Hillbilly Revolutionaries: White Rebellion Against Injustice & Racism in 1960s Chicago

A White Working Class Rebellion in the Midwest—Years Before Trump 1

 

Working-class whites partnered with the Black Panthers. (All images from the book Uptown: The Poor Whites of Chicago by Nancy Hollander and Todd Gitlin)

Billy Keniston is a writer and a historian. Much of his  work has been focused on the legacies of slavery and racialism, and attempts to undermine white supremacy. His first book (published in 2007) A Problem of Memory: Stories to End the Racial Nightmare dealt with all of these themes by focusing on contemporary struggles in a black high school in New Orleans.

More recently, his work is focused on white people’s role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. This includes a biography of a white anti-apartheid activist, entitled Choosing to be Free: A Life Story of Rick Turner. He is currently working towards a PhD in history at the University of Illinois. ” I am happy to be connected to autonomous spaces for creativity and radical thinking such as the Blue Mountain Center,” he says. 

A White Rebellion in the Midwest—Years Before Trump

Part I

I was born in the aftermath of a great upheaval in this country.

For reasons both right and wrong, tens of thousands of young people in the generation that came before me genuinely believed that revolutionary transformation was not only necessary, but possible. The moral clarity and political vision of the black movement was the fundamental engine that informed and inspired white radicals, as discontent inside the black community quickly moved from demands to be included within American democracy to a rejection of the entire “white power structure.”

For all their naiveté, strategic errors and unfounded bravado, these young people’s opposition was nonetheless powerful enough that the preservation of American dominance—both imperially and domestically—was by no means a given. It was, it should be remembered, a time when dominant powers were being defeated throughout the world; a fact that both the United States government and their radical opposition were keenly, and constantly, aware of.

I was born in the eerie, triumphant calm created by “neutralizing” the upheaval. What exactly was meant by the term “neutralization”? Inspired by the combination of Napalm bombs and “winning the hearts and minds” that gave substance to the notion of “counterinsurgency” overseas, the FBI adapted these methods to deal with what they understood to be the domestic threat. What came to be known as the ‘Counter-Intelligence Program’ of the FBI in the 1960s and 1970s had its roots in policies of neutralizing dissent that began with the Red Scare fifty years earlier— policies which have carried on into today, re-cast as the “war on terror.”

Neutralization was, as both sides called it, ‘the war at home’: maniacal cops running through crowds and beating people senseless, radical leaders murdered in their sleep, dramatic court battles and long prison sentences. But often neutralization was done in far more subtle and sinister ways. Revolutionary organizations were full of police informers, and were subject to all variety of surveillance; thousands of pages of personal information about the radicals were kept on file by the FBI. False organizations were created and outright lies were spread by the FBI in order to stir up divisions. As organizations collapsed under the strain of repression, infiltration, in-fighting, and incestuous sexual relations, many of the radicals—those who survived and stayed out of jail—were absorbed into the academy, non-profit organizations, liberal and Marxist parties.

When the dust had settled, the white power structure—in all of its most significant components—survived the upheaval. We are now living through a prolonged period of deep repression.

A White Rebellion in the Midwest—Years Before Trump 2

Part II

I want to be able to talk about trauma.

In specific, I want to begin to understand the costs of a lifetime spent resisting the status quo—especially in the United States.

What exactly does it mean to be neutralized? What does it mean to be a human being that is one of the targets of a government program specifically designed to silence your initiatives, your values, your very capacity to exist as an autonomous political actor? How does a person make sense of themselves and their life’s work in the aftermath of this extended campaign of erasure?

Out of all of the thousands of stories of radical upheaval and repression of the 1960s and 70s in America, I want to focus on one in particular. I want to tell a story that has been told to me many times over the last twenty years, going back to my days of frustration and alienation as a high school student in the Jersey suburbs. You see, my uncle, my mother’s brother, was one of these thousands of young Americans in the 1960s that decided to dedicate his life to a revolutionary overthrow of the United States government. In telling his story, as historians are well aware, it will be possible to grapple with many of the larger questions that shaped those years of upheaval. And, in telling his story, it will also allow an opening into grappling with the human cost of the concerted campaign of neutralization that was brought to bear on the radical left in this country.

I want to tell one story, twice – the first time as parable, the second time as history.

