Seventh in the Series: Organize the White Working Class!
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the social movements crossed over into revolutionary territory. The victories and the failures of the civil rights movement, massive urban rebellions, the intensification of the Vietnam War and anti-war movement, the assassination of MLK, the emergence of a new feminism, the revolt of soldiers and veterans, the stunning militance of the Stonewall rebellion and gay liberation, and the emergence of a mass environmental movement meant that people were moving toward solutions outside of the existing order.
In the white-hot heat of the time — as the movement simultaneously approached the revolutionary threshold and the deeply entrenched power of the established order — working-class whites joined with the Black Panthers and Young Lords in the original “Rainbow Coalition.” Inspired by Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Bob Lee, a group of “dislocated hillbillies” with organizing experience in JOIN’s police brutality committee founded the Young Patriots.
Modeling themselves on the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots envisioned two parallel tracks: Serve the people with local programs designed to meet the need of the community and repurpose white nationalist sentiment to revolutionary goals.
While the ideology and iconography of the Young Patriots may seem jarring by today’s cultural standards, remember the immense influence of third world nationalism on virtually all sectors of the American left of the period. The Young Patriots saw Appalachia as a kind of white homeland, an internal colony of the U.S. They adopted the rebel flag in an attempt to transform its meaning.
Imagine young white working-class revolutionaries sporting rebel flags and making common cause with the Black Panthers and Young Lords. That is exactly what happened, and that was totally badass. A meeting between Young Patriots and Black Panthers was captured in the documentary American Revolution 2.
The story of the Young Patriots so challenges liberal norms of identity politics that it virtually disappeared from historical accounts of the period until Hillbilly Nationalists retold the tale. The Young Patriots attempted something remarkable: the radical transformation of white nationalism and its symbols into the carriers of revolutionary consciousness.
“The south will rise again,” they claimed, “only this time in solidarity with our oppressed brothers and sisters.” “From historical experience, we know that the people make the meaning of a flag…This time we mean to see that the spirit of rebellion finds and smashes the real enemy rather than our brothers and sister in oppression.”
Like JOIN before them, they saw racism as opposed to the interest of the white working class. William “Preacherman” Fesperman put it this way:
“Let racism become a disease. I’m talking to the white brothers and sisters because I know what it’s done. I know what it’s done to me. I know what it does to people everyday….It’s got to stop, and we’re doing it.”
Despite their high ideals and multi-racial coalition work, the first Young Patriots were a short-lived experiment. With their teachers and allies, the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, they were the target of local and national police surveillance and repression by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. In 1969, Fred Hampton, Chicago’s best know leader of the Panthers and the Rainbow Coalition was assassinated in a pre-dawn raid. The repression worked, and precious organizing energy was consumed on defense and survival.
But if we see the Young Patriots and the original Rainbow Coalition as a failed but inspired attempt to make history — at the high water mark of the last revolution — there remains much to be learned. The struggle of the Young Patriots offers us an essential lesson: revolution requires the transformation, not rejection, of existing cultural traditions. The Young Patriots tried to transform southern white culture.
The Rainbow Coalition also transformed the integrationist strategy of the civil rights movement. “Organizing your own” did not rule out, but instead enhanced multi-racial work. The original Rainbow Coalition demanded each partner have the confidence and political independence that was only possible when each could first stand alone and strong in their own communities. Under the conditions of self-determination, a true meeting of equals became a practice not just a theory or hope.
Coalition work between distinct racial organizations was another, perhaps more practical, path to the utopian vision of the “beloved community” King envisioned for America’s future. Maybe integrated organizations underestimated the depth of racism —conscious and unconscious — and wished away racism with the shortcuts of good intentions, superficial outreach, and moral yearnings. The Rainbow Coalition based its unity on sturdier stuff: each group needed independent power as a precondition for a movement that could begin to practice political equality and mutual respect.
Rising Up Angry
Hillbilly Nationalists also tells the story of three other organizing efforts. As the Young Patriots declined a new community organization in Chicago, Rising up Angry, returned to a style more like JOIN but still informed by the radicalism of the Young Patriots.
Rising Up Angry celebrated working-class culture and placed culture and consciousness at the forefront. Influenced by the writings of James Forman, Amilcar Cabral, and others and compelled by the practical needs of day-to-day organizing, Angry knew culture mattered and sought to amplify the revolutionary tendencies within existing working-class culture.
Angry viewed gang members and streetwise “greasers” as potential allies. Angry also saw soldiers and veterans as a source of resistance and knew it made sense to honor the warrior while opposing the war. Angry help provide legal counseling for AWOL soldiers and attracted veterans to their organization. In 1972, Angry joined in a national day of coordinated actions “Armed Farces Day” and drew 3,000 to the Chicago demonstration.
Angry ran a health clinic, organized tenants’ unions, and supported abortion rights, all of which brought women and women’s issues into clearer focus as a mainstay of Angry’s work. As the women’s movement accelerated, Angry’s women took leadership roles and led consciousness-raising groups with working-class women and men.
In the pages of their newspaper and in a short film, Trick Bag, Rising Up Angry took an anti-racist message to their community. Like all the working-class projects in Hillbilly Nationalists, Angry went beyond moral politics to argue that racism against people of color weakened working-class power and was against the self-interest and psychological well-being of white workers. And Angry did not turn away from physical confrontations with the hard-core racists.
Angry combined radical, anti-racist, feminist, and working-class identities and interests in a single organization without getting bogged down in an endless debate about the “agent of history” or the “primary contradiction.” And they avoided, or at least blunted, the kind of debilitating internal division and splits that chase people away.
Rising Up Angry practiced an early form of what we now call “intersectionality.” But instead of simply seeing how people are divided into distinct sections, they learned that the lines of power that divided people were also paths of resistance along which determined activists could push back. Class was the central organizing principle for Angry’s work, but even the communists who contributed so much to Angry learned that class consciousness would flourish best if not grasped too tightly.
Class rarely stands naked. Instead, it is clothed in culture and perceived with the complex and contradictory states of mind that are the hallmarks of human consciousness.
*In addition to the account presented in Hillbilly Nationalist a well-argued and well-documented article by Patrick King offers a short history of the Young Patriots.
- All citations are from Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times, 74