The Young Patriots: Displaced Appalachian Whites in the Revolutionary Left
“We are the living reminder that when they threw out their white trash they didn’t burn it.”
The following is an extended excerpt from the excellent book “Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power” by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy. We recommend all NR cadres read this important history of the Young Patriots and other poor/working class white revolutionary groups of the 1960s and 70s.
Following the Panthers’ lead, the [Young Patriots] group released its own Ten-Point Program, including demands for full employment, decent housing, prisoners’ rights and an end to racism. The original Patriots platform never used the word “white,” but explained issues of police brutality, unions, the war draft and run-down schools in terms of class politics. A later version more closely echoed the Panthers’ program, though, replacing the word Black with white. “We demand power to determine the destiny of our oppressed white community. . . . We demand an immediate end to police brutality and murder of oppressed white people, and that the people of our community control the police.” In defining these oppressed white people, the Patriots asked questions of their audience: Were urbanized Appalachians a separate nation within a nation in the same way Blacks and American Indians were oppressed nationalities within the U.S.? The Patriots reasoned yes, they were. Influenced by the politics of the time, the Patriots asserted that oppressed whites, particularly poor white southerners, constituted “a people,” and in doing so carved out a rare and controversial claim to white ethnic revolutionary nationalism. As “hillbilly nationalists” they claimed white southerners’ right to determine their destiny and oppose the “pig power structure” that created slavery and the capitalist North-South divide. While the term was never thoroughly defined and it was never clear what they thought a Hillbilly Nation would look like if indeed the revolution ever arrived, it was clear they hoped to build a new brand of southern pride.
Despite the vagueness of their positions, the Patriots’ message might be one of the few times in U.S. history that anyone uttered the phrase “White Power” as a rallying cry for racial justice. The Patriots’ early leaflets highlighted the phrase on the cover to capture attention. Inside, the contents spelled out what they really meant. As the Panthers’ slogan went: “Black Power to Black People, Brown Power to Brown People, Red Power to Red People, Yellow Power to Yellow People. . . . White Power to White People.” The Patriots soon took this message a step further. “The South Will Rise Again,” read one of their early manifestos, accompanied by the caveat, “Only this time in solidarity with our oppressed brothers and sisters.” As proof of that solidarity, the Young Patriots devoted page after page of their new tabloid-size newspaper, aptly titled The Patriot, to the release of political prisoners including Panther founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The Patriot appealed to whites to abandon racism, unite with the political vanguards of other oppressed communities and “fight the real enemy.” […]
With new members like [William “Preacherman”] Fesperman, the Patriots crafted their rhetoric and public image. In a decade when symbolism mattered like never before, most Left groups chose their radical dress code— whether the dignified suits of civil rights leaders or the sleek leather jackets of the Panthers—to consciously send a message. For better or worse, the Patriots adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of southern poor people’s revolt against the owning class. In the Patriots’ analysis, the Confederate flag opened discussion about the nation’s history of capitalist land grabs and divide-and-conquer. They argued that the Civil War was a pissing match between a feudalistic slave-holding southern planting class and the newly industrialized capitalist North. The divide between North and South, they argued, was not created by the common people, but rather by businessmen and wealthy politicians. By this logic the Confederate flag, originally a cultural symbol of the South, was no more offensive than the stars-and-stripes. “From historical experience, we know that the people make the meaning of a flag,” they wrote in their newspaper. “This time we mean to see that the spirit of rebellion finds and smashes the real enemy rather than our brothers and sisters in oppression.”
Unafraid to ruffle a few feathers, the choice of the Confederate flag also raised a blatant middle finger to the student Left. Most Patriots took pride in their ability to rattle the cage of middle-class politeness. They also needed a radical uniform they could actually afford. Flag patches were cheap from the local military surplus store and sewing them onto jean jackets and berets seemed easy enough. As the Patriots sat around discussing their options, Panther Bob Lee weighed in with his full blessing so long as members were up for all the explaining they would have to do. Lee even spent his first three weeks breaking bread with folks in Uptown without telling Chairman Fred Hampton. Once Lee had something to show for his effort, he took the idea of the coalition to Hampton who “got the idea” right away. Not everyone responded as Hampton did. Members of the Panthers and Lords questioned the choice of emblem and outsiders were simply confused about the seeming contradictions of Black radicals standing beside self-proclaimed hillbillies wearing Confederate flags. The Young Lords actually debated the matter at length when deciding whether to join forces with the Patriots. “It was really their choice to make,” explains Cha-Cha Jimenez. “In order to understand it, you have to understand the influence of nationalism.” The Chicago Lords ultimately decided there was enough shared vision to build upon, but demonstrating that camaraderie to their members took more time, however.