A White Working-Class Rebellion—Years Before Trump

 

The story as parable goes something like this

My uncle, Andy, was born in 1947, in the newly established northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. His parents had settled there because his father was a linguist and a cartographer for the newly established National Security Administration. My grandfather was both an alcoholic and a diabetic, a combination that created a violent and unloving atmosphere at home. During my uncle’s teenage years, the schools he went to began to be racially integrated. While the adults in the white community remained hostile, and while the students fought one another, nonetheless, says Andy, they learned to get along relatively quickly. Disgusted by the racism, abuse and sterility of his upbringing, by the time Andy enrolled at Antioch college, he had begun looking for avenues to participate in social justice struggles.

Coming of age in 1965, my uncle just barely missed a clear opening to be a participant in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1966, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee decided to abandon its previous politics of racial integration and to build an all-black organization. Sympathetic white people were told to find ways to confront racism within their own communities. My uncle was deeply impacted by this decision, and felt generally disoriented and unclear about his own role in the struggle.

He spent a summer in Hazard, Kentucky learning organizing in a worn-down coal mining community. Then, in 1967, a man named Mike James came to campus to recruit young people to a project of the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) that was attempting to build an ‘inter-racial coalition of the poor.’ Mike James in Andy’s memory, had style and charisma; he was a smooth talker. Mike dressed and talked like a greaser, like a kid in the poor white neighborhood in Chicago that he was living in, even though he had grown up in middle-class Connecticut. Anxious to get involved in something more dynamic and real than campus politics, Andy dropped out of school, and he and his wife, Mary Ellen, made their way to Chicago.

When Andy and Mary Ellen arrived in the Uptown neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, they went to the address that Mike James had given them. The young southern white man that answered the door said, “If you’re here looking for the students, they’re all gone. They were pretty nice while they were here, they used to buy us beers sometimes, but they’re gone.” Having gotten that far, and with nowhere else to go, the young couple asked if they could stay, all the same. Andy and Mary Ellen were not only welcomed to stay, but within a few months time, they were fully integrated members of an organization called the Young Patriots. (To learn more about the neighborhood, see Nancy Hollander and Todd Gitlin’s book Uptown: The Poor Whites of Chicago.)

The Young Patriots were a group of young people (mostly guys, all under 21) fed up with the police, and with the terrible conditions of poverty in their community. Almost all of them had migrated to Chicago from Appalachia, and many of them had once been in gangs, but had been influenced by revolutionary politics, and were motivated by a desire to defend and to control their community. Once, while going door to door talking about the Young Patriots, my uncle was told by an old white man, “if you want to organize people in this community, you have to hate niggers.” In spite of this climate, the Black Panther Party reached out to the Patriots and offered an alliance.

Fred Hampton, Bobby Lee and others in the Black Panther Party steered the Patriots towards concrete action, such as setting up a free health clinic, and a breakfast for children program. It was a heady time, full of flamboyant attitudes and over-confident posturing. The Black Panthers had a ten point program; the Young Patriots, eleven. The Panthers had a uniform of black leather jackets and black berets. The Young Patriots went for denim jackets, and there was broad agreement between the hillbillies and ex-students to put the rebel flag on the jackets, sewn just above the heart, with the slogan, “we’re all slaves under the man,” underneath the flag. In their different uniforms, the Panthers and the Patriots would do fundraising by going to cocktail parties at the homes of wealthy white liberals, who would give handsome donations in exchange for the peculiar theater of white and black revolutionaries filling their living rooms. Despite the quirky theatrics, my uncle insisted that the alliance was genuine, freely entered into, and mutually beneficial to both sides. Further, he described the Panthers as generous, patient, and helping to provide a firm political foundation for the Young Patriots.

While my uncle has nothing but praise for Fred Hampton, the climax of his parable spins around the arrival of a Black Panther in Uptown, claiming to speak on behalf of the national organization. This man named “Arthur” gave a presentation to the Young Patriots, haranguing them for disappointing the leadership of the Panther Party, for having the wrong political line. The Young Patriots listened to this rant, and then told him to step outside for a moment, so they could talk amongst themselves. Once alone, they unanimously agreed, “he’s a fucking cop.” They asked him back into the room, and then told him that he had to leave the neighborhood, and that he was never welcome again. He, says my uncle, went on to live in Baltimore and also out in Oregon, and in both places people ended up getting sent to jail after his arrival.

The incident with Arthur  combined with other troubling moments to make my uncle decide that he desperately needed to get out of Uptown. Of course the most devastating moment came on December 4th, 1969, when Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep by the police, having been sold out by an FBI informant within the Panther Party. Hampton’s death absolutely rocked my uncle and his wife. They lay on the bed together for nearly an hour, listening in silence as the news broadcast repeated the story again and again. They had to let it sink in, to accept that it was real.

