by Mike Templeton
From the earliest days of mountain people sharing resources in isolated regions of Appalachia to our contemporary work of advocating access to education and health care in both urban and rural places, community engagement and development across differences is part and parcel to how we work. This drive toward building community is what set organizer and now author Hy Thurman on his path to founding some of the most important community coalitions in American history, including the Rainbow Coalition. Readers may remember our blog post, How the Rainbow Coalition Inspired Solidarity Between Appalachians and Black Panthers by Erinn Sweet, which also addressed this history. Now Hy Thurman has a new memoir, Revolutionary Hillbilly: Notes from the Struggle at the Edge of the Rainbow, and I was fortunate enough to talk with him about his early days, the YPO and Rainbow Coalition, and his new book.
Hy Thurman is a founding member of the Young Patriots Organization, a group of urban Appalachians in Chicago in the 1960s, and he was instrumental in the creation of the first Rainbow Coalition. These coalitions worked to provide education, health care, and safe housing for urban Appalachians and people of color in Chicago, and they were instrumental is dismantling some of repressive segregation policies that once defined urban life in the United States
Hy Thurman is originally from a small town in eastern Tennessee. He told me he was “born into a poor family. My father left when I was about three months old, and my family were basically sharecroppers. We worked for farmers in the area.” Growing up poor even in Eastern Tennessee marked Thurman and people like him as targets for harassment by everyone, including the local police. After growing up in such a hostile environment, Thurman decided he needed to get out. He knew people from the region who had moved north to places like Chicago, and he decided to head north: “I dropped out of school in Ninth grade, and I had a brother in Chicago who was involved in labor organizing and revolutionary politics.”
Chicago and other northern cities like Cincinnati, Dayton, Pittsburg, etc., held huge promise for people from the Appalachian regions. Thurman’s youthful ideas of Chicago led him to think it was a place bursting with opportunity: “We thought that was the promised land—the land of opportunity. What I found were poor people living in slums who had left farms in Appalachian and the South. There were people too sick to work from Black Lung from the coal mines,” he remembered. So it came to be that at 17-years old, Thurman found himself in the big city of Chicago getting involved in labor organizing.
At the age of 18, Hy Thurman founded the first community drug and alcohol treatment center in his area. As he became increasing involved in organizing, Thurman met with some people in Uptown Chicago. “These were largely Appalachians—part of a migrant circle who were working to help people find work and provide support.” This group soon met with an organization called Jobs Are Income Now that has been an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Thurman’s circle of Appalachians recognized that there was more to the struggles of poor people than jobs. As he explained: We were facing police brutality, lack of health care, slums, lead poisoning—we need more than jobs.” A core group wanted to do more, and they coalesced into what would become the Young Patriots Organization.
Hy Thurman made sure to clarify the name of the YPO: “We were serving our communities. We were patriots to our communities, not the state,” he said. “We started also supporting other organizations in the surrounding communities.” The YPO was a leftist organization, make no mistake. After years of suffering at the hands of the police and other state forms of power, the people who formed the YPO were not interested in conventional modes of organization, and they were emphatically not interested in re-creating the forms of power and domination that created the kinds of suffering they had experienced and saw their people endure. This kind of anti-establishment politics put them in direct opposition to the most powerful people in Chicago, most notably Chicago Mayor Richard Daley who is now frequently referred to as the last of the big-city Bosses.
Shortly after the formation of the YPO, the group was booked for a community meeting in the Northside of Chicago. The person who booked them, it turned out, had in fact double-booked them with Fred Hampton’s Black Panther Party in what might have appeared to be a collision course toward conflict. As it turned out, The YPO and the Black Panther Party shared concerns. Thurman told me he had “met with the Northside head of the Black Panthers, Bobby Lee, who defended the YPO to Hampton. Lee told Hampton: ‘these crazy hillbillies are on our side!”
This meeting would lead to the formation of the Rainbow Coalition. With the addition of the Young Lord’s Organization, a Hispanic community and political group, the Rainbow Coalition came into being. The work of the Rainbow Coalition would be instrumental in crumbling the racist policies that sustained segregation in Chicago. They cleared the way for some of the first Black Americans from Chicago to successfully run for offices that range from Mayor of the City of Chicago to the United States Senate. I can only offer the briefest sketch of Hy Thurman’s story. He provides the full history in his memoir, Revolutionary Hillbilly: Notes from the Struggle at the Edge of the Rainbow.
Community coalitions made the Rainbow Coalition a powerful force in American life. The Rainbow Coalition began the process of knocking down racist walls that cleared the way for Former President Barack Obama. Yet, amid all this, they were primarily focused on their communities. Even as Former Mayor Daley brought in the FBI to try to crush the Rainbow Coalition, they maintained their mission. “We were feeding kids, running health clinics, and providing legal programs for the poor,” said Hy Thurman
One of the most crucial things Appalachians brought with them to the urban areas is a commitment to their communities. Sharing resources and simply standing up for each other is a cultural thread that extends from the mountains to the cities, and this continues to tie Appalachian people together. This focus extends to all people as soon we recognize common need and common struggle. Part of the original vision for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition was and remains open dialogue and participation with other community organizations. While UACC is clearly focused on advocating on behalf of Appalachians in greater Cincinnati, our work is located within the wider context of all the groups that make up our city. Forming coalitions with community partners is central to how we work.
Hy Thurman’s Revolutionary Hillbilly: Notes on from the Struggle at the Edge of the Rainbow is published by Regent Press and can be found at this link: https://www.regentpress.net/home-old/revolutionary-hillbilly.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.