Sixth in the Series: Organize the White Working Class!
Yes, that is Harry Belafonte visiting JOIN in 1965. Peggy Terry is on far right.
JOIN and Emergence of White Working Class Leadership.
Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) was a Chicago community organization started as the brainchild of the SDS’s Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). In their view, poverty was not the result of individual failing but of political inequality. Since poverty was political, JOIN had to confront the Democratic Party political machines that controlled Chicago.
In their day-to-day work, JOIN came to follow the example of the Black Panthers by combining a service model with consciousness-raising. They provided direct assistance to the community on basic issues such as education, health, and housing while teaching about racism, class exploitation, and war.
Hillbilly Nationalists tells the story of JOIN through the life of Peggy Terry, its most visionary leader. Terry was a poor southern white woman who had been drawn into the civil rights movement as a volunteer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Terry’s motivations were noble but at first were limited to moral politics. She viewed her work as a sacrifice to “help black folks get their freedom.”1 Terry thought she had to give up her own interests to help and could see no good from organizing poor whites.
Terry’s transition to working-class hero began at the urging of civil rights leaders. When she met Martin Luther King, he asked her about her own exploitation as a poor white woman and how other poor whites might be organized into the civil rights movement. These were things she had not considered. Monroe Sharp, Terry’s comrade in CORE, marched her into the JOIN office. “This is where you belong….You have to know who you are before you ever know who we are,” Sharp said. And so with the guidance of African American leaders, Terry turned to her own community.2
Terry already lived in a working-class neighborhood sometimes called “Hillbilly Harlem.” With JOIN, Terry made the fusion of anti-racism and class interest her work.
JOIN learned that people found the promise of jobs or income too utopian, so they began instead by listening to community members about what they saw as their most pressing needs. Imagine that! What they found led to activism around police brutality, welfare rights, tenants unions, and rent strikes. As they confronted the power of landlords and politicians, they began coalition work with Black and Latino groups. They offered public education about the ruthless Daly machine that ran Chicago. JOIN used their newspaper to address issues of international importance, including national liberation movements, the anti-war movement, and movements for women’s rights and civil rights.
As elements of the civil rights movement evolved into black power, these white workers found that “organizing your own” made sense. In fact, JOIN was one of the few organizations in the U.S. already heading down that path.
By 1967, local leaders asked SDS members and other outside volunteers to leave JOIN. “We believe the time has come for us to turn to our own people, poor and working-class whites, for direction, support, and inspiration, to organize around our own identity, our own interests.”3
But unlike the degraded forms of identity politics now used by the Democratic Party to protect the existing power structure, JOIN’s identity politics — like that of other social movements of the period — was rooted in participatory democracy and an organizing method designed to empower people and challenge power.
“No matter what background a person comes from…the role of the organizer, their primary job is to find people to whom they can pass on their abilities, their skills. The job of an organizer is to organize themselves out of a job.”4
The self-determination and self-interest of these poor white people did not imply separatism or racist white nationalism, but just the opposite. JOIN members attended the Poor People’s March and went on to claim a role for working-class whites in the struggle against racism and economic exploitation.
Terry addressed a crowd of 50,000 at the June 19, 1968, Solidarity Day rally.
“We, the poor whites of the Unites States, today demand an end to racism, for our own self interest and well being, as well as for the well being of black, brown, and red Americans, who, I repeat, are our natural allies in the struggle for real freedom and real democracy in these, OUR, Unites States of America.”5
Our common cause is freedom, and Terry showed us how to make it real.
Peggy Terry for Vice President
The final episode in the remarkable history of JOIN was its support for the candidacy of Peggy Terry to run as Vice President on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in 1968. With Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver as Presidential candidate, they sought to take on Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey.
But for Terry, the real work was to contest the candidacy of George Wallace, the segregationist and loud-mouthed racist running for President as an independent. Terry’s audience was the working-class whites that Wallace appealed to with a potent mix of economic resentment and racial hatred. In words that could have been spoken today Terry went after Wallace:
“His “little man” appeal has won over many white workers who are tired of their union’s cooperation with big corporations. But Wallace is not the answer to their problems. He is just another kind of boss.”6
Wallace, who went on to win five southern states, had tapped into the toxic blend of racism and economic misery that has long been part of American history and American demagoguery. It is the same seam of bigotry and resentment that Trump is trying his best to mine.
The Peace and Freedom Party may not have had the funds, staff, or media coverage necessary to win, but they discovered a truth we dare not ignore. Unless the labor and social movements can create a compelling alternative to racist resentment and class exploitation, the Trumps and Wallaces of the world will find a base among the white working class. JOIN took up the long hard struggle that awaits anyone willing to change the world.
Decades later, JOIN’s history is still a useful and usable past. Organizers with the courage and stamina to engage the white working class should consider the basic insights underlying JOIN’s work as a guide to action.
- Racism is against the self-interest of the white working class.
- People of color are natural allies in the struggle for freedom and for economic democracy.
- The important task of “organizing your own,” should be guided by the ideals of participatory democracy and self-determination.
- Serve the people.
- Let the people decide what should be done and at what pace.
- Organizers can be indispensable as catalysts and facilitators but the people must provide the leadership.
- All citations from Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power. p 20