REVOLUTIONARY HILLBILLY: AN INTERVIEW WITH HY THURMAN OF THE YOUNG PATRIOTS ORGANIZATION
From Melville House Books:
Hy Thurman was one of the early members of the Young Patriots Organization, a group of Southerners who organized in the Uptown (Hillbilly Harlem) neighborhood of Chicago. The YPO worked hand in hand with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Puerto Rican Young Lords Organization in the original Rainbow Coalition. While short-lived, the Rainbow Coalition (no relation to theJessie Jackson inspired project with the same name) provided an example of how the politics of self-determination can co-exist with the politics of intercommunal solidarity.
For various reasons, Amy Sonnie and I were not able to interview Thurman for Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. In this long overdue interview, he adds a lot to the historical record of the YPO, especially their controversial use of the Confederate Flag. Today, Thurman is working on his own memoirs, as well as re-organizing the YPO for a new generation.
JT: How did you come to be a part of the Young Patriots Organization?
HT: I became involved in the Young Patriots was contact with the Good Fellows. My brother, Tex was a leader in the Peace Makers a street gang that morphed into the Good Fellows and eventually became the Young Patriots and then became a part of the original Rainbow Coalition.
We organized the Young Patriots in 1968 in Chicago`s Uptown neighborhood to help alleviate the oppressive conditions that residents faced on a daily basis and to give the poor a voice to fight Mayor Richard J. Daley`s oppressive machine of class hatred and racism. The Uptown community was made up of mostly poor southern white migrants who began migrating north soon after World II to find jobs and to escape from the clinches of poverty only to enter another monstrous conditions that were in several ways worst that what had been experienced in the South. Estimates of southern residents over a ten year span was over 70,000 southerners entered the gates of Uptown. At any given time as many as 40,000 tried to put down roots to scrap out a living.
JT: It might surprise some readers that police brutality was so prevalent in a white neighborhood.
HT: Daley would use the police as his personal gang and they were allowed to use their own interpretation of the law while performing their jobs as police officers. Also it seemed that any cop that was determined to have behaviors of a psychopath or couldn`t fit in the city’s middle class neighborhoods were assigned to Uptown, south and west side and poor Latino or other poor neighborhoods in Chicago. They would not give it a second thought to shoot, torture or beat you. Women and young girls were not exempt from their perverted behavior either.
In the book Uptown: Poor Whites in Chicago by Todd Gitlin and Nancy Hollander, a woman tells the story to entering the community office of Jobs or Income Now [JOIN] and reporting that she had just been raped by the cops. Myself and three other Good Fellows including a woman were stopped by a three man Chicago police car and was ordered out of our car. After checking our identification and not searching the car the driver Bobby McGinnis was ordered to sit in the back seat of the patrol car while the rest of us were ordered to stand out in the cold where we could be watched. The cops said that they found a bag of illegal pills in our car. They told Bobby that they were going to “fuck the girl” or we were going to jail for possession of illegal drugs and that the car would be impounded as evidence. We made the decision that we were going to try to out run the cops and go to an area of Uptown where other Good Fellows were known to hang out and prepare for a confrontation. This time we were successful. The cops passed us as we entered a local hangout restaurant with other neighborhood guys and gals.
These and other incidents with the fascist cops lead to the Peace Makers, JOIN and other groups and individuals organizing a march on the Summerdale Police station against brutality and murder. Two days after the march, a brother of a Peace Maker was murdered by the cops and the JOIN office was raided and drugs were planted which lead to the arrest of two Students for a Democratic Society students. This was when the Peace Makers changed their name to the Good Fellows and started serving the community.
JT: So Chicago’s power structure wasn’t too thrilled about receiving the white section of the Southern Diaspora?
HT: I just want to mention just one more demoralizing incident that I encountered and to point out how the southerners were view by the Chicago police. I was seventeen years old and had only been in Chicago two weeks when a two man Chicago police car stopped me on Sunnyside Avenue in Uptown. I was alone and walking down the street when they pulled over, handcuffed me and put me in the back of the car. One cop said that there had been a lot of burglaries in the area and asked me if I knew anything about it and if I owned any burglary tools. After denying any knowledge of the local burglaries and not owning any tools they heard my very deep southern accent. One cop said, “not another stupid fucking hillbilly. Why don`t you just go back south and fuck your mother, sisters, cousins or your dogs or whatever you people fuck down there and stay out of Chicago. Now get the fuck out of my car. If I see you again I will not be as polite.” One uncuffed me face down on the ground with his knees in my back while the other stood with one foot on the side of my face . These are just two examples of police behavior. Details have been written of other treacherous acts. Murder, extortion, robbery, and the countless acts of violent beating was an everyday occurrence. Several of the Peacemakers and Good Fellows were literally murdered by the Chicago cops.
