Many white southerners from Appalachia settled in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago in the 1960s and, amid grinding poverty and discrimination, formed a radical political organization called the Young Patriots that worked alongside groups like the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords.
On August 27, Rampant Magazine cosponsored an event with Haymarket Books and Melville House Publishing in honor of the tenth anniversary of the publication of Hillbilly Nationalists: The Young Patriots & the Rainbow Coalition. The discussion featured Hy Thurman, a founding member of the Young Patriots Organization and author of Revolutionary Hillbilly; Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, coauthors of Hillbilly Nationalists; and Rampant’s own Eric Kerl. The text below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Eric Kerl: Hy, could you tell us a little bit about what it was like for you and so many other southerners who came to northern cities like Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s? We know for many people, for example, for African Americans, the movement north was part of the Great Migration, which was fueled by things like racist terror as well as a desire for higher paying industrial jobs. What was it that drove you and other southern white people here? And what was the neighborhood of Uptown like when you landed here?
Hy Thurman: You know, I suppose the biggest influence on people moving to other cities and to the north, of course, was poverty. At that time, in parts of Appalachia and other southern states, there was extreme poverty. And there still is a lot of poverty there today. A lot of it has not been recognized.
And for me, I was raised in a single-parent home. We were sharecroppers. We had to go work in the field just to survive during the planting and harvest season. But big conglomerates were taking over the farms and the coal mines and also the textile mills that were around at that time. And so people were losing their jobs, they were losing their livelihoods, and because of poverty there was a lot of malnutrition and there was actually a lot of starvation going on. So, poverty is one of the reasons I went to Chicago.
The other reason was that growing up in a small town, you’re subject to all kinds of mistreatment because of the class that you are in. And that’s true in the educational system, in the jobs, in just the whole economics of things, and especially in the justice system. If you’re poor you are treated as a second-class citizen. And whenever crimes were committed, especially in my hometown, they would come find some poor people and arrest them with a lot of bogus charges. I have family members—I escaped before it happened to me—who spent time in jail for crimes they did not commit, who were actually committed by people in a better class than we were in. This happened all the time. So when it came time for me to get an opportunity to escape, I did.
I went to Chicago with an older brother who was there who had gotten involved in a street gang at first, and then he had gotten involved with some SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] students and started getting radicalized. But Chicago itself, especially Uptown on the North Side where we lived, was a slum. It was just a ghetto and dirty and nasty. You know, it was people living on top of each other. There were as many as 40,000 people from the South in this one community. And because of that, Uptown was considered an eyesore by Mayor Daley—we called him “King Richard.” He used his police department as a gang to keep people down. He didn’t like poor people. And he didn’t like anybody but white people. He was a racist.
And so, for us, living in Uptown at that time meant living in very dilapidated buildings, with no heat, run by slumlords. There was a lot of lead poisoning in these buildings from the paint. There were also children who would arrive from the South and go into the Chicago school system, and get automatically put back one or two grades because the people who ran the schools didn’t think they could make it in the system.
In the 1960s, the unemployment rate in Uptown was close to 50 percent. There weren’t enough jobs. And you will not do any farming on concrete. So there was a lot of poverty. And we became known as an “invasive species.” We were considered a swarm of locusts taking over. We were looked down upon. And the police were given carte blanche to do what they wanted to do to anybody. This meant murder, rape, beating people. It meant a lot of things.
Finally, at one point, some people had gotten together and started doing some organizing, and when SDS came in and organized I got involved with JOIN Community Union. I was seventeen years old. I had been beaten a couple times and thrown in jail. I had to work in day labor agencies, where you go to work one day and you get minimum wage and if you are lucky not getting hurt you might go back the next day. That’s only after you pay off the manager of the day labor agency. And if you can’t do that, blood banks were right next door to these day labor agencies where you could sell your blood, which a lot of us had to do at certain times.
So we were treated as, I would have to say, close to animals, and the cops and the politicians, they all treated us that way. I started thinking that, well, this is supposed to be the “land of opportunity,” but I couldn’t find any opportunities at all. And so, some of us street guys had gotten together and started hanging out together and became political.
