05.19.2017
  • United States

The Panthers and the Patriots

The story of how a group of poor whites in Chicago united with the Black Panthers to fight racism and capitalism.

The Black Panthers and Young Patriots hold a press conference in 1969. Red Anthology

In July 1969, the Black Panther Party convened a huge meeting in Oakland that attracted radical groups from across the country. They called it the Conference for a United Front Against Fascism.

On a Saturday afternoon, between speeches from representatives of the Communist Party, the Farm Workers Union, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a man wearing a huge belt buckle with crossed pistols took the stage. Dark glasses covered his eyes, and his jacket and military-style beret bore Confederate flags.

“We come from a monster,” he said in a heavy Southern accent. “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 South Side, the West Side; the browns in the North Side; and the reds and the yellows; and yes, the whites — white oppressed people.”

The speaker’s name was William “Preacherman” Fesperman, and he belonged to the Young Patriots Organization, a radical group formed by young men on Chicago’s poverty-stricken North Side. Its mission was to organize poor whites to stand up for themselves, in solidarity with communities of color.

While the organization survived only a few years, it embodied a radical notion: that disenfranchised whites could throw off the shackles of racism and struggle alongside black and brown people to create a new society.

Decades later, the Young Patriots and their “Rainbow Coalition” still offer a striking model for left-wing politics.

"Hillbilly Harlem"

The Young Patriots sprouted from the neighborhood of Uptown, a dense slum filled with poor whites that had migrated from the rural South after World War II. Most were fleeing Appalachia’s dying coal industry, and they brought their culture with them: Confederate flags hung in the bars, country music spilled out of the pool halls. By the mid-1960s, the local papers were referring to Uptown as “Hillbilly Harlem” and portraying it as a den of crime and depravity.

Hy Thurman was typical of the young men who lived in the impoverished neighborhood. He grew up in Dayton, Tennessee. His entire family had worked as farm laborers, scraping together a living by picking beans, corn, and strawberries. Poverty stalked his young life. “My mother and my elder sister had the same foot size,” he recalled in an interview, “but they only had one decent pair of shoes. My sister would go to school in them and she’d come home, and my mother would use them to go into town.”

His older brother Rex left for Chicago around the time Hy dropped out of ninth grade. In 1967, Hy followed his brother north. “We thought of Chicago as a kind of promised land,” he said. “It was where you could get a new start. But I found out really quickly that that wasn’t true.” When he could find work, he took short-term jobs as a day laborer. When he couldn’t, he sold his blood to survive.

By the time Hy arrived in Uptown, his brother had joined a street gang called the Goodfellows, which had recently developed ties with the community organization Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). An SDS initiative, JOIN agitated for things like housing rights and welfare reform. It fought against Mayor Richard J. Daley’s sprawling political machine, which used patronage and police brutality to control residents and spur on gentrification.

Organizing against police harassment was at the top of the Goodfellows’ list of priorities: the young men faced constant stops, searches, and beatings from local officers. The SDS activists urged caution but nevertheless helped the Goodfellows organize a march to the neighborhood police station in August of 1966. Almost three hundred neighbors came out for the demonstration.

But the police quickly hit back, raiding JOIN’s office and a church sympathetic to their efforts. A few days later, a police officer killed one of the Goodfellows’ brothers, shooting him in the back as he ran away from a fight.

The march and its aftermath brought the already-simmering tensions in JOIN to a boil. Feeling stifled by SDS’s mostly middle-class organizers, the Goodfellows struck out on their own and founded the Young Patriots Organization: a movement, they proudly proclaimed, by and for “hillbillies.” They drafted an eleven-point program and adopted symbols: the Confederate flag, balanced with black power buttons on their lapels.

Before long, Thurman, his brother, and the other Patriots were haunting Uptown’s bars and pool halls, recruiting gang members and spreading their doctrine of radical hillbilly self-determination — a mix of Hank Williams and Frantz Fanon.

The Original Rainbow Coalition

In the fall of 1968, a Methodist church invited the Young Patriots to give a presentation about their work alongside Bob Lee of the Illinois Black Panther Party. The audience — mostly white, liberal, and middle-class — treated the Panthers with curiosity, but expressed open hostility toward the Patriots. Lee had never seen anything like it: white people attacking poor whites. He rose to the Patriots’ defense. Afterward, he suggested the two groups collaborate.

