Facing a Blind Spot: A Review of Hillbilly Nationalists Urban Race Rebels and Black Power, Community Organizing in Radical Times
Amy Sonnie and James Tracy
Melville House, Brooklyn, NY (2011)
Reviewed by Benjamin Shepard
My mom taught in a public high school in Columbus, GA in the mid-1950’s. These were the years after the Brown v Board of Education decision, desegregating the public schools. Many of her poorer white students clung to the idea of racial superiority, despite the federal policy doing away with separate but equal schools. Without the privilege of whiteness, there was nothing to separate them from the Black population of South Georgia, many seemed to complain. Even then, mom felt the unease settling in among poor whites who felt marginalized. It was not clear what direction poor whites were moving in as the 1960’s approached. While some embraced the Highlander Folk School and solidarity with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, more could be seen gravitating toward Strom Thurmond. Yet, reaching out to them was not easy. “You could find yourself getting shot at,” recalled my father. Yet, where did this leave movements for change?
This is the question posed by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy’s Hillbilly Nationalists Urban Race Rebels and Black Power, Community Organizing in Radical Times. Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz writes the work’s forward. A child of rural Oklahoma, Ortiz found herself in San Francisco in the mid-1960’s. Among the activists, she was immediately intimidated. Holding a recruiting flyer for the Freedom Rides in her college dining hall, Ortiz found herself asking one of activists if they planned to reach out to poor whites in the South. “No,” she was told. They were not going to reach out to poorer white communities. By this time they were seen as part of the problem. Of course, Dunbar-Ortiz stayed in the movement despite her ambivalent relationship with the hip, well dressed organizers. “I am glad I persisted in my radical commitment but the truth is that the movement was, and still is, mired in class hatred.” Compounding this, many in the movement who went south for the Freedom Rides reacted to the violence of the era in a visceral manner. “They just did not like white people,” Dunbar-Ortiz recalls her mentor Ann Braden confiding. And the phenomenon was not unique to the Civil Right’s movement. “As an early leader in the women’s liberation movement, I soon found the same stifling around feminist activists as I did from the young men at the table. I realized that the absence of class consciousness was the fatal flaw of the new left” (p.xiii).
San Francisco organizer James Tracy saw the same phenomena two decades later. “I grew up in Vallejo, a town just north of San Francisco. When the shipyards closed, right-wing groups such as White Aryan Resistance showed up, trying to convince white workers that blacks and immigrants were the cause of their job loss. This was the infamous “Aryan Woodstock” media circus of 1989. I noticed that a lot of left-wing groups showed up in town — protesting and pamphleting — but few were ready to stick around for the long-term. It was a missed opportunity. It could have been an entirely different deal if there had been conscious, sustained organizing around both jobs and fighting racism. But in almost every community that the left decides to jettison, the right is more than happy to move in with easy answers.” Along the way, poor whites turned to the politics of blame, Nixon/ Reagan, nativism, the Tea Party, and a rejection of political solutions which would serve their own best interests.
Every social movement has its blind spots, whether it is gender, race, sexuality or class. All movement’s have them. For the left, class has been a big blind spot. Workers split with counter culture movements and hard hat riots ensued during the Anti War movement. It can be tricky to find one’s way out of such a conflict. It certainly has been for the left. Yet, when a movement does so, great things happen. This is the story of Amy Sonnie and James Tracy’s Hillbilly Nationalists Urban Race Rebels and Black Power, Community Organizing in Radical Times.
In the history of the Civil Rights Movement, we often hear about the Freedom Riders, Myles Horton and the Highlander Center. White activists joined black activists from the earliest days of the movement. What we do not hear as much about is the ways working class white activists joined Black Power and Nationalist movements in a struggle against racism after the Civil Rights heyday. This is the story of Hillbilly Nationalists. The work highlights the stories of young working class white activists who found common cause with Black Power and Civil Rights activists, linking a fight against racism with class based-struggle, and women’s rights. Collaborating with community groups from Chicago to the South Bronx, they organized across the country, engaging the poor, providing social services, feeding those in need, and engaging in conversations about power with marginalized white people helping them to see links between their conditions and systems of oppression. They helped cultivate a brand of feminism relevant to poor women’s lives. In Chicago, they formed Join Community Union, the Young Patriots, and Rising Up Angry; in Philadelphia’s Kensington, they formed the October 4th Organization, and Bronx, the White Lightning. Each formed a sort of family tree in support of each other’s work, as well as the larger challenges of creating a white working class consciousness. Facing white poverty head on, they supported radical social services forming community clinics, occupying hospitals, collaborating with settlements, providing needed support for their own communities. The Young Patriots challenged the middle-class left to take the realities of poverty seriously, while the White Lightning made sure that a majority of the organizers in their group were from the communities they were organizing. “These groups found that poor and working-class people rarely have the luxury of separating their experiences into single issues,” the authors conclude. “Their survival meant juggling multiple concerns at once: unsafe housing conditions, late welfare checks, the draft, domestic violence and women’s oppression, labor grievances, child care, drug addiction, factory closures, the war, racism” (p. 170). Addressing these concerns involved a distinct model of multi-issue organizing.
Amy Sonnie and James Tracy have provided us with that most relevant of movement histories. Hillbilly Nationalists not only addresses a vast gap in the social movement literature; it compliments what we do know about the nationalities aspirations of Third World Marxism as well as a labor and organizing history traced in Eblaum’s Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che. At a time when the Occupy Wall Street movement has made every effort to build solidarity with labor, collaborating on direct action zaps at Sotherby’s and filling the streets with thousands for labor rallies, a history of class based organizing is more than welcome, it is vital contribution. All too often, the left finds itself talking to itself, as the silos between ideas, movement cultures, and causes are buttressed. What Amy Sonnie and James Tracy offer is a story about organizers actually doing the hard work of reaching to the unorganized in their own midst, looking at the messy realities of the practice, and coming out the other side with a model of engagement. These are lessons today’s movements would be well advised to consider. Movements thrive when we go local, addressing the global, transnational challenges in our own communities. This is hard work, but well worth the effort. Hillbilly Nationalists is a story about just such an effort. This is essential reading.