UPDATED AND REVISED EDITION
THE LITTLE-KNOWN STORY OF POOR AND WORKING-CLASS WHITES, URBAN ETHNIC GROUPS AND BLACK PANTHERS ORGANIZING SIDE BY SIDE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE IN THE 1960S AND '70S
Some of the most important and little-known activists of the 1960s were poor and working-class radicals. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers, and progressive populism, they started to organize significant political struggles against racism and inequality during the 1960s and into the 1970s.
Historians of the period have traditionally emphasized the work of white college activists who courageously took to the streets to protest the war in Vietnam and continuing racial inequality. Poor and working-class whites have often been painted as spectators, reactionaries, and, even, racists. But authors James Tracy and Amy Sonnie disprove that narrative.
Through over ten years of research, interviewing activists along with unprecedented access to their personal archives, Tracy and Sonnie tell a crucial, untold story of the New Left. Their deeply sourced narrative history shows how poor and working-class individuals from diverse ethnic, rural and urban backgrounds cooperated and drew strength from one another. The groups they founded redefined community organizing, and transformed the lives and communities they touched.
Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power is an important contribution to our understanding of a pivotal moment in U.S. history.
Among the groups in the book:
+ JOIN Community Union brought together southern migrants, student radicals, and welfare recipients in Chicago to fight for housing, health, and welfare . . .
+ The Young Patriots Organization and Rising Up Angry organized self-identified hillbillies, Chicago greasers, Vietnam vets, and young feminists into a legendary “Rainbow Coalition” with Black and Puerto Rican activists . . .
+ In Philadelphia, the October 4th Organization united residents of industrial Kensington against big business, war, and a repressive police force . . .
+ In the Bronx, White Lightning occupied hospitals and built coalitions with doctors to fight for the rights of drug addicts and the poor.
About the Authors
JAMES TRACY is a long-time social justice organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of the San Francisco Community Land Trust and has been active in the Eviction Defense Network and the Coalition On Homelessness, SF. He has edited two activist handbooks for Manic D Press: The Civil Disobedience Handbook and The Military Draft Handbook. His articles have appeared in Left Turn, Race Poverty and the Environment, and Contemporary Justice Review.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Foreword) grew up in rural Oklahoma, daughter of a landless farmer and a half Native American mother. She is Professor Emerita in the Department of Ethic Studies at California State University East Bay, and the author of numerous books on Indigenous peoples' histories, as well as three acclaimed historical memoirs: Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie; Outlaw Woman: A Mermoir of the War Years, 1960 - 1975; Blood on the Border: The Contra War, and Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico, 1680 - 1980.
The Young Patriots had come to Oakland for the United Front Against Fascism Conference. They arrived from Uptown, a Chicago neighborhood home to thousands of economically displaced Appalachians, mostly white, who had turned the area into a bastion of southern culture. Their families had moved North in search of work after mining and agriculture jobs started to disappear. But only a few found anything steady. The rest scraped by on day labor, hustling and domestic work. By one estimate more than 40 percent of the neighborhood was on some form of welfare. The Sunday Tribune deemed them a “plague of locusts” descending on the city. Yet, Uptown’s residents also represent some of the lesser-known protagonists in the Sixties New Left. As one Patriots member put it, “We are the living reminder that when they threw out their white trash, they didn’t burn it.” That trash was picking itself up.
The Young Patriots were part of a new alliance with the Chicago Black Panther Party and a Puerto Rican street-gang-turned-political-organization called the Young Lords. Under the banner of the “Rainbow Coalition” they formed a vanguard of the dispossessed. While ultimately short-lived, the Rainbow Coalition created by these groups had deeper roots and a longer legacy than even their FBI tailgaters might have imagined. And yes, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had tabs on them from the beginning. This was half the reason they traveled together to Oakland in July 1969. Called by the Black Panther Party, then at the peak of its fame, the United Front Against Fascism Conference addressed two urgent concerns: community control of police who were terrorizing poor neighborhoods, and mutual protection against the federal government’s escalating attacks on the Left.
