Fifth in the series: Organize the White Working Class! This post also appeared in Counterpunch.
White Working Class Organizing in the ‘60s and ‘70s
“Poor whites are here today…to make ourselves visible to a society whose continued existence depends on the denial of our existence. We are here today united with other races of poor people, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, Indians, and Black people in a common cause. That common cause is Freedom!”
Peggy Terry, The Poor People’s Convention June 1968
Yes, our common cause is freedom. The question is: how do we make that real? We will never know until we know our history. The long-lost story of anti-racist, radical white working class activism has been restored by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy in their invaluable book: Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. Get it and read it now. The articles that follow are deeply indebted to their work.
During the 1960s and 1970s, radical activists set out to organize the white working class. They linked the pursuit of working class interest and economic democracy with anti-racist organizing. They discovered, and helped others realize, that white supremacy and racism are not a friend to white people but one of the main obstacles to fulfilling our own destiny as a free people.
The context was the last revolution. The civil rights, black power, feminist, student movements and community organizing set the stage for working class whites to make important contributions to the democracy movements of the time. While these efforts were initiated by various groups, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), radicalized working class youth, and the Black Panthers, they all eventually depended on the leadership of working class communities.
The organizers had been deeply radicalized by the social upheavals of the time. Yet, their own working class backgrounds often placed them on the margins of the New Left. But the activists knew the white working class had enormous untapped potential. The movement to stop the War in Vietnam, fight the bosses, and win the battle against racism needed the hard work and political vision that everyday working people could help provide. The organizers were radicals, many were communists, but virtually all were inspired by third world nationalism abroad and the Black Panthers at home.
The Emergence of White Working Class Radicalism Fits Recurring Patterns in the Social Movements of the 60’s.
“Black Power” emerged out of the civil rights campaign as an attempt to found an independent, self-reliant movement with its own sources of power, leadership, and inspiration. Black power aimed to create a mass base mobilized around a growing consciousness of African-American identity and history. To do this black power advocates first suggested, then demanded, that white activists leave what had been a multi-racial civil rights movement. The white activists, despite their best intentions, brought with them subtle forms of white supremacy that inhibited the emergence of black leadership. Black Power advocates like Stokely Carmichael wanted white radicals to “organize their own” in a strategic division of labor much in the same way Black Power was trying to organize their own people. 1
Women active in the civil rights and student movements followed a similar path. Deeply troubled by the sexism and male domination of the movements they devoted their lives to, women struck out on their own to start the modern women’s movement. They went massive by focusing on consciousness-raising efforts. In millions of conversations with each other, women discovered that the everyday personal problems they experienced were rooted in institutionalized forms of oppression they identified as patriarchy and paternalism. The personal became deeply political.
The other pattern, set by the Black Panthers, was an attempt to solve one of the enduring problems of organizing. How do organizers that aim at fundamental social change engage everyday people? Their answer was to create self-reliant, community controlled service programs. This approach became known as “Serve the People” but was more tellingly called “Survival Pending Revolution” by the Panthers themselves. Best known for their free breakfast program for school kids, they also provided educational programs, legal and health services, programs for senior citizens, and free food for the poor of their community. And they became infamous for community self-defense against police brutality.2
The Panthers initiated an intermediate program that took evolutionary steps toward a vision of revolutionary change. The service programs were one part of bridging the gap. The other was bringing revolutionary politics within reach. One way the Panthers did this was by emphasizing universal values. “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.” Such values need little explanation, are not open to endless debate, and are self-evident.
The Panthers also drew their revolutionary ideals closer to the people by merging staunch anti-capitalism with a transformed version of American traditions. Beneath the glamour of the black beret and intense drama of asserting their 2nd amendment rights, the Black Panthers were studied revolutionaries. Huey Newton’s book, Revolutionary Suicide remains a classic, tragic, part of American revolutionary thought.
The Panthers learned from revolutionary efforts around the world but also laid claim to the ideals of the original American revolutionary colonists applying them to the black colony oppressed within the modern American empire. The last and longest part of the Black Panthers’ 10 Point Program: What We Want/What We Believe — their “major political objective” — called for black self-determination by quoting, at length, the words of the American Declaration of Independence.
However history may judge the outcome, this model was widely influential for community organizing of the period and still shines a light we can follow if we dare.
And so it was, and so it is, with radical white working class organizing.
In Chicago, the SDS sent college students, armed with anti-imperialist ideas and marxist theory, into poor communities. The working class owes these students an enormous debt. The SDS provided the spark and the broader domestic and international context to the problem that workers faced. But, like women and the black power activists before them, white workers chafed under the often unconscious but still stifling cultural biases and assumptions of the student movement. The classism of affluent students limited the full potential of white working class communities. The students had the skills, education, resources, and upbringing that allowed them to take leadership roles. Like women and black power activists, white workers eventually asked the students to stand down and set out on their own to form organizations based on their own culture and political agenda.
Next: Community organizing by Chicago’s Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) set the standard for white working-class activism.
- Hillbilly Nationalists p 27
- Hillbilly Nationalists, p 68-69