FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

JOIN and Emergence of White Working Class Leadership During the Civil Rights Movement

by

Harry Belafonte and members of JOIN Community Union, courtesy of Hy Thurman.

Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) was a Chicago community organization started by the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) of the Students for A Democratic Society (SDS). In their view, poverty was not the result of individual failing but of political inequality. Since poverty was political, JOIN had to confront the Democratic Party political machines that controlled Chicago.

In their day-to-day work, JOIN came to follow the example of the Black Panthers by combining a service model with consciousness raising. They provided direct assistance to the community on basic issues such as education, health, and housing while teaching about racism, class exploitation and war.

Hillbilly Nationalists tells the story of JOIN through the life of Peggy Terry, its most visionary leader.

Terry was a poor southern white woman who had been drawn into the civil rights movement as a volunteer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Terry’s motivations were noble but at first were limited to moral politics. She viewed her work as a sacrifice to “help black folks get their freedom.”1 Terry thought she had to give up her own interests to help and could see no good from organizing poor whites.

Terry’s transition to working class hero began at the urging of civil rights leaders. When she met Martin Luther King, he asked Terry about her own exploitation as a poor white woman and how other poor whites might be organized into the civil rights movement. These were things she had not considered. Monroe Sharp, Terry’s comrade in CORE, marched her into the JOIN office. “This is where you belong….You have to know who you are before you ever know who we are,” Sharp said. And so with the guidance of African American leaders, Terry turned to her own community.2

Terry already lived in a working-class neighborhood sometimes called “Hillbilly Harlem.” With JOIN, Terry made the fusion of anti-racism and class interest her work.

JOIN learned that people found the promise of jobs or income too utopian, so they began instead by listening to community members about what they saw as their most pressing needs. Imagine that! What they found led to activism around police brutality, welfare rights, tenants unions, and rent strikes.

As they confronted the power of landlords and politicians, they began coalition work with black and latino groups. They offered public education about the ruthless Daly machine that ran Chicago. JOIN used their newspaper to address issues of international importance, including national liberation movements, the anti-war movement, and movements for women’s rights and civil rights.

As elements of the civil rights movement evolved into black power, these white workers found that “organizing your own” made sense. In fact, JOIN was one of the few organization in the U.S. already heading down that path.

By 1967, local leaders asked SDS members and other outside volunteers to leave JOIN.

“We believe the time has come for us to turn to our own people, poor and working-class whites, for direction, support, and inspiration, to organize around our own identity, our own interests.”3

But unlike the degraded forms of identity politics now used by the Democratic Party to protect the existing power structure, JOIN’s identity politics — like that of other social movements of the period — was rooted in participatory democracy and an organizing method designed to empower people and challenge power.

In the tradition of Saul Alinsky and Ella Baker, Terry wrote,

“No matter what background a person comes from…the role of the organizer, their primary job is to find people to whom they can pass on their abilities, their skills. The job of an organizer is to organize themselves out of a job.”4

The self-determination and self interest of these poor white people did not imply separatism or racist white nationalism, but just the opposite. JOIN members attended the Poor People’s March and went on to claim a role for working class whites in the struggle against racism and economic exploitation.

Terry addressed a crowd of 50,000 at the June 19, 1968, Solidarity Day rally.

“We, the poor whites of the Unites States, today demand an end to racism, for our own self interest and well being, as well as for the well being of black, brown, and red Americans, who, I repeat, are our natural allies in the struggle for real freedom and real democracy in these, OUR, Unites States of America.”5

Our common cause is freedom, and Terry showed us how to make it real.

Peggy Terry for Vice President

The final episode in the remarkable history of JOIN was its support for the candidacy of Peggy Terry to run as Vice President on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in 1968. With Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver as Presidential candidate, they sought to take on Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey.

But for Terry, the real work was to contest the candidacy of George Wallace, the segregationist and loud-mouthed racist running for President as an independent. Terry’s audience was the working class whites that Wallace appealed to with a potent mix of economic resentment and racial hatred.  In words that could have been spoken today Terry went after Wallace:

“His “little man” appeal has won over many white workers who are tired of their union’s cooperation with big corporations. But Wallace is not the answer to their problems. He is just another kind of boss.”6

Wallace, who went on to win five southern states, had tapped into the toxic blend of racism and economic misery that has long been part of American history and American demagoguery. It is the same seam of bigotry and resentment that Trump attempted to mine.