The three-day conference drew more than two thousand self-styled revolutionaries from across the nation. Black Panthers in their black berets and sleek leather jackets stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Young Patriots wearing the flag of the Confederacy—a symbol they soon discarded. Joining them in the cavernous Oakland Auditorium were American Indian activists on the verge of their famous Alcatraz Island takeover, members of the Young Lords flying the bandera of Puerto Rico, Chicano farm workers wearing the Aztec eagle, sympathetic lawyers juggling a full docket of conspiracy trials, more than a few police informants, and members of Students for Democratic Society (SDS), who were in the middle of a fierce organizational split that led to at least one fistfight before Panther leaders told the factions to “freeze on that shit” for the rest of the weekend.
Outside the auditorium, Panther members and sympathizers watched their kids play while serious-looking radicals floated in and out listening to speeches by Panther defense lawyer Charles Garry, Penny Nakatsu speaking out about Japanese American internment during World War II, and an especially moving message from jailed Panther Ericka Huggins read by Elaine Brown. At the mic, the Young Patriots’ chairman, William “Preacherman” Fesperman, even let some heartfelt gratitude show in between jibes about the “pig power structure” when he explained how the Patriots came to be at the conference: “Our struggle is beyond comprehension to me sometimes and I felt for a long time [that poor whites] was forgotten … that nobody saw us. Until we met the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and they met us and we said let’s put that theory into practice.” Summing up why they had all come to Oakland, he added, “We want to stand by our brothers, our brothers, dig?”
For the leftists gathered that July, a life or death battle was unfolding. While the depths of the FBI’s covert counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) wouldn’t come to light for years, dozens of movement activists had been killed, and others sat in jail facing serious legal charges. Among them: Panthers cofounder Huey Newton, several leaders of the Sixties student movement, and renowned icons of the Yippie youth counterculture Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Though the government reserved its most vicious attacks for Black and Brown radicals, by 1969 nearly every sector of the U.S. Left was caught in its crosshairs. The conference in Oakland reminded movement leaders that unity was going to be their most effective defense strategy. As Chicago Panther Fred Hampton put it, “You can jail the revolutionary, but you can’t jail the revolution … You can murder a liberator, but you can’t murder liberation.”
Hampton, it turned out, had written his own elegy. The Rainbow Coalition, spearheaded by Hampton and fellow Panther Bob Lee, lit a spark in the movement but ignited a fuse with deadly outcomes. Less than six months later Chicago police murdered Fred Hampton in his bed. The nighttime raid was orchestrated with the help a local informant and the direct involvement of the FBI. Hampton had been drugged so he wouldn’t wake up to fight.
With the 10th anniversary edition of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power, we return to this history during a parallel moment of danger and possibility. Since 2011, we’ve witnessed the rise of authoritarianism across the globe, and of white nationalist movements in the United States. We’ve seen, once again, a fiercely reactionary conservatism take center stage in U.S. politics alongside a dangerous mainstreaming of far-right ideas. The brutalities of racial capitalism are on full display as poor communities worldwide have been hit first and worst by crisis after crisis: the tightening grip of climate change and a global pandemic that has killed millions and left millions more sick, homeless, or unemployed. At the same time, we see the legacy of the Panthers in the resurgence of mutual aid networks, community self-defense, and calls to defund the police.
Over the last decade, we’ve welcomed the growth of extraordinary, multi-issue movements led by Indigenous, Black, and immigrant communities sparking some of the largest mass mobilizations in history. We’ve begun to reckon with endemic racial and gendered violence, and welcomed a new wave of intersectional feminism and queer/trans liberation politics, reflected in the global Movement for Black Lives and beyond. We see a direct lineage of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign today when thousands march calling for a moral revival that ends interlocking injustices. We see voter protection fights and push-back against today’s supercharged surveillance state. We see the inspiration of the Young Patriots in today’s Rednecks for Black Lives and the spirit of the Rainbow Coalition in current Black-Brown solidarity. As in 1968, we are at a turning point. This generation’s new Left has the opportunity and imperative to build a united front against fascism for the 21st century.