Eric Kerl: James and Amy, could you both speak about what drove you to write about these activists, these experiences, these organizations of mostly, if not all, white people? Were you ever concerned this project might be centering whiteness too much?
Amy Sonnie: I got interested in these themes after reading books about the Black Power movement and the ’60s and the New Left as part of a study group in the early 2000s. I was active in a group called the “Challenging White Supremacy Workshop” looking at white supremacy and whiteness. It was an interracial study group at the time. Sharon Martinas ran it. We were grappling with the intersections of race, class, and gender.
I began to research and understand moments in history when racism was being used to break up multiracial coalitions. We have seen multiracial uprisings and coalition building and alliances form. But often racism breaks these apart. So for me, it was a process of studying and starting to interview people and look into a moment in history when it looked like something else different happened at least for a period of time. I wanted to understand how the Young Patriots Organization came to be. How did they form? How does a group of Appalachian youth organized into a street gang turn into an organization like the Young Patriots Organization that stands side by side with the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords? I mean, how does that happen?
James Tracy: This story, this tradition was handed down to me by some of my mentors who I was organizing with. Malik Rahim, Marie Harrison, and Bethola Harper all knew about the Young Patriots Organization. These were Black activist elders working in parallel tracks around organizing in San Francisco. I was always very curious about this because certainly the Patriots had earned the respect of people giving me a political education as we did door-knocking and tenant hangouts.
For me, this book is trying to point to concrete examples of what it looks like when white people make a very real, very deep—not surface level—commitment to fighting white supremacy within a working-class context. The Patriots and the other organizations went through that process, found and looked at what partnership looked like and what following through looked like and made mistakes but earned respect of their comrades of color.
Eric Kerl: The title of the book, “Hillbilly Nationalists,” raises questions of class struggle and the political tendency you are describing of white working-class youth uniting with the Black struggle or the struggle of other oppressed folks on the basis of class solidarity. Some people hear “hillbilly” as an epithet. Is that how you see it? And when we think of the word “hillbilly” many automatically think white. So when we read the title “Hillbilly Nationalists” you might think this is some form of “white nationalism,” which, of course, has all sorts of really negative fascist connotations. But that’s not what it’s about at all. So can all of you talk a little bit about the term “hillbilly,” what it means to you, and what the political significance of it is?
Hy Thurman: Yeah, we always used the term “hillbilly.” Most of us from the South would say, “You are a stupid hillbilly,” or something like that. But to us it was just a word. We would laugh about it. It is just another way for people to make fun of other people, basically. We always had this saying that in the Young Patriots we may be “hill-billies,” but we are smart, so we are “hill-williams.” We had a way of joking about that.
In the Young Patriots our goal was to organize white people, that’s the role we had sort of taken and been given in the Rainbow Coalition. And back then we made the statement, “Go and organize your own.” You know, we don’t need you in Berkeley and other places trying to organize us. We’ll do it ourselves. So you go in your own neighborhood because that’s where the racism exists—and you have to understand that we were racist. I mean, we were raised in racism. It was indoctrinated in us. We were raised racist, but we were becoming antiracist because we began to see what was happening during the Civil Rights Movement. And we began to learn about stuff like Blair Mountain and about the Highlander Center in Tennessee and Miles Horton and the Bradens and those folks. And these were things we were curious about. But yet we still had that identity of a southern person. A hillbilly. You know? We didn’t use it in a condescending way. The term hillbilly was derogatory for some, but it was a part of our identity. We challenged those people who tried to use it in a bad way.
Amy Sonnie: I want to be clear that our book is not making an argument for reclaiming white nationalism. The hillbilly nationalism we are talking about in the book differs in every way from what we understand as “white nationalism” now.
But why use the term “nationalism” at all? We have to look back at the historical conditions in order to understand the way activists used the term. There was this idea of “free Appalachia,” of liberating the people of Appalachia. In this setting, a kind of “Appalachian nationalism” made sense. And you have to look at the bigger historical context, too. This is a time of anticolonial struggles around the globe and uprisings. That lent tremendous inspiration to radicals in the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, what was called the American Indian Movement at the time. Even though the conditions were different, these movements were in dialogue with anticolonial movements in other countries. So in this context, you had economically oppressed blocs of poor white folks in places like Appalachia who thought about their struggle for liberation in similar terms. This was a radical left politics.
Eric Kerl: Hopefully people have seen the documentary on YouTube, American Revolution 2 where the “real Robert Lee” [the Black Panther activist Bobby Lee] is speaking to a group of folks here in Uptown. Hy, could you tell us a little bit about how the Patriots got started and how you met folks like Bobby Lee?
Hy Thurman: As I said, I first got politicized because my older brother had gotten involved with JOIN. Some of the guys from street gangs like the Peacemakers had gotten involved too.
Eventually, JOIN realized there’s other things in the community that needs to be done besides employment. We started developing different types of programs and tenant unions and police brutality patrols. One of them was to get people to march together against police brutality, which we did—we marched on the police station. And these were white people marching against police brutality because of the brutal murderous conditions that existed in our neighborhood. That brought a lot of people in the community together.
From there, they said well, let’s call ourselves the Goodfellows, which then again aligned somewhat with the mafia there. They called themselves that for a while. We got involved into different programs in the community with tenant unions and managed to get a building we could run. After the police march, the joint office and other offices in the community and pastors in the community that were helping us got raided and arrested. The whole reason for the police march is because the police murdered one of our members. No cops were ever arrested or charged with anything. They just did whatever they wanted to do.
So from there, we decided that we were not going to put up with it any more. For one thing: where would we go? There wasn’t anywhere for us to go. I didn’t want to go to Detroit or Cincinnati or Cleveland. Those conditions were just as bad as Uptown. And I couldn’t go back home. Left there for a reason. So some of us decided, “Hey, let’s just fight it. . . . Let’s see what we can do. What do we have to lose, you know?”
We realized we’re going to have to fight to get what we want, and we are going to have to take it and take the fight to the authorities. And so we started organizing in the community. When I came to Chicago I was seventeen. I was eighteen when I got involved in stuff. And there were four or five of us who were in the community who started getting involved and supporting other community actions. You have to understand that most of us never had a childhood. We went right into working and surviving. We didn’t have a childhood like most of the other people had. It was only natural for us to know what we knew from the street, and that’s to go in and start working together.
One thing we did was start to look at other organizations and even Third World countries. Most of us couldn’t read. When I first came to Chicago I was reading on a third-grade level. So we learned from talking. A lot of us learned from watching the TV and through the underground newspapers and that kind of stuff. We would have to somewhat be self-educated.
So we started defining what we wanted to be, and we decided that the only solution is revolution. What we wanted to do was overthrow the United States government. We were revolutionaries. We were looking at groups like the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords and others, and they were looking at us at the same time. We didn’t know that. We met the Black Panther organizer Bobby Lee at a community meeting south of us and started calling ourselves the Young Patriots. We said we are going to fight for our people, but we are not going to fight for capitalism. We will fight for more socialism than anything else. We did get to know a little bit about socialism and Marxism. The group of us decided we would get together and just start talking about that and try to learn from each other.
If you watch the documentary American Revolution 2, you can actually see what some of our meetings were like. The meeting got filmed because Mike Gray and some of the others who made that documentary heard these crazy hillbillies and Black people were going to get together at a meeting on the North Side of Chicago. If you know about Chicago in the ’60s, Black people usually didn’t come up to the North Side. Chicago is extremely segregated.
At one point, Bobby Lee came to Uptown and stayed with us for a couple of weeks. Then he went back to [Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman] Fred Hampton and said, “I haven’t told you this, but I have been visiting these crazy hillbillies on the North Side of Chicago, and they are talking revolution and antiracism and all this stuff.” So Fred said, “Well, this is the kind of people that we need for the revolution. Even though they are from the South, they are antiracist.” He knew a little about what we had been doing.
If you watch the meeting in the film American Revolution 2 you will see a community meeting where a lot of southerners came out and agreed with what Bobby Lee was saying. That was one of the first steps for us in joining the Rainbow Coalition. Since that point, we started working together and adopted the program of the Black Panthers and wrote our own program and started working together in the Rainbow Coalition with the Young Lords.
