The Great Rural Activism in Rural America

The big impact of small-town activism

Activists in rural America take part in the movement for justice and equality.

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Between May 24, 2020, the day before George Floyd’s murder, until August 22, 2020, more than 10,600 demonstrations took place across America. Source: Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project

On a sunny day in late May 2020, Kyle Johnson, a 19-year-old mixed-race community organizer, was teaching chants to a crowd. Around 500 people were gathered on a grassy hillside that skirts the Muskingum River in Zanesville, Ohio, about an hour’s drive east of Columbus. 

With his hair pulled back in a ponytail, Johnson wore black shorts and a black t-shirt with the phrase: “I can’t breathe” on the front.

For many people in attendance, it was their first protest. Johnson shouted in a megaphone: “Okay, I’ll say something and you respond.”

“Okay, I’m going to say, ‘Say his name,’ and you say, ‘George Floyd!’” 

The crowd bellowed. Johnson repeated the chant 10 times. Then tried a different one: “Ain’t no power like the power of the people ‘cause the power of the people don’t stop!” 

Protesters march around the square in Coshocton, Ohio. (Photo by Jack Shuler)

At first, the people’s voices were garbled and confused. A young man with an American flag, a tan camo face mask, and a sign with the phrase: “white silence is violence” chuckled as he and others tripped over the words. 

This Ohio protest was one of hundreds that happened around the U.S. — and the world — during the summer of 2020 to put an end to police violence and systemic racism. 

People stood in the streets, demanding justice in the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But most of the public and media attention were focused on the enormous, often daily, marches in U.S. cities. In Ohio, there were large protests in Columbus and Cleveland, but there were also marches and vigils in places such as Lancaster, Mount Vernon, Millersport, East Liverpool, Chillicothe, and Nelsonville. 

Johnson said that people in rural America needed to stand up the most. He said the protest he co-organized with his aunt, Melissa Dickinson, was held in solidarity with those around the country, but it also was a demonstration that rural America is not blind to injustice. 

In Zanesville, the new protesters found their stride and marched from the banks of the Muskingum River to the steps of the Muskingum County Courthouse. The mayor attended the march, and in its wake, the city has worked to hire more diverse staff in city administration. 

Kyle Johnson, a co-orgnanizer of the Zanesville, Ohio, protest leads the march with bullhorn in hand in late May 2020. (Photo by Jack Shuler)

But the police shootings haven’t changed. In December 2020, just down the road in Columbus, police officers killed two Black men, André Hill and Casey Goodson Jr., and a Black teenage girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, in April 2021.

Johnson said there’s still work to be done in his own community, but he won’t give up. “I have to feel hopeful. I have no other choice but to feel hopeful,” he said. “There’s no other option. I have a niece. I have baby cousins. I have young people I’ve worked with at the community center. I have no choice but to be hopeful because as soon as they see my eyes go dark and give up, it’s going to develop in them, and I can’t allow that to happen for our future.” 

On the morning before the Zanesville protest, Johnson graduated from high school. Now he’s attending college, serving on several local boards, starting a small business, and running for city council. 

Johnson is concerned about inequality in Zanesville, a town bisected by Interstate 70, and according to Johnson, the community north of the interstate is doing better than that south of it. “You’re talking about hundreds of years of systemic issues in our city,” he said, and there’s still much more to be done. 

Zanesville, like many communities in former “Border States,” has been enmeshed with the struggle for racial justice for almost two centuries. Abolitionists such as William Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) lived in the town. Theodore D. Weld and Frederick Douglass spoke there. 

And the Underground Railroad ran through Zanesville, as it did through many Ohio towns, including Coshocton, just a stone’s throw northeast. That’s where Javanna Ramsey and Monique Weatherwax organized a protest on June 6, 2020. 

Hundreds rallied next to the county’s red-brick courthouse on a sticky evening. They covered the lawn in a silent “die-in,” and marched in circles for over an hour around the courthouse square, their shouts of “I can’t breathe!” bouncing off the buildings that lined the square. 

Before the rally, though, there had been threats on social media, and talk of the Ku Klux Klan. 

But Ramsey said that on that day, she was more nervous about speaking in front of a large crowd than about threats from a white supremacist organization. She settled her nerves and stepped in front of the mic wearing dark sunglasses, camo shorts, and a shirt with the phrase: “Be kind.” 

She told the assembled crowd: “You should be angry, but let’s use our anger to educate and grow as a people.”  

The killings of Floyd and Taylor, Ramsey said, pressed her into action. Until that point, she hadn’t imagined being an activist and hadn’t even called out her white friends for saying racist things. Now everything has changed. Her activism has made her a better person, she said, and more honest and true to her beliefs. She said that she has lost some friends because of that.

“It’s making me a stronger woman, a stronger Black woman. It’s taken a lot of courage to do the things I’ve done. And, honestly, that’s helped me with my social anxiety,” Ramsey said. “I don’t have time for my anxiety. I have to push through it.” 

Speaking up as a Black woman is not a simple choice in a town of 11,051 people that is 95.4 % white. In smaller towns, such as Coshocton, Ramsey said, it’s easy for people to dismiss police violence or racism because of the lack of diversity. But she thinks that the Coshocton protest changed many hearts and minds. 

Ramsey and Lucy Malenke launched Coshoctonians for Peace and Equality, an organization designed to educate the community about Black history and to seek racial justice in the present.

Throughout February 2021, the group posted stories on social media about the lived history of Black people in the community. For example, the time Duke Ellington played in town and then was denied dinner at a local restaurant; about the first Black drum major, the first Black city council president and a local artist and teacher. 

The group also posted a story about the lynching of Henry Howard, a Black man accused of raping a white girl. Howard was lynched on June 19, 1885, on the same courthouse square where Ramsey and others rallied. 

Juneteenth is a day for commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, a fact that is not lost on Ramsey. On June 19, 2021, she said, the peace and equity group will use the day to memorialize Howard as well as honor the end of slavery. 

With the help of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project, the group hopes to put up a historical marker on the courthouse square.

“We have to face that hard history,” Ramsey said. Those conversations, she added, might make some white people feel uncomfortable, but imagine how a Black person in a small town like Coshocton must feel?

Ramsey said she will keep standing up in her rural community. She’s not going anywhere. 

Neither is Johnson. He said that most people who leave Zanesville never really come back. For him, though, he remains connected. It’s not just that his family and the people he loves are here; it’s something more.

“Knowing the history of all the people who have walked the same streets as me, the abolitionists,” Johnson said. “Knowing that the presence my city has had in ending slavery, just the culture, has kept me here.” 

Besides, Johnson added, “When I see there’s inequality, I can’t go anywhere until I see it fixed.”

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Jack Shuler

The Great Rural

Pioneer living, in the present

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Episode Activism in Rural America