Then, as now, their stories are largely invisible. In the United States we have seen so few mirrors of this reality that it’s hard to imagine a broad Left movement that includes white poor and working-class people as radical change agents. Instead, poor and working-class whites occupy a unique place in the North American psyche. Whether presented as rednecks or trailer trash, or as Steinbeck’s noble proles, depictions of struggling whites depend largely on the prevailing social need for either a hero or scapegoat.
Beginning in the early Sixties, the image of poor whites emerged as an especially pliant marionette for the nation’s postwar blues. A decades-long tidal wave of 20th-century internal migrations crested in the early Sixties with millions moving from rural towns to urban centers … and so did the anxieties of businessmen who bankrolled popular culture and news. West Side Story and The Young Savages dramatized the mounting ethnic conflict in changing US cities. Turf war dramas neatly illustrated senseless urban tragedies offering only two remedies for the mean streets—federal urban renewal programs to displace the poor, and strong-handed law enforcement to keep the rabble in line. Those who could afford it escaped to the suburbs or at least the outer edges of the city. Enter TV’s blue-collar everyman, Archie Bunker, who became the nation’s number one racist-next-door. His armchair epithets mimicked white anxiety in the post-civil rights era, but reassured viewers of a harmless shift from direct racial violence to private bigotry and ballot box demagoguery.
Hillbillies and rednecks, of course, made for the most sensational characters in the national identity crisis. A slapstick comedy about hillbillies who strike it rich and move to Beverly Hills nicely obscured the massive industrial collapse and government neglect that actually forced millions of southerners to big cities. Lest anyone get comfortable with lovable illiterates, though, the media issued sinister warnings about their rough country cousins, still poor and unwilling to assimilate. Chicago’s Sunday Tribune advised readers that opium dens made safer hangouts than neighborhoods “taken over by clans of fightin,’ feudin’ Southern hillbillies and their shootin’ cousins.” Worse, the film Deliverance offered one of the rare cinematic moments when the racial script of the savage gets flipped. The film fanned fears of backwoods, inbred predators lurking in the shadows. It supplied a disturbingly brutal warning to city slickers not to buck the march toward “progress.”
In the early Sixties, Michael Harrington’s exposé on poverty, The Other America, woke the country from its fable of universal prosperity. It was a threadbare myth to begin with. “The very rise in productivity that created more money and better working conditions for the rest of society” had been “a menace to the poor,” Harrington wrote.7 The coal miner automated out of a job, the farmer forced off his land, the poor woman working in a munitions factory told to return to homemaking even though she had been doing paid labor since age fourteen—each joined previous generations of Black and white migrants, Native Americans and newer immigrants looking for a fighting chance in urban economies. As a result, the racial makeup of urban neighborhoods changed rapidly during the Sixties and Seventies, escalating ethnic conflicts in some areas, and creating opportunities to heal racial divides in others.
There’s a reason West Side Story tells a tale of true love tragically divided. Would anyone believe the plot if the Sharks and the Jets had joined forces to fight the police and open a community health clinic? Popular history gives us so few of these stories that tales of racial unity seem romantic at best, propaganda at worst. Just as likely it’s because there is no easy theatrical resolution for the problems of poverty and racism. Instead, the media spotlight found a new character in poor and working whites. This time they were antagonists in highly publicized resistance to school busing, neighborhood integration and affirmative action. Unfortunately, this white backlash was real. But so were the lesser-known attempts people made to transform their communities and unite across lines of difference and division. So was the decade-long effort of Philadelphia’s October 4th Organization to support neighborhood integration and work alongside Black and Puerto Rican women for guaranteed health care. So was the story of the Young Patriots DC chapter when it became the “Committee to Defend the Panthers.”
In Chapter one we share several of these transformations, most especially the story of a southern migrant named Peggy Terry, whose sympathies for the civil rights movement evolved into a lifelong radicalism rooted most deeply in her years at JOIN Community Union in Chicago. Founded as a project of Students for a Democratic Society, JOIN is one of the few organizations in this book discussed in any depth by other scholars. Few have told its history from the perspective of leaders such as Terry, who was influenced by the best aspirations of the student Left and the emerging Black Power Movement. JOIN’s work directly inspired the formation of the Young Patriots and Rising Up Angry in 1968 and 1969. In Chapters Two and Three we trace these two groups’ unprecedented work and the role each played representing the “white arc” in the now-famed Rainbow Coalition. Their work took shape during years when white radicals searched for meaningful ways to support the goals of Third World Liberation while continuing to fight for concrete improvements in their own communities. This search sent them looking to other cities for models as well. Chicago’s Rising Up Angry, in particular, forged strong relationships with two east coast groups organizing working-class whites. In Chapter Four we trace the distinct stories of October 4th Organization in Philadelphia and White Lightning in New York as they responded to a deepening recession and growing right-wing backlash throughout the 1970s.
In different ways, JOIN, the Patriots, Rising Up Angry, October 4th Organization, and White Lightning made two radical propositions through their work. First and foremost, they suggested that poor and working-class whites should be taken seriously as a base for revolutionary change. Second, they put forward the idea that poor whites experience the benefits of institutional racism differently and, therefore, class-based organizing must account for those differences without ever ignoring the reality of white supremacy. Through trial and error these groups engaged residents around bread-and-butter concerns, while nurturing a deep dedication to common cause politics that linked them across racial divides. Like most revolutionary projects of the period, they didn’t always succeed. Yet their experimental alliances shed light on a largely unexamined dimension of urban radicalism in the United States. Amid the turbulence of the Sixties and recession of the Seventies, their projects offer hope that an interracial movement of the poor could undermine injustice and division.
We studied these organizations because we believe they engaged honestly with the complexities of racialized capitalism in the United States. The historical intersection of race, class, and gender creates durable inequities. The one thing we can say for certain is that racism has long been used to divide workers and impede solidarity and social change. History provides a depressingly long list of movements started and then broken by race-baiting. But the end result is never the whole story. There have been times, as in the long arc of these formal and informal “Rainbow Coalitions,” when poor and working people have come together in recognition of a common goal. Whether this political tendency constitutes a significant success depends largely on how one judges the outcomes they achieved given the conditions of the time. We believe it does. We’ve done our best to present the forces and debates shaping their work, along with the decisions participants made under those circumstances. Some are inspiring, others difficult to comprehend.
As authors we came to this project as activists, two individuals who—through the course of our own community organizing—sought answers to today’s challenges in movements of the past. As part of reconstructing this buried history we relied largely on interviews with movement participants. Most of them are still active in community, labor, electoral and educational organizing. To all who have given their time, opened their homes and turned over their personal archives, we extend our deepest thanks. Their insights are woven throughout this text and so we chose not to footnote each instance. Quotations without footnotes come from these interviews and other original research.
Since the first edition ten years ago, several new resources have greatly expanded on this history. Excellent books by Jakobi Williams on the Chicago Black Panthers and Johanna Fernández on the Young Lords joined extensive archival work by Cha Cha Jimenez at Grand Valley State to capture more about the original Rainbow Coalition, while Ray Santisteban’s powerful PBS documentary The First Rainbow Coalition brought the story to life. We are especially grateful to Chuck Armsbury and to Young Patriots co-founder Hy Thurman, whose recent memoirs added immensely to our understanding; and to Daniel Tucker whose “Organize Your Own” project inspired artists nationwide to explore the themes presented in these books. Even with its obligatory Hollywood distortions, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah acknowledged this history as part of Fred Hampton’s enduring legacy and the Panther’s visionary politics. We have been inspired by countless conversations with students, organizers, scholars, and—most of all—veterans of these movements as we have traveled the country.
We didn’t set out to capture all the ways poor whites participated meaningfully in the New Left, nor did we capture the many interracial alliances that warrant further study. Still, we hope our work here inspires others to look for hidden histories to inspire today’s Rainbow Coalitions and freedom fighters. Their stories are history in the making.
—Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, March 2021