Young, White and Angry: Review of Hillbilly Nationalists

Young, White and Angry

A Memoir-infused Book Review of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times by James Tracy and Amy Sonnie (Melville House, 2011) written for Landline #2 (Illustration by Sara Drake, thanks to Robin Hustle for edits). [For book tour info see the author site.]

by Daniel Tucker

My family is white with no exceptions to speak of (or that are spoken of). My parents are both from families with deep Southern roots, hailing from Tennessee and Alabama, though they both migrated north-ish to Louisville and broke with rural life. The long line of white southerners with vague ideas of what European countries their ancestors hailed from that make up my family renders us for all intents and purposes Southern Unitedstatesians. I’ve embraced this conception of roots, which lets go of any Europeanness that is too faint to grab on to.

As I grew older and developed an independent relationship with my maternal grandmother, Madonna (I called her Nanny), I learned that she and her brothers had traveled to Chicago in the forties to work. Tennessee offered few non-agricultural jobs and word soon spread of seasonal factory work in Chicago and Detroit. The brothers worked in meat packing factories and Madonna worked in the laundries that serviced those factories. They lived near the factories, in the southwest side neighborhood of Brighton Park. When they got homesick or jobs dried up they would head home on the train. This back-and-forth between the rural South and the industrialized cities of the North was common. A few distant family members stuck around in the North and made their homes there, but everyone I had much contact with ended up ultimately returning to Tennessee to live out their lives. For rural people migratory work was a remarkable moment in their lives when the possibilities seemed endless, and it remained one of their few intimate experiences of urban life.

Being born and becoming politically active after the emergence and spread of identity politics left   me with some significant inherited history to wade through in order to articulate a vision of society that felt equitable, desirable, authentic, and relevant to the times. These are some snapshots of that unfolding process.

Anti-Racist Youth Brigades of Kentucky

The school I went to growing up was public, but founded in 1971 as the first “magnet school*” in the district, it marched to the beat of its own drum. Instigated by veterans of the Civil Rights movement, the school insisted on a socially-engineered student body with a strict quota system to ensure children of all races and classes from across the city were in attendance. The small classes with informal and self-directed learning often mixed age groups from the first through twelfth grade spectrum to encourage intergenerational friendships. With a hippy vibe and a social-justice bent, it was joked that we would spend as much time talking about the differences and similarities of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King than most schools spent on the Confederacy and the Union. A critical perspective on whiteness, as well as models of white people doing Freedom Rides and working in solidarity with civil rights activists were abound in this environment. Despite their inspiring war stories, it couldn’t have been more obvious that times had changed and those histories could not be simply reproduced. Times had changed.

During my later grade school years, I was wandering the towering stacks of the Louisville Public Library (as I often did after school) and was compelled towards a red book spine the size of a record but thick enough to hold some funky collaged lettering indicating the book’s title. I had found James Ridgeway’s Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Cult (Thunder Mouth Press, 1990). The book’s colorful cover and square format jumped out at me and because I had recently been made aware of the KKK while watching the TV miniseries Roots in my social studies class. I was intrigued to see KKK imagery updated to the present. While my education and moral sensibilities disposed me towards disgust at the images of angry youth burning crosses and flashing swastikas, I was totally enthralled by the presentation of this hidden subculture I knew nothing about. The format mixed accessible anthropological writings with photos, manifestos, album covers, song lyrics and flier graphics. It was a frightening example of what could happen to angry white youth. Near the center spread I found the she most shocking full-spread map. Produced by infamous white separatist David Duke, it proposed a remapping of the United States into separate racial bastions. It became clear to me by looking at this proposed map that the scariest thing about white racists was that they had a vision for society. From that point on I was tuned in to the power of maps and was determined to promote other visions of what society could look like. And I was the only kid in 4th grade social studies class who knew who that racist was when he ran for president in 1992.

As a preteen my first introduction to activism that I could identify with, thatwasn’t totally hippie like my teachers, involved some mostly middle-class punk rockers I knew who were part of Anti-Racist Action. ARA was an organization that had been around since the 80s but really formalized at a 1994 convention in Columbus, Ohio called the “Midwest Anti-Fascist Network.” I was generally not impressed by the activities of ARA. By day they would debate “white privilege” and occasionally plan an anti-Klan rally or discuss fighting skinheads and by night they would spraypaint walls and billboards with “fuck racism.” The most lasting influence of the group on my life is an appreciation for even the most pointless of political graffiti and the insight that I didn’t see my whiteness as a primary motivator of my political commitments. I was undoubtedly white and that meant I had easier access to the positive benefits of powerful institutions and distance from the more negative ones. But I wasn’t going to be rendered socially useless by fighting jokers in bedsheets or Doc Martins. This hardly constituted an adequate update to the history I was learning in school. However I can say that the positive environment of punk shows when I was a kid was one of the few places where rich and middle class and poor white kids from across town shared a social space.

Making Friends in Chicago

My family’s Tennessee to Chicago migration pattern remained a reference point for me when I moved north to Chicago in 2001 to go to college. It helped me feel like my move wasn’t totally random, that it somehow was logical beyond my educational options. It wasn’t just a college town like Lexington or a college city like Boston, it was a place that people from my part of the world went to expand their sense of possibility. I quickly realized that the city I would come to call home was not going to easily claim me. Despite being transient and globalized, the provincial qualities of the Midwestern mecca came out when encountering authenticity debates that ended with lines like “you are not FROM Chicago unless you went to elementary school here. . . and suburbs do not count!” I wasn’t from here, I wasn’t really from Louisville and I wasn’t really from the south. My parents’ migration patterns had rendered me a wanderer. So like any seventeen-year-old reactionary, I reacted by trying to dig in hard to my new surroundings.

One of my first experiences with the racial politics of Chicago was attending a neighborhood forum on gentrification. With the housing boom of the early 2000s and the overbuilding of condominiums across the city, it was hard to deny that affordable housing was one of the central concerns of life in Chicago. The west side neighborhood, Humboldt Park, had been the cultural center of Chicago’s dispersed Puerto Rican community since the first waves of migrants from the American quasi-colony had been pushed out of the lakefront neighborhoods in the 1960s. Anti-gentrification signs in the windows of Humboldt Park, and Puerto Rican history murals throughout the commercial district along Division Street and North Avenue, made the interwoven stories of that gradual displacement and the movement for Puerto Rican independence visible.

The discussion about gentrification quickly devolved into complaints about funny dressed white artists moving into the neighborhood. As the only white artist in the room (though I don’t claim to be funny-looking), I chimed in by respectfully asking “Does anyone want to research the banks’ and mortgage companies’ loan practices in the neighborhood? White renters come and go, but these are the people and institutions that are really shifting the ground this neighborhood rests on.” The room stared back in silence. Apparently I wasn’t a good listener and this was not the direction people wanted to take. I sat through the rest of the meeting in silence after I determined this wasn’t what I wanted to listen to, waiting for an opportunity to leave. Another dead-end where I felt like the mood was right but the direction was wrong and inadequate for the times. Even though white artists changed the population make-up, it felt too easy to point the finger at the gentrifiers while there was massive bank-financed rehabbing and condo conversions going on.

It was suggested that white people should check out a newly formed “white ally” organization. I went to only one meeting and the guilt in the room did nothing for me.

In the interactions I had with white activists in Chicago, I was simultaneously exhausted and bored by the dance that they would do to position themselves as allied to the struggles of people of color. Sometimes it involved strategic deployment of the right rhetoric and at other times it was more simply social posturing to have more non-white friends than any other white person they knew. Most of it seemed like an act. I wanted friends with lots of different backgrounds that I could learn from and enjoy as much as anyone, but I wasn’t going to play games to get new friends.

Learning Local History

It was starting to become clear that in order to do social justice work in Chicago I needed to know more local history. I started to wonder about meaningful ways that white people, aware of the racism that permeates our own consciousness and society more generally, had found to become involved in local politics.

