Sam J. Miller May 3, 2012

Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times
By Amy Sonnie and James Tracy
Melville House, 2011


Race vs. class. Which matters more? Is gentrification an issue of race or class? How is a middle-class person of color’s experience of oppression different from a poor white person’s?

For the left, this conversation never ends. The question isn’t answered because it can’t be answered: race and class oppression are so fundamental to the structure of American society that our very identities are made up of the injuries we experience because of them. Neither matters more; both must be tackled together, along with gender oppression — also inseparable.

Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power focuses on an overlooked handful of organizations that tried to do just that. By shining a light on the work of white working-class organizations from the ’60s and ’70s, the authors provide a powerful counterbalance to the class-biased conventional history of the racial justice struggles of that era — a familiar story in which a small group of white (middle-class) college activists supported the work of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Panthers while poor and working-class whites were apathetic bystanders or part of the problem.

After 10 years of interviewing activists from these groups, and the people-of-color-led organizations they worked with, authors James Tracy and Amy Sonnie have put together a fascinating and scrupulously researched argument that white working-class groups played a crucial role in demanding justice for poor people of all races and ethnic identities. These groups included folks like the JOIN (Jobs or Income Now) Community Union in Chicago, which united Southern migrants, student radicals and welfare recipients to fight for housing, health and welfare; the October 4th organization of residents of industrial Philadelphia against brutal cops, big business and the Vietnam War; White Lightning in the Bronx; and the Young Patriots Organization and Rising Up Angry, which brought proud self-identified “white trash” and “hillbillies” together with Chicago greasers, Vietnam veterans and young feminists. These groups later formed a legendary “Rainbow Coalition” (years before Jesse Jackson) with Black and Puerto Rican activists. Tactically, their work was similar to that of the Panthers and other radical racial justice groups, combining direct services with base-building, political education, direct action and other community empowerment strategies.

Vivid and sometimes-startling stories bring this history to life: Black nationalists provided security for meetings of white-identified groups; the Chicago Black Panther field secretary was arrested under shady circumstances by cops who planned to “disappear” him, only to see a huge crowd of poor white allies surround the squad car and secure his release.

The book’s claims are ultimately modest. The authors don’t present these organizations as the mainstream of white working-class thought in the ’60s and ’70s. They don’t pretend that class oppression and even radical class consciousness automatically translate into progressive ideas about race, or that these groups didn’t have their own issues to work through. The book presents the success of movements like the Rainbow Coalition as simultaneously a sign of the power and potential of the work of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, and concurrently, an alarm that triggered the government’s massive and violent war on Black nationalism. Failure didn’t destroy these movements — success did. Power gets truly nervous when people start working together across race lines.

While some tricks that worked for these groups won’t work for organizers today (the authors caution against attempting to re-appropriate the Confederate flag, as the Young Patriots Organization did), the book is a solid toolbox of tactics for today’s activists.

“[Rising Up] Angry viewed gang kids and greasers as part of a potentially radical underclass. They adopted the Panther view that the ‘lumpenproletariat’ — the most marginally employed or disenfranchised — would become the vanguard of the revolution.”

This is an important perspective that’s still overlooked today: witness the discomfort of Occupy Wall Street protesters with their homeless comrades, or the more general difficulties the left has faced when working with and taking leadership from the most marginalized communities.

The working-class organizations and alliances profiled in this book might have been a minority, and their influence may have been limited. But they provide a valuable vision of a left that could have been. The work of these organizations is diametrically opposed to that of the Saul Alinsky organizing model, which focuses on modest “winnable” campaigns and shies away from complex issues like individual racism and misogyny that could create divisions inside an organizing community. The groups profiled in Hillbilly Nationalists tackled racism and bigotry in their own communities and fought for big-picture substantive change in partnership with their oppressed brothers and sisters. The Alinsky model has dominated the activist end of the Democratic Party for decades now, and while today’s organizers have the benefit of hindsight in assessing those failures, there has also been a shortage of alternatives.

One of the things that’s so exciting about this book is that it comes at a time when the left has largely ceded the white working class to the right. Many of the activists profiled in this book believe that the failure of the white left to build power with working-class whites was a “fatal flaw” that could have changed the course of American history. The right has spent the past 30 years courting the rural working class on issues of individual rights, security and family values, all while building a base that has allowed them to shift the conversation in catastrophic ways. We make a mistake in believing that the Tea Party speaks for all poor whites — but that’s why we need Hillbilly Nationalists so badly. This book digs up a long and vibrant history of radical working-class resistance that we can still tap into if we understand it better.

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