(Image: Melville House Publishers)
As a kid, I didn’t know the term working-class, but I certainly knew the antagonisms that came from falling below the middle and upper tiers of Connecticut’s Fairfield County. I was about eight when my parents enrolled me in Hebrew school at Congregation B’nai Israel, the least-expensive Jewish education program in the area.While the shul’s ideology was unabashedly liberal, most of the students came from ritzy Fairfield and Westport.
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Not me. I came from blue-collar Bridgeport, a world away from my peer’s lavish homes and European vacations. Looking back, it’s not surprising that I was an outcast from the start, the butt of hostile comments and sneering taunts. Thankfully, my misery ended with my confirmation at age 14.
But I was still not out of the proverbial woods. At Central High, I was in Track One and Two classes, separated – with the exception of gym class – from the largely black and brown student body. More than once, a total stranger called me “a dirty Jew” as I tossed a basketball or ran around the track.
I kept my hurt hidden, private, but the sting lingered. Later, as a scholarship student at a private urban university, a sense of class inferiority reasserted itself. Since then, it has surfaced in virtually every professional job I’ve had – in the assumptions that govern both employer-employee and collegial relations.
It’s thorny terrain, and, like most working-class turned middle-class people, my trajectory has been rattled by numerous race, class and gender collisions. Since class is rarely addressed, a vast number of questions and feelings remain unexamined, not only for me, but for most Americans.
Amy Sonnie and James Tracy’s “Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power” zeroes in on this conundrum and explicates the role white, working-class activists played in several anti-racist community movements of the 1960s and 70s. The book highlights the little-known and short-lived organizing of five groups – Jobs or Income Now Community Union (JOIN), Rising Up Angry, October 4th Organization, the Young Patriots and White Lightning – and challenges popular stereotypes of working-class whites as bigots and male chauvinists. Sadly, the book does not address the lasting repercussions of hatred on the individuals who experience it.
Still, Sonnie and Tracy’s assessment is provocative. “Poor and working-class whites occupy a unique place in the North American psyche,” they write. “Whether presented as rednecks, trailer trash, or Steinbeck’s noble proles, depictions of struggling whites depend largely on the prevailing social need for either a hero or a scapegoat.”
“Hillbilly Nationalists” attempts to offer nuance, focusing on concrete efforts of working-class whites that go beyond these clichés. At the same time, the book would have benefitted from more first-person narratives to describe the pushes and pulls inherent in each project, and to elucidate the ways racism was confronted in interactions between progressive and reactionary community members. Nonetheless, the showcasing of groups that made connections beyond the narrow race and class interests of their members is important. That said, the omission of trade unions as a force for improving working-class life, is glaring – and unexplained.
One of the most vibrant groups in the text is JOIN, started by members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). JOIN centered its work in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, a district of displaced former-Appalachians who had moved to the city looking for economic advancement.
“A good number of Uptown’s poor whites succumbed to the double-edged sword of white supremacy,” Sonnie and Tracy report, “understanding themselves as more deserving than Blacks and Latinos, but also as victims – of police, bosses, politicians, the draft, and most divisively, of the economic progress civil rights seemed to offer communities of color. More than one JOIN member came into the organization railing against uppity Blacks who were looking for a free lunch, then showed signs of changing their attitudes before ultimately retreating back to the safety of white superiority.”
Of course, not everyone took solace in bigotry, and JOIN members worked overtime to make common cause with people of color – including the Black Panthers – as they organized tenants and welfare recipients. In addition, a JOIN theater group and newsletter sought to link the macro and micro, connecting neighborhood improvements with opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as support for Black Power, Third World and women’s liberation movements.
It wasn’t an easy sell, and, as anyone who has done organizing knows, change happens slowly. Sonnie and Tracy write that the SDS activists within JOIN soon balked at the pace of achievement. “Their mistake was in forgetting one of the main tenets of participatory democracy: The outside organizer should be a catalyst, not a leader. Ultimately, the power struggles within JOIN proved irreconcilable. In December, 1967, local leaders – inspired by the Panther injunction to ‘organize your own’ – asked SDS students and other outside volunteers to leave,” they write.
The Young Patriots Organization (YPO) was an outgrowth of JOIN’s anti-police-brutality committee. Despite the name – and use of the confederate flag as a symbol – the Chicago group modeled itself after the Black Panthers and followed a service-plus-organizing model, opening a health center staffed by volunteer doctors and health workers. Their goal was to show that “poor whites were ready to fight for a new, revolutionary, classless society.” Their ten-point program included demands for full employment, decent housing, prisoner’s rights and the eradication of racism.
The group’s demise came shortly after their support for the Panthers and the Puerto Rican Young Lords became overt. Like their comrades, they were targeted by government counterintelligence and became victims of COINTELPRO. Despite YPO’s eventual fragmentation and dissolution, the authors herald the group as proof that the “white children of the southern Diaspora might claim an identity separate from the legacy of racism.”
While Rising Up Angry also operated out of Chicago, the October 4th Organization (O4O) did its work in Philadelphia, and White Lightning worked in the Bronx. The former took on racist Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo’s war on the poor, and provided needed health care to low-income people while simultaneously organizing opposition to the Vietnam War.
White Lightning formed in the 1970s to oppose to the Rockefeller drug laws that established mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of narcotics-related offenses. Created by a group of recovering addicts, they connected stopping the flood of heroin into low-income communities to prison reform, the struggle for affordable housing, and support for the Panthers, Lords and other agents of social change. “Organizers helped people kick drugs, stopped evictions, and won building improvements,” Sonnie and Tracy write. “Yet the wins were arguably small in the scheme of their revolutionary goals.”
Indeed, as the momentum of 1960s waned, Sonnie and Tracy write, many activists left grassroots campaigns and joined the New Communist Movement, an effort to build revolutionary parties. As attention turned to cadre development, community work faded, and White Lightning and O4O, like JOIN, the Young Patriots, and Rising Up Angry, disappeared.
At the same time, each group left a legacy, and Sonnie and Tracy highlight the lessons gleaned from their efforts. First, the authors conclude, the five highlighted groups show that poor and working-class whites are not necessarily hostile to fighting white supremacy. “Racism could not be overcome by ignoring white communities any more than capitalism could be overcome by ignoring the poor,” they write. Secondly, the poor and working class experience the benefits of racism differently than those who are more economically advantaged, something class-based organizers need to remember. Lastly, race and class enmity serves the ruling classes by diverting attention from our real enemies.
While these findings are undeniably true, as I read “Hillbilly Nationalists,” I kept waiting for the political to become more personal. The groups Sonnie and Tracy write about did great organizing, and can, in some ways, serve as 21st century models; at the same time, protecting the bullied and harassed – and teaching them the healing power of fighting back – also needs a place on the agenda. In the end, learning from past errors and remaining mindful of the emotional needs of individual activists – the too-often-ignored other side of organizing – is an imperative element of successful community mobilization. In fact, it’s the only way to build sustainable resistance.