By Greg Schaber
For centuries, Appalachia was a world unto itself. Its ridges sheltered a mysterious, ephemeral beauty reflected in foggy hollows, ancient music and drawled speech patterns that mystically transformed words like “creek” into “crick.” But the ridges also harbored something else—a dark reputation for brutal ignorance and violent, longstanding feuds. And to the world of the national mainstream, susceptible as it can be to “us vs. them” thinking, this dark side was an easy focus.
Michael Maloney knows both of these worlds well. Born in 1940 in a log cabin in Breathitt County, Ky., in the mountainous eastern portion of the state, the 1967 graduate weathered early tragedy and years of outside prejudice to bring the two worlds together. And if traces of the distinctive Appalachian accent have disappeared from Maloney’s speech, the meaning of his mountain culture has only grown stronger. As an activist and founder of the Urban Appalachian Council, he helped set the stage for reforms that continue to resonate.
“Mike’s a pioneer,” says writer Phil Obermiller, who’s worked with Maloney since the early 1970s. “Pioneers can see things we can’t. In Mike’s case, it’s an idea of how society can be. He not only helped Appalachians adapt, but also helped the city learn how to react to the migrants. And what he did created a pathway for other minorities that followed, like the Hispanics.”
Maloney was a natural fit for the task, with an education and a developing, big-picture view that most of the migrants lacked. Equally important, though, he understood what it meant to be uprooted. Breathitt County is notorious for a bloody, feud- riddled history unmatched by any other county in the United States. And before Maloney’s second birthday, violence came to his doorstep: His father was beaten to death, the result of a “disagreement.” Fearing her oldest sons would seek revenge, Maloney’s mother moved her nine children to neighboring Lee County, where they lived in a succession of rental properties. Maloney joined St. Theresa’s Catholic Mission at age 17 and graduated from high school in 1959. By then, well-meaning teachers had already altered his speech, in the process giving him a taste of prejudice to come.
Blatantly rejected by one college because he was from the mountains, Maloney enrolled at the University of Kentucky. There, the upscale bluegrass society recognized his gifts, but urged him to break ties with his heritage. A local priest, however, challenged him to do just the opposite—to embrace his heritage.
“That was the beginning of my Appalachian consciousness,” Maloney says. “He called me to be true to myself.”
His direction altered, Maloney decided to enter the priesthood and came farther north to study. Disciplined for pushing reforms in the wake of Vatican II, though, he resigned from the seminary in 1966 and enrolled at Xavier.
By the time he received his Master of Education degree in 1967, activism was in the air. At the urging of Appalachian activist Ernie Mynatt, Maloney headed for Over-the-Rhine, and was soon helping migrants find the services and opportunities they needed to succeed.
In the late 1960s, racial unrest exploded into rioting across the country, and Cincinnati wasn’t immune. In the wake of the violence, Maloney detoured to the University of North Carolina to study city and regional planning. He intended to take his new knowledge back to Eastern Kentucky, but a professor urged him to finish the work he’d begun in Cincinnati. Maloney acquiesced, and soon began a 15-year stint teaching Appalachian studies at the University.
He also continued to advocate for migrants, work that in 1974 led to the founding of the Urban Appalachian Council. Cobbling together a solid core of financial support through the United Way, grants and private donations, he built a stable organization.
“One of the other things that Mike did so well was to establish a solid base in terms of research,” says Maureen Sullivan, a 1978 graduate who succeeded Maloney as the council’s executive director in 1982. “He built a baseline of data that identified the urban Appalachian community.”
By the time Maloney left to launch a multi-faceted career as a consultant, writer and editor for a variety of Appalachian- oriented projects, he’d built a powerful legacy. Obermiller credits him with laying the groundwork for advances ranging from Cincinnati’s anti-discrimination policy for city workers to the emergence of the annual Appalachian Festival, the largest festival of its kind in the country.
For his part, Maloney admits to lots of advances educationally, economically and perceptually but says much work remains to be done, particularly with those Appalachian migrants who remain in the inner city. But he takes satisfaction in knowing that a younger generation of activists has picked up the torch.
Today, Maloney still owns the family land in Kentucky. The cabin is long gone, but he built a shack on the property, and from time to time heads back to the hills—and the culture that continues to shape his life. And if he’s forced to stop and think about it, Maloney sees himself as a “bridge person” between the two worlds±—the one he came to, and the one he never really left.