I began exploring the examples of groups and organizations that dealt with the position of whiteness more critically. I went to workshops about challenging white supremacy that advocated for white people not to form their own separate groups, but to join “multi-racial grassroots movements led by radical activists of color.” At a conference in Wisconsin I encountered people from an organization with a name that caught my attention: European Dissent. Formed in New Orleans in the eighties, European Dissent was my first exposure to an anti-racist group that tried to constructively engage in a discussion about heritage and identity for white people. This wasn’t the key to my own challenges as I had no strong ties to Europe, but it seemed like a great step for many of those white Chicagoans I had met who wore their ancestral homelands, sometimes literally, on their sleeves.

But one difference between Chicago and Louisville was that I didn’t see those poor white folks hanging around. Where were the descendants of the Tennessee and Kentucky friends of my family who had come up and stayed? There were Polish day-laborers that I’d see on the corner, but by the early 2000s it felt like the non-ethnically identified generic poor white people of Chicago were no more. Black Chicago had retained a prominent southern culture in the city but the Chicago hillbilly scene was all dried up. On the off chances I would catch a listen of someone in a neighborhood (not a tourist) speaking in a southern accent, I would stop in my tracks and listen. When I moved one neighborhood north to Logan Square I started to find this more, discovering a culture that resembled the porch-bound older whites and their rowdy city-mouse children of my childhood. But it was nearly invisible, hidden in the cracks of much more visible black, white yuppie, ethnic European, and Latino communities and subcultures.

The more I learned about white anti-racism the clearer it became that much of the language and methods used by white anti-racists I encountered in the 1990s and early 2000s were inherited from somewhere I couldn’t access.

Over the last few years it seems the explosion of memoirs about Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party have flooded bookshelves and movie theaters. Reminiscent of the abolitionists, the “New Left” of the 1960s was a global social movement intent to define itself not by what it wanted but by what it was not. The New Left was not the old left (In a nutshell, it wasn’t Stalinist. It was also not into bureaucracy or racism or the war in Vietnam.). Reading up on the period and observing the intense nostalgia and reverence for the time amongst friends and acquaintances, I became convinced that our contemporary activism was uncritically and often unintentionally inheriting the ideas and frameworks for understanding society from that time. It wasn’t that I advocated ignoring the history, I just thought there might be some other interpretations or versions of the history that could help us move beyond the fantasy versions put forth in aging baby boomer memoirs and romantic retelling of the same old “war stories.”

Hillbilly Nationalists and Angry Patriots

While at a conference in Washington DC in January of 2006 I met James Tracy, a housing rights organizer from San Francisco who was doing research on the work of white people from the south who had moved to Chicago in the fifties and sixties and formed alliances with the Black Panther Party.

Why had I never heard of this? My mind was blown and I wanted to know more. We struck up an email correspondence about the little-known histories he was uncovering. Tracy was an Italian-American who had been inspired to search for examples of white people that were more like him, kids who hadn’t been politicized on a college campus but bucked the stereotypes and collaborated across racial lines. As he explains it today:

In the early nineties I was a young idealist—probably the type of guy who would be kicked out of most of coalitions—and I met Malik Rahim, a former member of the New Orleans Black Panther Party, who became my mentor. And while [sitting on top of] Bernal Hill after knocking on two or three hundred doors (doing tenant organizing) he says, ‘there was a day I used to hate white people,’ and I said, ‘since you’ve worked every day the past year with one, what changed?’ and he said ‘well a long time ago I went to a Black Panther Party convention and I saw these crazy rednecks with a confederate flag on their uniforms but they were running armed security for us. So I figured if there is hope for them then there’s hope for the rest of y’all.

That was when Tracy began research for his book Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (Melville House, 2011) co-authored with another white Bay-area activist, Amy Sonnie. This book adds a wholly new layer to the histories of the 1960s that have focused on middle-class students reacting to the Vietnam War, Civil Rights leaders fighting for equity and equality, and Black Power activists fighting for autonomy.  Hillbilly Nationalists distinguishes itself from the litany of Civil Rights and New Left movement history books not just through engaging relatively unknown history, but through its strong reliance on provocative images that set the scene for these stories.

Hillbilly Nationalists opens up with this scene:

In July 1969 a dozen self-identified hillbillies showed up to a Black Panther Party conference with Confederate flag patches sewn to their ragged jean jackets. Just above the flag, three hand-painted letters identified their radical outfit: YPO, the Young Patriots Organization…They arrived from Uptown, a Chicago neighborhood home to thousands of economically displaced Appalachians, mostly white, who had turned the area into a bastion of southern culture…As one Patriots member put it, ‘we are the living reminder that when they threw out their white trash, they didn’t burn it.’ That trash was picking itself up.