It was an ambitious undertaking. Then as now, Chicago was sharply segregated along racial and ethnic lines. Lee spent three weeks in Uptown getting to know the Patriots and their neighbors before mentioning the idea of an alliance to Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Panthers.

But Hampton was enthusiastic upon hearing Lee’s proposal, and dubbed the fledgling alliance the “Rainbow Coalition.” He even accepted the Patriots’ use of the Confederate flag. According to Thurman, Hampton said, “If we can use that to organize, if we can use it to turn people, then we need to do it.”

From this initial partnership, the Rainbow Coalition grew to include the Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican group. Recruiting from youth gangs, the coalition tried to organize on points of solidarity like police brutality and poverty. They held unity demonstrations in Grant Park, decrying Mayor Daley’s program of gentrification, poverty, and police brutality. They occupied buildings to demand better health care and housing for their communities.

The Young Patriots expanded as well, gaining new members — including “Preacherman” Feserpman, whose rhetorical skills helped spread the Patriots’ message to wider audiences — and building relationships with Uptown’s Native American community. They started a free breakfast program and opened a neighborhood clinic, putting to good use the lessons the Panthers taught Rainbow Coalition members about establishing basic services in long-neglected neighborhoods.

The Daley administration knew a threat when it saw one. It quickly moved to repress the budding coalition. The Chicago Police Department shut down the Patriots’ free breakfast program and pressured their landlord to close the health clinic. Officers worked with the FBI to infiltrate and disrupt the growing interracial coalition.

And then, the worst blow of all. On December 4, just five months after the conference in Oakland, a detachment of Chicago police, operating as a special task force for the district attorney, killed Hampton in a predawn raid.

His death devastated the movement and shot fear through Chicago.

Thurman and the other Patriots went into hiding. “No one knew what was going on,” he said, describing the frenzied days following the assassination. “You didn’t know if they were coming after you next.”

Hampton’s murder also sharpened tensions within the group, which was already splintering. Fesperman and the Panther leadership wanted the Patriots to start organizing on a national level, but the Patriots insisted on staying at the local level for the time being.

In 1970, Fesperman broke away and formed the Patriot Party, establishing headquarters in New York and setting up a handful of chapters across the country. But repression followed Fesperman, as police raided offices in New York and up and down the Eastern seaboard.

Back in Chicago, the police accused the Young Patriots of planning a bombing and rounded up their leadership. They also detained people from allied churches and community groups. Those who weren’t arrested dropped out of sight, and many moved away, effectively putting an end to the Patriots’ efforts.

The Rainbow Coalition lived on in name, if not form. In 1983, using the interracial coalition model, Harold Washington circumvented the Daley machine to become the city’s first black mayor. Jesse Jackson appropriated the name and the approach for the organization that grew out of his insurgent 1984 presidential campaign and carried him into his 1988 run. David Axelrod, drawing on what he learned during Washington’s 1987 reelection campaign, retooled it to help Barack Obama get elected president.

But as mainstream Democrats like Axelrod picked up the strategy, they tossed aside the appeals to class solidarity. They pushed a politics that promoted a mélange of colors and ethnicities but few material benefits — to say nothing of radical change.

Another Path

Since lastNovember’s presidential election, a battle over race and class has raged that’s been as acrimonious as it’s been misguided. The Young Patriots and their partners offer another path.

“The Rainbow Coalition was all about identity politics,” said scholar Jakobi Williams, author of From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago. “Folks were not asked to abandon their identities, but to use their identities as a way of building bridges to form alliances on poverty or whatever other issue that they believed to be important.”

Though short lived, the Young Patriots and the Rainbow Coalition showed that working-class movements can overcome significant divides (even Confederate flags) to unite around issues like poverty, corruption, and police brutality. The fierce resistance they faced from elites, both liberal and conservative, underscores the potency of their radical project.

A few years ago, Hy Thurman restarted two chapters of the Young Patriots in Alabama. Already he’s attracted a younger cohort of supporters. A multiracial group of teens and twenty-somethings, after learning of Thurman’s history, reached out to him and became his collaborators. Thurman has also linked up with Chuck Armsbury, a former Patriot Party member who lives in rural Washington State. Their goal: to revive the organization as an antidote to the pervasive despair in poor and working-class white communities.

It’s a tall order. But we can be sure of one thing: Fred Hampton and “Preacherman” Fesperman would be proud.