On July 20, 1969, one month before Woodstock and the very day Neil Armstrong would make the first successful moonwalk, a young white guy in a denim work coat, sunglasses, and beret took the stage at the Black Panther Party’s National Conference For A United Front Against Fascism in Oakland California. His name was Bill Fesperman, but he went by Preacherman among his comrades.
A 26 year old native of North Carolina and former seminary student radicalized during the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Preacherman was a member of the Young Patriots Organization, a group of “radical hillbillies” from the southern migrant neighborhood of Uptown Chicago who had recently formed an interracial Rainbow Coalition alongside the Panthers and the Puerto Rican Young Lords.
The Young Patriots were made up primarily of poor whites who had left their homes in Appalachia and the broader South and traveled to the City of Big Shoulders in search of stable work only to find miserable living conditions and precarious jobs when they arrived in the city. Unemployment rates in Uptown in the late 1960s hovered around 30% (and rose to near 50% when you included those no longer seeking work).
Housing was overcrowded, substandard, and expensive. And police violence against southern migrants was routine. But as brutal and dehumanizing as life in the city could be, these conditions brought the Patriots and the Panthers together and their shared experience convinced them of their common cause.
As Preacherman put it to the assembled audience in Oakland that summer: “We have come from Chitown and we come from a monster. And the jaws of the monster in Chicago are grinding up the flesh and spitting out the blood of the poor and oppressed people, the blacks in the Southside, the Westside; the browns in the Northside; and the reds and the yellows; and yes, the whites – white oppressed people.”
It’s uncanny today to see footage of Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton declare to a crowd, “Black power to black people. Brown power to brown people. And white power to white people.” What he meant was that the poor southern migrants in Uptown Chicago ought to have power over their communities in the same way poor Blacks ought to in their neighborhoods.
To accomplish both goals, the Blacks and whites would have to organize and rebel together along with the dispossessed of every ethnicity. This original Rainbow Coalition was going to fight racism and poverty by “all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.” The FBI and Chicago PD killed Fred in his sleep for saying things like that.
"But as brutal and dehumanizing as life in the city could be, these conditions brought the Patriots and the Panthers together and their shared experience convinced them of their common cause."
We wonder how this history looks to our pundits here in 2020. As peaceful protests and extralegal uprisings began to rock the nation last week, millennial commentator Jill Filopovic tweeted, “Maybe white anarchists should sit this one out.”
Even if you didn’t see Ms. Filopovic’s tweet, you most likely saw or heard the sentiment repeated by someone else. There were good protesters with legitimate grievances but they were being overshadowed by bad people (usually whites) — the kind our own liberal darling governor in Kentucky called, “professional vandals,” a few months ago.
The premise that the rebellions and street fighting have been instigated and carried out by “outside agitators” is demonstrably false. Recent reviews of protest-related arrest records by Twin Cities TV station KARE11 and protesters’ tweets by USA Today have decisively shown the Minneapolis rebellions are homegrown. We suspect similar research would yield similar results all around the country.
Yet the narrative continues. For these commentators, white rebels de-legitimize the protests regardless of where they come from. Repeating this nonsense is likely part of an active counterinsurgency strategy but among the well-meaning some confusion comes from thinking of the police state and mass incarceration exclusively as “Black problems.”
Consider that here in Kentucky, where we incarcerate a higher proportion of our population than most states and a lot of those folks languish in overcrowded county jails, most of the prisoners are white, though certainly Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately locked up.
When Governor Beshear deployed the National Guard to Louisville (a tragic decision which led to the murder of David McAtee), many of the white Guardsmen who were deployed came from counties where successive generations of political leaders have been unwilling or unable to guarantee clean drinking water, good schools, or good job prospects. Eastern Kentucky and West Louisville both share Third World levels of poverty.
In the months since the protests over the police killing of George Floyd spread out from Minneapolis to almost every sizable city in the country, many comparisons have been made to the wave of uprisings that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. As the historian Thomas Sugrue recently argued, these comparisons are both understandable and limited. Both protest moments are responses to the inability of American institutions to resolve police violence as well as racial and economic inequality, both are explosive and chaotic, and both are met with ferocious violence from the state. But, as Sugrue insists, today’s protests are “far more racially mixed than could be imagined fifty years ago” and the looting and property destruction we have seen has been focused on central business districts and shopping centers rather than mom and pop stores and Black-owned businesses.
Attributing this shift in the composition of the crowds to “outside agitators” not only repeats an old canard, it misses what the moment is telling us. Today, interracial crowds of thousands in cities across Kentucky and the country — from Harlan to Louisville — are willing to meet the tear gas and truncheons of a militarized police force and threats from local vigilantes to collectively demand control over their communities. The crowd knows that the common cause is freedom, as the Rainbow Coalition would have put it, and that we can only get free together.
Hood and holler, unite!