Unemployment, slum living conditions, housing discrimination, urban renewal, class hatred, racism, lack of health care, malnutrition, high infant mortality rates, disease and poverty all had their grasp on all poor people in Uptown. It was a cesspool of misery for many. To be victimized further in early 1960`s— a series of articles appeared in the Chicago Tribune demoralizing and demonizing the southern white migrants. They were exemplified as being a” swarm of locust” descending on the city with their violent tempers, ignorance, lack of education and incestuous behavior and would fight at a drop of a hat. This did not help the employment opportunities of the southern migrant to gain meaning employment. It created the condition for class hatred.
JT: Doesn’t this goes against the common perception that things were pretty good for all white working-class people in the post World War II labor order?
HT: According to a book written by Roger Guy titled From Diversity to Unity, the unemployment rate in Uptown in the late 1960`s was 47%. And the southern migrant population exceeded the number of stable jobs in Chicago. Those that could get work usually worked for Day Labor agencies. Day Labor agencies were private agencies that worked similar to temp agencies the difference being that Day Labor agencies did not offer the opportunity for full time employment and was paying below the Minimum Wage. I worked day labor a few times. I was always assigned to the most menial jobs. Sweeping floors and jobs that were at a high risk of injury. Back breaking jobs such as loading and unloading cargo from trucks were usually what we were assigned to. At the evening of my second day when I returned to the day labor office, an employee of the agency asked me into his office. He said that since I was new I did not know the procedure for how they paid the laborers. He said I was responsible for paying for the transportation to and from the job site. This service was advertised as a free service to companies that were contracting the services of the day labor agency. And I was responsible for the transportation fee. Twenty percent of my earnings were going to be deducted from my earnings. He said that they were doing us a favor by choosing us to work and we should be grateful. He said that this agreement was how an individual was chosen to work each day. There was no one for me to complain to so I decided to discontinue my association with them and seek other means of earning a living. He still took 20% of my earnings for the two days worked.
This kept many in perpetual poverty. Many were driven to selling blood. In Uptown and many poor neighborhoods blood banks or stores were located very near the day labor agencies. When individuals and families could not find employment or would need to supplement their employment or welfare they would have no other choice but to sell their blood, turn to crime, prostitution, or other illegal means. Still for those who had arrived from the South with disease such as black lung, brown lung, tuberculosis and lead poisoning and any number of physical illnesses this was not an option and they were to sick to work and had to rely on the government for assistance which wasn`t much. I had to swallow my pride several times and resort to selling my blood to survive.
JT: The residents of Uptown also had another problem to deal with, the Urban Renewal Projects which destroyed Black and Brown neighborhoods as well
HT: Housing discrimination and Urban renewal all played a major role in me getting involved in the Young Patriots. Parts of Uptown was a slum and that part was where the poor were forced to live under the oppressive powers of absentee landlords who collected rent but refused to make any improvements to their properties. Lead base paint contributed to many getting lead poisoning or contributed to the condition of people who had ben exposed to lead poisoning in the south due to strip mining introducing it to their drinking water and streams. Children were forced to use streets littered with glass and other debris. Abandoned cars and garbage littered the streets and the city services ignored the area while in the more prosperous areas were pristine and kept clean. According to statistics complied by The Southern Cultural Exchange Center Uptown had the highest infant mortality rate of any neighborhood in Chicago. Health services were non existent and hospitals refused service to those without insurance.
In addition to police brutality Urban Renewal was a major factor for my involvement to organize in Uptown. Uptown was designated as a renewal area and a city college was to be built in the area where the majority of the southern whites lived. The city had no plans to relocate any of the residents. Mayor Daley hand picked the committee made up of landowners and business owners to oversee all urban renewal plans and did not include any poor residents. 38 poor men, women, children and the physically handicapped were murdered by being burned to death when slum landlords hired people to set fire to the buildings to force residents out. No charges or prosecutions were brought against anyone. The report further states that the City College Chancellor Oscar Chabot convinced three of his friends to purchase land and buildings in the designated site so they could burn the buildings or demolish them to collect insurance and then sale the land to the City of Chicago for a sizable profit.
JT: Was there much resistance to this, or did people just move?
HT: By joining with the Uptown Area Planning Coalition we were able to propose an alternative to the proposed city college site. Chuck Geary a migrant from Kentucky lead the fight with our backing. We called the project the Hank Williams Village which was a replica of a southern town with it`s own services, police, and government. Buildings that were uninhabitable would be replaced by new structures and those that could be saved would be renewed and eventually be offered for poor residents to purchase. A hotel would be built for new arrivals and aid and employment services would be provided until they could become independent and find their own housing. After sever committee take overs by the Young Patriots they agreed to accept the proposal only if we could get funding. At securing financial backing to build the village and identifying an alternate site for the college. They reneged on their offer and the city council approved the Cities request to build the college.
Between 1966 and the later months of 1968 was a hellish environment on the Uptown streets. many of the original Peace Makers and Good Fellows were either forced to leave Chicago by the cops, killed or drafted into the Vietnam war. There were only a few Good Fellows left. Bobby McGinnis, June Bug Boykin and I assumed the leadership positions and began recruiting other members. We also decided to change the name to the Young Patriots because we felt that Patriots protected and fought for their people. Due to our continuous growing knowledge of socialism we wanted a name that would be recognized and easily explained and distance from the Good Fellow name that was associated with crime. Although we still liked being associated with the bad ass part that was associated with the Good Fellows as being a group to not fuck with.
During 1968 and well into 1966 we began to intensify our work in Uptown. We became more vocal and militant in our approach for opposing the capitalist and fascist programs of the Daley administration. We demanded a voice and the self determination of Uptown. We joined with other organizations to fight the corrupt system that had controlled our everyday lives. We demanded adequate health care, decent housing, ending police brutality and racism and class hatred and demanded to be respected and heard. We demanded a seat on the every committee that determined our fate. We took over urban renewal planning meetings, We made our voice heard and the sight of the Young Patriots arriving at meetings put fear in many of Daley`s appointees. We dressed in leather jackets, wore a Confederate Flag with free Huey buttons, Black Panther buttons and a button the represented every color of every race. We adopted the Chicago Police slogan of “We serve and Protect” because they were incapable of doing either for the poor. We were feared but we were also hated by the cops and Daley administration. What we didn`t was that the Black Panthers and the Young Lords were keeping a close eye on us.
JT: Your organizing led to an alliance with the Panthers and Lords, the Original Rainbow Coalition
On April 4,1969, which was also the first anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton, Bobby Rush and Bobby Lee of the Illinois Black Panther Party invited the Young Patriots to join with them and the Young Lords – a former Puerto Rican street gang to form the original Rainbow Coalition of revolutionary solidarity. The Black Panthers were aware of our commitment to the movement of racial equality due to the Good Fellows and other poor organizations participating in the Eldridge Clever-Peggy Terry Presidential Campaign in 1966.
Peggy Terry a poor white woman and organizer living in Uptown was chosen to run as Eldridge Cleaver`s Vice Presidential partner on the Peace and Freedom Campaign ticket running against Alabama`s Governor due to his racist and white supremacist beliefs. The campaign also wanted to show that poor blacks and whites could unite in solidarity. It was agreed by the three groups that neither organization would control the coalition. Each organization would control their community and fight for self-determination. The three would make a statement that in the most segregated city in the United State that it was possible for all races to work together. We would come together in solidarity to support each others programs and challenge the Daley Administration, Unite in demonstrations and stand side by side to defeat racism and fascism. We agreed to serve with their security detail by standing shoulder to shoulder at many functions.
JT: As a consequence of your work in the Original Rainbow Coalition, you were harassed for many years by the government. Why did the ORC scare the powers that be so badly?
HT: I think a lot of the fear was generated by how the federal and local governments view the Black Panthers and us stepping out of our assigned roles in society. The day after we cemented our solidarity of revolutionary brotherhood the FBI and their illegal COINTELPRO began surveillance of the Young Patriots. They were already aware of us because Chicago Police departments Red Squad had been gathering information on the Good Fellows and the Young Patriots for years. They were watching us due in a large part because of Mayor Daley`s fear that the Rainbow Coalition showed real promises to diminishing his power.
FBI documents that had been sealed after the Chicago Police and the FBI clearly states that the Black Panthers were the number one threat to national security to the FBI and that the BPP had recruited other like minded organizations. The memo from the FBI in Chicago to J. Edgar Hoover identifies the two dangerous organizations as The Young Lords and The Young Patriots. Hoover stated in a separate memo the there was a rising messiah in Chicago that had t be eliminated. Everyone in the coalition believed that to be Fred Hampton.
I believe that if the Original Rainbow Coalition Continued that if would have been a major force in Chicago by uniting thousands of poor people who hat usually fought against or avoided each other a model to organize and gain power in Chicago and the rest of the country. Daley and hoover was not about to let that happen. College students protesting were easily obtained. But poor communities uniting, especially poor whites uniting with other racial and minority groups preaching revolutionary change and socialism was a major threat. The coalition either had to be controlled or destroyed. I strongly believe that the Rainbow model can be used today if it is effectively organized.
JT: What were you guys thinking when choosing the confederate flag as a symbol? In Light of last year’s Confederate Flag controversies, would you ever recommend trying to “reclaim it” in the spirit of multiracial rebellion?
HT: In the 1960s in Uptown and in the south the Confederate “Rebel” flag was found in most bars, on bumper stickers, clothing etc. and other locations. It was present so much it was almost invisible. Many Southerners didn`t view it as a symbol of racism associated with slavery but a symbol of the “War of Northern Aggression.” Southerners then as well as now associates the flag with being a rebel. Rebel not in the sense of being a Confederate soldier but more of being a bad ass, to rebel against authority.
We wanted to talk to poor whites about living conditions in Uptown and try to get them involved in the Young Patriots to improve their living conditions. Many approaches were made to get a dialogue started country music, police brutality, sex, etc. But the universal symbols that all could relate to were the American Flag and the Confederate Flag. Knowing that the American Flag would not solicit much conversation the idea turned to the Rebel flag. We knew that there were only a few blacks living in Uptown and we would respect them by trying to cover the flag when we saw them. A few blacks that were active in Uptown believed if that was what it took to reach whites and knowing that we were not using it as a racist symbol agreed that it was a good way to use it.
When we would wear the Rebel flag we would place a free Huey button, Black Panther button and a rainbow button surrounding the flag. Some had the flag embroidered on the back of their vests and some on berets. It did invoke much conversation. Not so much as the flag as the other buttons. We would explain the Young Patriots goals and that all poor people have the same poverty and the poor Blacks ,Latinos, American Indians and Asians are all being exploited and kept in poverty by the capitalist system. Once we broke the ice we were able to identify their needs and get them help. Many were surprised to hear that the Black Panther Party played a major role in getting medical personnel and equipment for the Young Patriot health Clinic and provided food for kids before they went to school.
We stood shoulder to shoulder with the Panthers security detail wearing our flag. With the confederate flag being surrounded by the Free Huey, Black Panther and Coalition we were making a statement to Mayor Daley to “FUCK YOU” you are not going to keep us separated any longer and that his plan of racism and repression had failed.
As we grew politically and respected the Black Panthers and the Young Lords we determined that there was no place in the movement or the world for the Confederate flag. It symbolizes a period of time when our black brothers and sisters were mere property to sold or destroyed at the white man`s convenience. And that the Confederate flag was created to serve as a symbol of plantation owners to perpetuate slavocracy. I would not recommend it`s use by any group or anyone or any purpose and believe that it should be destroyed as a tribute to those who suffered pain and anguish in a great dark period of our history.
JT: You are currently doing a lot of work rebooting the Young Patriots Organization. Why do you think this is needed?
HT: I believe that the Young Patriots are needed to offer whites a model that they can relate to. If you look around the country today and see how many whites should be involved in working toward making better life for themselves you will see just a small percentage that are very active. Sure, you see more middle class whites involved in activist activities than poor whites because they have the luxury of free time and financial resources. But even they are dwindling under the capitalist system that is destroying them and moving them into poverty. I would like to say that there is a working class in this country but even if there were they can`t live of the wages they earn. Each year their financial conditions sink lower and lower. Some middle class stands in the same line at food banks with the poor class. But look toward the poor whites who are trying to scrap out a living earning below minimum wage. Most have to work two or three jobs and then the ends don`t meet. Many give up hope of making changes because they have no model that they can identify with.
The Young Patriots I believe can offer a model to the white people by proving to them that they need to fight to make changes that positively affect their lives. Not just intellectual rhetoric but a model that worked in the past. Our seven-point programeffects every area of their lives.
The Young Patriots Organization exists to find, support, inspire, offer resources including survival programs and train residents of poor and working class communities , regardless of race, age, sexual preference, sex to become leaders in the decision making policies that affect their daily lives by building upon the ground work laid by the Original Rainbow Coalition and The original Young Patriot Organization.
JT: There has been considerable amounts of writing from the left arguing that white working-class people will never play a sizable role in social justice struggles. Do these make it harder for you to organize.
HT: Well, first of all I think that if people on the left have time to sit around and write about how the working class will never be a sizable representation in the social injustice struggles I take that as verbal masturbation. Either they don`t know how to get out and organize or they find it more comfortable sitting on their ass and discouraging those who are struggling to make changes. Not that I am the best organizer ever but I know that it is very difficult to see peoples struggles from a class room. Ordinary people would not know what they were talking about anyway. Those who are doing the day to day organizing leave them to their intellectual groups to figure out what role they have in the struggle.
JT: What current struggles and organizing campaign do you find inspiring.?
HT: Locally, I admire my brothers and sisters in Chicago who are fighting many of the same battles that the Original Rainbow Coalition fought fifty years ago. Police brutality, Gentrification, homelessness, racism, economic inequality, prison reform and corruption. These are my heroes and I am honored to know them.
James Tracy is a long-time social justice organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of the San Francisco Community Land Trust and has been James Tracy active in the Eviction Defense Network and the Coalition On Homelessness, SF. He has edited two activist handbooks for Manic D Press: The Civil Disobedience Handbook and The Military Draft Handbook. His articles have appeared in Left Turn, Race Poverty and the Environment, and Contemporary Justice Review.