Eric Kerl: The Young Patriots Organization, as folks have mentioned, isn’t the original organization discussed in the book. There’re a whole number of other organizations in there. I wanted to turn to some of those groups: Rising Up Angry, here in Chicago is a critical piece of that history. James, can you talk about some of the work of Rising Up Angry and White Lightning? What connected their work? And could you also highlight some of their differences? I also want to make sure we are able to touch on Rising Up Angry’s work around reproductive justice and collaborations with the Jane collective as well.
James Tracy: Rising Up Angry was a group that went citywide to build a base among white youth, but mostly the greaser youth, all up and down Chicago. They had a wonderful working-class culture. You know, using baseball games, rock concerts and the like. They organized and reached people where they were at.
One of my favorite stories about them is where a white man who they were working with wanted guns and bats to go beat up Black kids he had a conflict with. But Rising Up Angry refused to give him weapons. In fact, they were able to prevent a gang war just by alerting Black youth leaders about what was going on. Then they went and talked directly to white gangs and defused the situation. They had enough credibility to pull it off. It was one of those horrible moments in Chicago history that never actually happened because they handled it. That was from building a base.
They also worked with the Jane Collective and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU) applying a lot of “serve the people” models through a feminist lens. And even their legal clinics taught people how to get divorces, which is a pretty feminist act for people who started organizing greasers and whatnot.
We should do an entire webinar just on White Lightning, a group of former and currently active drug users who became radicalized and started working with the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords and eventually took part in the Lincoln Hospital takeover. They fought some of the very, very first battles in the War on Drugs, and they were inspired by the work of Michael Tabore from the Panthers who wrote, Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide. You see within their work a lot of kernels articulated through harm reduction, and you also see a kind of anticolonial analysis of the drug problem. They also worked on the housing issue and the landlord arsons going on in the Bronx. If people want to learn more about White Lightning, almost all of their newspapers are now up on the Freedom Archives, which is pretty great.
Eric Kerl: I’ve got a couple of final questions from the audience I’d like to put to panelists. Here they are: What strategies do you see practiced today by young white folks that feel like good strides toward working-class solidarity? What are ways we can support working-class solidarity between Black and white folks? And what are some lessons that the white left can learn from mistakes of the past?
Amy Sonnie: I am not going to pretend I have the answers, but I will bring forward a few lessons. We did a few things differently in the updated version of the book. One is a new epilogue. I would encourage folks to read that because we explore some of the lessons there. One was: Use the internet, but don’t stop there. I mean, the internet is a tool, but it is not the only space or venue to organize. Folks need to connect with each other in real life and do the long-term organizing and relationship and trust building. That is at the heart of what made many of these alliances possible.
The Panthers and the Lords, particularly Bobby Lee, came to the Patriots because they were doing the work and organizing, already active and engaged, doing political education, using theater and music and song to engage their communities. They didn’t have all the answers, of course. But they were doing the work. And because they were doing the work, improbable alliances became possible. That just can’t be petitions online and Instagram posts or whatever it is, or performative demonstrations of allyship.
Hy Thurman: What we are doing now, I think, will answer a lot of those questions. I am in the process of working with the second Rainbow Coalition that is right now being organized. And I think you will hear some announcements on that soon because the groups that are involved have deliberately come to the elders of the first Rainbow Coalition to talk about how to move forward. One of the areas we had talked to them about was doing a statement of unity and how all these groups are going to work together.
I am pretty sure you are going to hear a lot about what we are doing. We’re following the same point programs as the original Patriots and Black Panther Party and Young Lords. That’s how we are working together.
One of the things Bobby Lee taught me was that if you don’t know where to organize, you go to your front door then you go look out your back door, and then your left window and then your right window and then you pick a direction. Chances are somebody down there needs some help.
James Tracy: It is really hard to follow that. Every time I hear you say that in the film or in person it chokes me up a bit. But I will say that I think as far as building multiracial unity, the workplace is a really important arena. Community organizing is incredibly important, too. But as workplaces are more and more integrated, that’s going to be an incredibly important area of struggle.
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