folks passing out flyers for the upcoming elections. We’re hitting certain neighborhoods. Some of the younger folks have already got their flyers passed out and have talked to a lot of people, and trying to get the word out about some of the people who could be elected to make real change. Because let’s be honest, change can be brought about by shedding light on things. At the same time, these things can be political, so you have to get out and vote. That’s what we’re pushing for now, everybody get out there and vote. If you can go vote, vote.
For me personally, [after the march] folks are asking and I’m getting calls and messages asking me to run for city council here in Hazard, which has literally blown my mind. I brushed it off, but I’ve sat and thought. I think that it’s a possibility, and I’m going to push for that. I’m going to try to throw my hat in the ring for city council, hopefully bring a little change in our area. The young people have given me the spark I needed. I mean, I’m not old, but of course it’s just the energy has sparked everybody to get up, and not just argue and debate on Facebook.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives sees a moment of hope inspired by young people calling for change. It’s responding to the coronavirus pandemic in the rural South by helping black farmers through cooperative enterprises and infrastructure.
Marema: When you talk about change in Hazard or Perry County, or more broadly Eastern Kentucky, what are the things that you would like to see done differently?
Palumbo: Inclusion, especially when it comes to things like city council or other types of boards, community-wise, that help inspire or build up the community around us. There needs to be more inclusion when it comes to people of color, I think. Diversity, because a lot of times you’ll see the same folks in certain positions for a really long time, which is not always a horrible thing, but I think there needs to be more diversity. It needs to have other perspectives in there, because for the most part in small communities like this, everybody is [thinking along the same lines], which could be counterproductive sometimes.
Marema: What do you mean by that?
Palumbo: Well, for instance, if we want money to go into a [new project]. There’s a lady here in town who’s trying to start a diversity center. If you don’t have the right officials pushing for money to go here and to go there, things like that never get off the ground, right? We want to change that, and just make sure that the bug is in everybody’s ear, that that’s what this community wants and what it needs.
Our community is great, don’t get me wrong, but there could be little things to make people feel like they can be involved in the community and what goes on. A lot of times people of color, especially in this area, don’t think their opinions or experiences matter. I just want to make sure that everybody is understanding that other ideas, new ways to do things, aren’t always bad, you know?