And thus begins the saga of poor white people trying to organize themselves to take control of their own lives.

While not the first book for either author, it is a strong coming-out for them as historians. Hillbilly Nationalists tells the story of Chicago groups like Jobs or Income Now/JOIN Community Union and one of the group’s leaders, Peggy Terry, as well as the Young Patriots Organization and Rising Up Angry. In the final chapter it expands to the east coast with overviews of October 4th Organization from Philadelphia and the White Lightening group in the Bronx. Each group is described from their origins through their dissolution with highlights about key characters, events and campaigns.

Tracy told me about an interview he conducted with Bobby Lee, a former Chicago Black Panther who had worked to build a “Rainbow Coalition” with the Young Lords—a Puerto Rican gang-turned political organization—and a rag-tag group of southern whites working under the name Young Patriots Organization. It felt like the Rainbow Coalition had the keys to all the challenges and histories I had been running up against.

An image from Hillbilly Nationalists introduces this history and graces the cover of the book. Sonnie and Tracy describe it this way: “In Spring 1969, members of the Rainbow Coalition made their first joint appearance at a press conference on the anniversary of King’s murder. Crowded around a long folding table, dressed in black leather jackets and dark sunglasses, they projected an image of the ultimate revolutionary cool—albeit a male-dominated one. Black Panther Nathaniel Junior sat at the microphone to urge the city’s poor to stop fighting each other and tearing up their own neighborhoods.”

Courtesy of http://sara-drake.blogspot.com/

Uptown Girl

While on their promotional book tour this fall, Sonnie and Tracy took the time to meet with Uptown veteran activists and younger residents, cramped in the small offices of Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce. Sonnie, a librarian by training, brings her own background of being involved in activism but not being able to discuss it with her family back in Philadelphia. In order to connect with them she needed to share histories that more closely resembled her white working-class roots. Like a true librarian, Sonnie kicked the night off with a reading from the book. Twenty people, some white and some black, some young and others on the older side, including some featured in the pages from which she read, stared and listened to a description of the Uptown of the 1960s.

Peggy Terry looked around her own neighborhood trying to imagine the work ahead. Chicago’s Uptown section was alternatively known as ‘Hillbilly Heaven or Hillbilly Harlem after the large number of Appalachian families who moved there in search for work between 1930 and 1960…  Housing conditions in Uptown were typified by single room tenement-style apartments, dilapidated buildings, rat infestations, broken plumbing, peeling paint, missing locks and a constant, ominous police presence. Conditions in the factories, on the railroads and in service jobs weren’t much better. Northern business owners seized the opportunity to recruit a cheap, dependent labor force ‘who had empty stomachs and pocketbooks but strong backs.’ Available work was hard and temporary.

Sonnie invited people who lived there and who lived the history to respond and give their own anecdotes. After a question about Uptown’s racial demographics, Sonnie explained that Uptown was never entirely white but that white southerners made up nearly sixty percent of the neighborhood according to one census. Still, she clarifies that Big Dovie and Little Dovie, two of JOIN Community Union’s most important members, were black—and went on to form the National Welfare Rights Union after participating in the welfare committee of JOIN.

Margie Devoe, daughter of JOIN leader Peggy Terry, was in attendance, and said that when the Dovie’s moved into the neighborhood they  had their windows broken and stones thrown at them. She added that, “I lived here and I can’t remember ever seeing a black person [until then]. I remember us hillbillies and Native Americans and I can’t remember anyone else.” A neighborhood historian and resident since 1972, Paul Siegel chimed in to add that Peggy had grown up in a racist family in Kentucky and was eventually inspired by the civil rights movement and did work with local civil rights organizations when she moved to Chicago. Siegel explained that it was local civil rights activist Monroe Sharp who pressured Terry to stop working in black communities but begin work in Uptown. Terry”didn’t want to be with ‘those people’ [hillbillies],but it was a black person who told her that was where she had to go. And the rest is history.” Terry’s organizational home became JOIN Community Union.

This was the the beginning of the period when many white activists began to recognize a “racial division of labor” within “the movement,” a central theme of Hillbilly Nationalists. Often credited to Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael who encouraged white students in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to “organize your own” and focus attention on white communities and in particular poor whites in urban areas.

Rapping back and forth with the current Uptown residents, Sonnie and Tracy outlined the history of JOIN doing tenant and welfare rights organizing and birthing a greaser gang of young guys named the ‘Goodfellas’ who divided their time between pool halls and affordable housing protests. The Goodfellas eventually became the Young Patriots. Another outgrowth of JOIN was Rising Up Angry, who attempted to engage veterans and disillusioned white youth who would otherwise be in gangs to do political work, enticing them through rock concerts. RUA put out a newspaper that published portraits of greaser youth, organized legal clinics for draft resisters, tried to keep the peace amongst the city’s gangs and even sometimes fought racists. Their counter-cultural approach seemed to be the closest thing I could identify as a precursor to the Anti-Racist Action punk rock scene of the eighties and nineties. But what forces would capture the energy of angry white people today?

Occupy the Tea Party?

Hillbilly Nationalists comes at the right time. The very white and often overtly racist Tea Party provides a reference point for how easily, even today, angry white people can be mobilized to blame others for their problems. While rumblings of such activity had been occurring since before the 2008, it was actually the live televised February 2009 rant by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange that is credited with catalyzing the Tea Party movement. Santelli spoke out against Obama’s bail-out package, comparing it to collectivization in Cuba, and called for a Chicago Tea Party on Lake Michigan. The “populist fury” as author Thomas Frank calls it, spread like prairie fire. By tax day of that year there were Tea Party actions all over the country, in the fall they took over the Mall in D.C and in August of 2010 they arrived in mass at the Lincoln Memorial at the invitation of Glenn Beck in an event that symbolically began their election season strategy of endorsing Republican congressional candidates as an ideological bloc within the party without formally creating a third party entity.

With financing from major right-wing donors, the Tea Party’s limited government and free-market vision, symbolized by their appropriation of “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, waived for over two years before Occupy Wall Street came onto the scene. With the rise of the predominately-white unemployed youth and debt-ridden students forming Occupy actions in cities across the country, there emerges a new political pole in the debate about the potential for white people to direct their anger about the economy productively and inclusively.  During his visiting to Chicago, from the stage of the Heartland Café in Rogers Park, James Tracy tried to contextualize this emerging movement within recent history by explaining that, “The Occupy Wall Street movement is different than Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s in one major way. The people today have nothing to drop out of. They are the youth who don’t have jobs to refuse. They are the youth who have been pushed out of education opportunities. …This is the ultimate precarious generation. They do what everyone should’ve done years ago, they put some bodies in the street and call this crisis for what it is, that we are truly the 99% and they are the MFers of the 1% that are MFing everything up.But within that 99% there are people who have felt this long before anyone called it a crisis. People who are disproportionately evicted, foreclosed on and fired. And when we get to a point as a Left where we can deal with both our commonality and our differences with an even hand, then that is when we are going to build the conditions where we might just win”.

Amy Sonnie and James Tracy’s book is a gift to us all that has unearthed a hidden history of activism, and of the city of Chicago, that allows us to understand the 1960s and 70s with greater insight. The main project of these young historians is to show that poor white people were also active in the social upheavals of the time, not as a reactionaries and racists as they are typically imagined, but as movement-building movers and shakers with an acute critique of racism.

Like a counterpoint to the horrifying map by David Duke, the histories in this book and their implications for the present can act as an alternate map for what angry people can do with a bad situation if they only have vision. While both the Tea Party and Occupy can agree that the American Dream has failed, they differ importantly on their vision: on where to place the blame, how to clean it up, and who gets to join in the process of rebuilding. As we engage in the movements of the present moment, it would do us well to learn from the histories presented in this book.

* Magnet Schools are public schools focused around certain themes or curriculum. They were called “Magnets” because they were intended to pull students from many corners of a school district and were experimented with as solutions to racially segregated school districts.

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