The Peace and Freedom Party may not have had the funds, staff, or media coverage necessary to win, but they discovered a truth we dare not ignore. Unless the labor and social movements can create a compelling alternative to racist resentment and class exploitation, the Trumps and Wallaces of the world will find a base among the white working class. JOIN took up the long hard struggle that awaits anyone willing to change the world.

Decades later, JOIN’s history is still a useful and usable past. Organizers with the courage and stamina to engage the white working class should consider the basic insights underlying JOIN’s work as a guide to action.

   ▪     Racism is against the self-interest of the white working class.

▪     People of color are natural allies in the struggle for freedom and for economic democracy.

▪     The important task of “organizing your own,” should be guided by the ideals of participatory democracy and self-determination.

▪     Serve the people.

▪     Let the people decide what should be done and at what pace.

▪     Organizers can be indispensable as catalysts and facilitators but the people must provide the leadership.

Notes.

1 All citations from Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power.  p 20

2. 20

3. 56

4. 56

5. 59

6.62

More articles by:

Richard Moser writes at befreedom.co where this article first appeared.

Weekend Edition
January 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Dr. King’s Long Assassination
David Roediger
A House is Not a Hole: (Not) Caring about What Trump Says
George Burchett
How the CIA Tried to Bribe Wilfred Burchett
Mike Whitney
Trump’s Plan B for Syria: Occupation and Intimidation
Michael Hudson – Charles Goodhart
Could/Should Jubilee Debt Cancellations be Reintroduced Today?
Marshall Auerback – Franklin C. Spinney
Boss Tweet’s Generals Already Run the Show
Andrew Levine
Remember, Democrats are Awful Too
James Bovard
Why Ruby Ridge Still Matters
Wilfred Burchett
The Bug Offensive
Brian Cloughley
Now Trump Menaces Pakistan
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Keeper of Crazy Beats: Charlie Haden and Music as Force of Liberation
Robert Fantina
Palestine and Israeli Recognition
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
The Return of the Repressed
Mel Gurtov
Dubious Partnership: The US and Saudi Arabia
Robert Fisk
The Next Kurdish War Looms on the Horizon
Lawrence Davidson
Contextualizing Sexual Harassment
Karl Grossman
Disaster Island
Thomas S. Harrington
What Nerve! In Catalonia They are Once Again Trying to Swear in the Coalition that Won the Most Votes
Pepe Escobar
Rome: A Eulogy
Robert Hunziker
Will Aliens Save Humanity?
Jonah Raskin
“Can’t Put the Pot Genie Back in the Bottle”: An Interview with CAL NORML’s Dale Gieringer
Stepan Hobza
Beckett, Ionesco, and Trump
Joseph Natoli
The ‘Worlding’ of the Party-less
Julia Stein
The Myths of Housing Policy
George Ochenski
Zinke’s Purge at Interior
Christopher Brauchli
How Trump Killed the Asterisk
Rosemary Mason - Colin Todhunter
Corporate Monopolies Will Accelerate the Globalisation of Bad Food, Poor Health and Environmental Catastrophe
Michael J. Sainato
U.S Prisons Are Ending In-Person Visits, Cutting Down On Reading Books
Michael Barker
Blame Game: Carillion or Capitalism?
Binoy Kampmark
The War on Plastic
Ron Jacobs
Whiteness and Working Folks
Cindy Sheehan – Rick Sterling
Peace Should Be Integral to the Women’s March
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
No Foreign Bases!
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: Across the Boer Heartland to Pretoria
Joe Emersberger
What’s Going On in Ecuador? An Interview With Wladimir Iza
Clark T. Scott
1918, 1968, 2018: From Debs to Trump
Cesar Chelala
Women Pay a Grievous Price in Congo’s Conflict
Michael Welton
Secondly
Taju Tijani
Trump: Of Shithole, Rat Hole and Monkey Hole
Robert Koehler
The Wisdom of Mass Salvation
Ann Garrison
Full-Spectrum Arrogance: US Bases Span the Globe
Louis Proyect
Morality Tales on the American Malaise: the Films of Rick Alverson
January 18, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Destabilizer: Trump’s Escalating Threats Against Iran
John W. Whitehead
Silence Is Betrayal: Get Up, Stand Up, Speak Up for Your Rights
Andrew Day
Of “Shitholes” and Liberals
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail