Review- Sonnie and Tracy, “Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power”

Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, “Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times” (2011) – This is a history of several groups of white working class radicals in the 1960s and 1970s, most of whom were part of a genealogical tree going back to the Students for a Democratic Society’s efforts to organize among poor whites in the slums of Chicago. The most spectacular of these groups was the Young Patriots Organization, the titular “hillbilly nationalists.” They adapted the Black Panthers’ analysis of oppressed groups as internal colonized nations to poor white Appalachians (both those in Appalachia and those who moved to cities) and formed a key part of the short-lived original “Rainbow Coalition” with the Chicago Panthers and the Puerto Rican nationalists in the Young Lords. Lacking some of the charismatic dimensions of the Patriots but lasting longer were groups like Rise Up Angry, the October 4th Organization in Philadelphia, and White Lightning in the Bronx. Sonnie and Tracy chart all of these groups in less than two hundred pages, including undergrad-friendly explanations of well-trod historical territory such as the breakup of SDS and the rise of black power as a frame for action.

This is a very interesting and little-known history, though impressionistically it seems that accounts of the Young Patriots, at least, have entered radical lore since 2011, probably in no small part due to this book. Then and now (one wonders what the hillbilly nationalists in YPO would make of “Hillbilly Elegy,” or maybe one doesn’t), there was significant doubt about whether the white working class can radicalize or whether it’s worth anyone’s time to try. People have developed whole theories, from “Settlers” to certain applications of privilege-thought (maybe not that far of a range, now that I think of it), to answering in the negative.

The groups in this book were determined to prove the nay-sayers wrong and to doing so on their own terms. Just as the radical end of the civil rights movement was debating what to do with white middle-class student organizers, white working class organizers in Chicago were debating the same thing, and came to a similar decision- they needed to go it alone. At first, this led to a more-or-less mutually agreed-upon take over of Jobs or Income Now (JOIN), originally an SDS organizing project, by the poor whites it was meant to mobilize. JOIN spun off and/or inspired the other groups in the book.

These groups faced similar arrays of problems, from the practical to the conceptual. Assuming they weren’t a lot of racist yokels and/or Archie Bunkers, just what was the relationship between white working class radicals and the larger movement? The YPO, which coalesced from local youth gangs that had been involved in JOIN, provided one answer- they would be emulators of groups like the Panthers, and provide backup for them. By most accounts, the Patriots did pretty well at the latter. This despite their cringe-worthy name and even more cringe-worthy decision to try to redeem the Confederate flag! Fred Hampton, Cha Cha Rodriguez and the other Rainbow Coalition leaders accepted the Patriots at a time when they had every reason — other than effective organizing — not to. The YPO did its own community projects to go with the berets and the guns. A favorite of mine was “Hank Williams Village,” a model community for Appalachian migrants to replace the slums they lived in. They even raised funds for it before the city reneged on their promises and shut the whole thing down.

The other groups profiled had their own approaches — October 4th’s focus on workplace organizing in the industrial Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, White Lightning’s organizing of addicts against both the heroin trade and dehumanizing treatment approaches — but I want to concentrate on the conceptual issues they shared and to which the YPO provided the most extreme answers. Ok, emulate the Panthers: serve the people, take no shit, wear cool outfits. The Panthers and groups like them — increasingly, the Black Power movement as a whole — was based on a theory of revolution adapted from Mao, Fanon, and other sources. What it amounted to was an application of the politics of decolonization — the big change between the end of the Second World War and the rise of neoliberalism — to the American scene. Oppressed nationalities were to be the vanguard of the revolution. American groups like the Panthers (mostly) underplayed the territorial aspects of nationalism — most of them weren’t looking for borders, a capital, an Olympic team, etc — in favor of political self-determination within the larger polity.

No one definitively answered how exactly this would work. They also didn’t answer who exactly counted as an oppressed nationality and why, or what the relationship between oppressed nationalities and the oppressed within privileged nationalities (i.e. the poor) would look like. Somewhere between the confusion on the latter two questions you got answers like “hillbilly nationalism,” which seems to our ears (well, mine anyway) on first hearing like a baroque way of not making sense. People have been trying this from the right lately, after all. You can see other gradations of solution to the question of who is the revolutionary subject in the efforts to get at a way to define the white poor and working class by some kind of identity tag- White Lightning and its efforts with those living with and around the effects of the heroin trade come to mind.

Fred Hampton, chief architect and theorist of the Rainbow Coalition, seemed to have been working his way towards a theory of revolution that placed capitalism at the center, rescuing unified working class organization from the student groups and the big complicit labor unions of the time. But then the Chicago police assassinated him. That’s another thread that runs through the whole thing, and they’re related. Massive police violence derailed all attempts to work through the questions of organizing the one way that works- through organizing. That’s hard to do when your people are getting killed, jailed on trumped-up charges, and endlessly surveilled.

We know that the Rainbow Coalition concept in specific scared J. Edgar Hoover and the Chicago red squad, and they came down on its constituent parts, including the white parts, like a ton of bricks. The same thing with less severity occurred in Philadelphia and New York. What the police didn’t do, urban renewal did, like through the destruction of much of neighborhood Bronx and Uptown in Chicago, the Appalachian neighborhood. Sonnie and Tracy don’t exactly put it this way, but for kids learning the ABCs of radicalism, wrestling with knotty questions of interracial solidarity that still bedevil movements, and facing massive repression, that they did anything at all was an accomplishment. This book is an accomplishment, too, for raising questions if not necessarily for answering them. *****

Review- Sonnie and Tracy, “Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power”

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