Left Out History
— Barri Boone
Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power
by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy
Melville House Publishing, 2011, 200 pages, $16.95 paperback.
“WHITE SUPREMACY IS a bill of goods sold like snake oil to all white people who grow up in the United States. So why then are the whites who benefit least from this system given the lion’s share of the blame for racism?”
James Tracy, interviewed along co-author with Amy Sonnie on their recent book, offered this comment in explaining their reasons for telling a mostly untold story from the New Left of the 1960s and ’70s — the participation of poor and working-class white people in the movement for both racial and economic justice. (The interview is online at http://www.social-ecology.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/organizingupgrade.com-_Hillbilly_Nationalists_Urban_Race_Rebels_and_Black_Power_.pdf.)
The authors interviewed more than 50 activists over a period of 10 years, focusing on five groups. They found surprising stories and photos, such as one of Young Patriots from Chicago with ragged confederate flag patches on their jackets attending a 1969 Black Panther Party conference, shouting together, “All power to the people!”
To the Young Patriots, the flag meant for them a revolt against the feudalistic slave owners of the south. There was some controversy over this, but in time, organizations like the Latino Young Lords decided to work together with them in the original Rainbow Coalition.
One of the leaders interviewed is Peggy Terry. She was a poor white born in Oklahoma, raised in Paducah, Kentucky, with family members in the Ku Klux Klan.
When work in the weapons factory dried up, she migrated to Montgomery, Alabama where she was inspired by the bus boycott and shocked by seeing Martin Luther King beat up as he left jail.
When Terry became involved in CORE (Congress of Racial Equality, a leading Civil Rights organization of the period) she realized that to help others, she did not need to deny her own communities’ needs. She and many others were aware of the intersection of race and class and gender, and found various ways to work together.
One organization in Chicago, JOIN (Jobs or Income Now), dealt with issues such as welfare rights, rent strikes, day care, community parks and police violence. A youth-centered group Rising Up Angry (RUA) developed out of JOIN and organized more broadly across the city of Chicago. They started their own newspaper, putting community issues in a national and global context in a language everyday people could understand.
Unlike some other organizations, RUA organized dances and music events. They also worked on having members try to quell any conflicts among various gang-affiliated youths, with varied results. RUA also launched a legal program training neighborhood people, and a health clinic that included abortion counseling.
RUA inspired two groups on the east coast. In Philadelphia, Mayor Frank Rizzo wielded a “tough on crime” campaign, sparking reaction by a new group, the October 4th Organization (O4O). When mills began laying off workers, taking a heavy toll in the Kensington neighborhood, O4O combined organizing in both the labor movement and in the community.
Rizzo tried to pit white against Black, but that didn’t stop O4O from working with both the Black and Puerto Ricans against police violence, setting up a self-help center, a health fair with free testing, and dealing with women’s demands like equal pay and reproductive issues.
In the Bronx, New York Governor Rockefeller’s drug laws carried out major prison sentences for minor drug possession. A community group “White Lightning” (WL) was formed to confront those laws and also to deal with the problem of addiction. Recovery programs were already multicultural, but some became cults modeled after Synanon, which WL criticized. They did political education in detox groups, challenging the concept of addiction as simply a personal problem.
Some groups on the left, such as the Yippies, saw drugs as a way to personal liberation, but WL saw drugs in their communities as a way to have the poor destabilized and put on a path to prison. They set up legal programs, and staged sit-ins in rundown hospitals, seeking to make hospitals more responsive to community needs.
Lessons for the Left
The authors are anything but detached academics. Sonnie’s previous collection of interviews with queer and transgender youth (Revolutionary Voices, 2000) earned the considerable distinction of being banned from libraries in New Jersey and Texas. Tracy has authored handbooks on civil disobedience and dealing with the military draft.
In the same interview cited above, Sonnie remarked: “We should be asking how the Left can change to be more relevant and participatory, not whether a class of people is beyond change. This is the trap some Sixties radicals fell into, and it’s this exact question these five groups confronted. They were ‘rising up angry’ against left elitism as much as against capitalism. When I talk to working class people outside the Left, I also hear the same frustration.”
Historians emphasize the role of whites in the ’60s as middle-class student activists, but that’s only a partial story. As Roxanne Dunbar, who came from white poverty in Oklahoma, states in the Foreword, this book documents some history recognizing “a revolutionary potential in young, displaced Appalachians and other poor whites descended from the old settlers.” (xx).
The book is also praised by African American revolutionary Angela Davis, historian Robin D.G. Kelley, and New Orleans activist Malik Rahim.
This book has descriptions mainly of the five groups mentioned here, and includes 22 pages of references to other articles, books, and archives. In any discussion of how best to organize the 99%, there are many lessons we can learn from the complexities of a broader history of organizing the poor in the ’60s and ’70s.
January/February 2013, ATC 162