In the months following the assassination, the climate of repression intensified. The Chicago Police raided a meeting of the Young Patriots, which hadn’t been publicly advertised, which was being held in someone’s home. Patriot members were increasingly harassed and beaten by cops. Andy and Mary Ellen decided they had to move. When they left Chicago, they headed for an old friend in Ohio, from their Antioch days. Ironically, their first day out of Chicago corresponded with the tragic bomb explosion inside the Manhattan apartment of a group of young whites involved with the Weathermen. The next morning, the FBI arrived at the door in Ohio, hoping to learn more about the New York City explosion, since some of the dead were old friends from Antioch.

While my uncle and his wife remained in politics, they were deeply shaken by the repression they had experienced. They spent a decade living together in Baltimore, he as a member of the Communist Labor Party, and she as an oral historian and community organizer. Their marriage was dragged down by my uncle’s deepening alcoholism and rage (his father’s legacy) and Mary Ellen eventually divorced him, moved out of state, and changed her name. She became a therapist, focused on issues of domestic violence, anger management, and mediation. While my uncle  eventually sobered up and abandoned Stalinism, he never let go of his fondness for the years spent as a Young Patriot, nor his bitterness about the forces that destroyed the organization.

A White Rebellion in the Midwest—Years Before Trump 3

The  Story as History

I want to be able to talk about trauma.  

In specific, I want to understand the impact of repression on our capacity to reconstruct and to narrate subversive histories.

How is the story of the Young Patriots told, beyond the parable my uncle has shared with me over the years?

The story of the Young Patriots made its first in-depth appearance in the historical record with the 2011 publication of the book Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power, which was written by two white anti-racists, Amy Sonnie and James Tracy. The book is the product of a decade of research, spurred on, first and foremost, by a desire to find “answers to today’s challenges in movements of the past.”(1 ) As such, Hillbilly Nationalists is an explicitly activist book, with a clear political agenda. The authors hope to provide white radicals with an anti-racist legacy(2) of white people organizing within working class communities, and in coalition with people of color.

Within this narrative arc, the Young Patriots are just one of the handful of organizations studied by Sonnie and Tracy. The chapter on the Young Patriots is clearly the weakest chapter in the book. One obvious problem was the fact that there is scarcely anything written about the Patriots.(3) But the deeper issues with researching the Young Patriots had to do with repression. The Young Patriots—principally as a result of their direct working relationship with the Black Panther Party—faced higher levels of repression than some of their contemporaries. “The FBI tracked every move the Patriots made from the moment they started working with the Panthers. In one agency document, the list of informants stretches for three full pages, line after line of redacted names, addresses and phone numbers.”(4) In addition, More than one Young Patriot was murdered connected to their participation in the group. For example, “On a trip home to Georgia in 1969 [John Howard] was recognized as ‘the guy who works with niggers in Chicago.’ He was found the next day with his throat slit.”(5 ) As a result of such severe repression, many of the surviving members suffer from trauma, and so in many cases they were not able to be located (because they have intentionally chosen to be hard to find) or they were not willing to be interviewed. Some people openly wondered whether Sonnie and Tracy might be cops, and others simply felt unwilling to go back into this portion of their past.(6)

As my uncle was one of the few people to agree to be interviewed, he was met by James Tracy on three separate occasions. By the end of their interactions, and seeing the draft that Tracy had written, my uncle grew frustrated with the way that his story was being represented. Andy wrote me a letter, claiming that James Tracy, “did none of the necessary work to find out anything at all about the Young Patriots.”(7) This characterization is overly harsh, given the amount of research that was done, and given the fact that Sonnie and Tracy introduced their own book by saying, “We hope that our work here inspires others, especially those with a different take on things, to write their own stories.”(8)

A White Rebellion in the Midwest—Years Before Trump 1

Fortunately, since Hillbilly Nationalists came out, there has been an increased interest in the history of the Young Patriots, including the re-emergence of a number of members of the organization that had been “laying low” for years. Hy Thurman, a white man from Tennessee that had moved up to Chicago in 1967, and who was one of the founding members of the Young Patriots, recently contacted my uncle and shared with him a 50 page draft of a history of the Young Patriots that he had written. I was sent Hy Thurman’s writing, and asked to help edit it so that it could eventually be published in some form.

Within the first hour of meeting Hy Thurman, he told me “I have PTSD.” He went on to explain the various layers of degradation and abuse he has endured, from the Chicago police, as a result of the COINTELPRO “counterinsurgency” campaign against the Young Patriots, and even in the Southern communities that he relocated to after he decided to leave Chicago in the 1970s. When Hy Thurman attempted to move back to his home town, he was warned by friends, after a few months, that the police department had him on a list of people to kill, and so he better leave town. At one point, his wife explicitly forbid him to get involved in any kind of social issues, not even volunteering at a soup kitchen, as she was afraid for his safety and wellbeing.

Given all of the above, Hy Thurman’s decision to step forward and tell his story is remarkable. Having had a limited education in his youth, his writing is raw – but it has a dynamic power to it. Hy Thurman describes at length both the conditions of poverty that drove white southerners to migrate north, as well as the miserable living and working conditions that they found once they arrived in Uptown, Chicago. In his narrative, “class hatred” was the central feature of life for hillbillies in Uptown. As such, he describes the Young Patriots as fundamentally an organization dedicated to self-defense and self-determination. Quite simply, Hy Thurman’s writing represents the most in-depth account of the Young Patriots by any of the participants in the organization that will likely ever be written.

(Thurman has recently revived the Young Patriots Organization, with a website telling the story of  what he calls the Original Rainbow Coalition in Chicago, including the Puerto Rican Young Lords as well as the Black Panthers and Young Patriots. He is also involved with Organize Your Own, which has organized an art exhibition inspired by civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael’s call for white civil right supporters to organize against racism and injustice  in their own communities, “Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements“.)

Agreeing to help with this project has led me down a path of researching the story for myself. I have read all of the secondary material I have been able to find, and have begun to work through the small archive of primary sources that Hy Thurman has been compiling. In addition, I have made a couple of visits to the “Red Squad” archives in Chicago, which have the internal documents of the COINTELPRO wing of the Chicago Police department. However, this material is heavily redacted, and I was made to sign a form agreeing not to publish any information I find in the documents about any particular individuals. Most importantly, I have conducted a half dozen interviews. With Hy Thurman’s help, and as my uncle’s nephew, I am having a somewhat easier time gaining access to interview these old white radicals. I would love to say that I have spoken to all of the living members of the Young Patriots, but this doesn’t seem possible. Further, I have decided that in order to understand the story of the Young Patriots, I must also research the organizing initiatives in Uptown that both preceded the Patriots and developed in the years following. So, I have interviewed members of the SDS project in Uptown (1963-1967), which was known as JOIN, as well as members of the white organization that worked in a direct alliance with the Panther Party in the 1970s, which was known as the Intercommunal Survival Committee.

Reconstructing the buried history of the Young Patriots is a project fraught with contradictions and potential dead-ends. It is important to neither lionize people such as my uncle for the courage involved in following through on a desire for revolution, nor to tear them apart for the trauma they have suffered through as a result.

As difficult as it is to recreate the atmosphere of idealism and defiance that once threatened to overthrow America, it is nonetheless vital to critically engage the nature and weaknesses of radical politics in this country.

As difficult as it is to unearth and to face the realities of the “Counter-Intelligence” years, it is nonetheless vital to critically engage the nature and weaknesses of the repressive apparatus in this country.

Notes:

1 (Sonnie, 2011) p. 10

2 My uncle objects this legacy: “The politics we were shaping were more real, more human, more mature than any vacuous appeal anti-racism might have held. The Left at that time spat on us as impressionable children; the Panthers solicited our help. The writers of today would perhaps erase us—only of course so that we might be eligible for a more saintly group. The anti-racists.” (personal letter, dated 12-27-2010) For those who assume that the only alternative to being called an “anti-racist” is to be called a “racist” my uncle’s objection might sound bizarre. However, he is raising a subtle, but profound point about the way that we choose to frame and interpret the participation of white people in revolutionary struggle, particularly in relationship to the black movement.

3 In the endnotes, Tracy and Sonnie write that “Among the only books to feature the Young Patriots are Phillip S. Foner, The Black Panthers Speak; Bruce Franklin, From the Movement Toward Revolution; and Jeffrey Ogbar, Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity.” (Sonnie 2011) p. 194

4 (Sonnie 2011) p. 89

5 (Sonnie 2011) p. 83. In a rare reference, the authors note: Barbara Joyce, “Young Patriots,” in The Movement Toward a New America ed. Mitchell

6 This I know from personal conversation with the authors, and with my uncle.

7 Personal letter, November 2014.

8 (Sonnie, 2011) p. 11

9 Thurman is now involved with Organize Your Own, which has organized an art exhibition inspired by civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael’s call for white civil right supporters to organize against racism and social injustice  in their own communities, Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements.