Is Michael Gaylord James of Rising Up Angry Still Angry? 

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once said famously that “There are no second acts in American lives.” Fitzgerald changed his mind, at least for New York City. In the midst of the Depression, when New York looked bleak economically speaking, he wrote, “There was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”  He was right about that. One might borrow Fitzgerald’s quotation and ask, “Do American radicals have second and even third acts?” Of course they do, though many of those acts have not made it into the historical record, and too many radicals, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin for example, died before they could round out their lives.

Chicago’s Michael Gaylord James has had more acts than many if not most of his contemporaries as an activist, a photographer, an entrepreneur, a radio host, a book publisher and more. But he has often been ignored by biographers who have written about American lefties.

There are a few exceptions to that rule. Historian and author Paul Buhle, who has reviewed James’s books, calls him “a Midwest legend” and “a larger-than-life figure who was swept into the radical movements of the early 1960s.” Buhle’s comment is a reflection of a larger problem. James has been labeled a midwestern, early 1960s activist, and, while he hasn’t denied or soft peddled his roots in the midwest or his involvement in the causes of the early 1960s, he has aimed to show that he has gone beyond the 1960s in the Midwest, especially in his new book, Crossing Borders.

Published in 2023, Crossing Borders contains dozens of photos James took in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Cuba from 1960 to 2007. More of an anti-imperialist now than ever before, he curiously has refrained from using that word to describe himself and has also refrained from using the word imperialism, where it might be appropriate. “Isms cut the deepest,” he has said.

Read and look at his three previous books of photos, and you’ll see that words like capitalism, socialism and Marxism rarely if ever appear in print. “My photography is framed by the human condition,” James wrote. Of the photos in Crossing Borders, he added, “These photos…record the universality of the people’s happiness and sadness, hardship and struggle, determination and conviction.” Indeed, they depict poor people of color who work with their hands and who are often smiling and not just for the camera. James also captured on film President John F. Kennedy, when he toured Mexico City in a Mercedes, shortly before he was assassinated, to promote the Alliance for Progress, yet another imperialist scheme to keep Mexico underdeveloped.

James didn’t capture the flesh and blood Che, but he snapped an image of Che’s face on a large banner at the Baseball Arena in Havana in 1991. Perhaps he and Che, who said that “The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love,” would have cruised the Americas on their motorcycles.

 “I like to have a camera with me,” James told me in a recent conversation, just before his 82nd birthday. “I like to document things, people, places, you name it. Sometimes my camera, a Pentax or a Panasonic Lumix, has been a constant companion.”

One of the founders of Rising up Angry, the organization which rocked white working class youth in Chicago in the late 1960s and early 1970s, James is poised for yet another round as a rebel with a cause. “Rising Up Angry” was also the name of the organization’s newspaper. “I didn’t read a lot of Lenin,” James remembers. “But I read enough Lenin to know that a revolutionary organization had to have a paper to get out the word, bring people together and identify the enemy.”

Founded in July 1969, the newspaper— which honored Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X, the prisoner rebellion at Attica, the United Farm Workers and the Native American protest at Alcatraz— will celebrate the 55th anniversary of its birth in July 2024.

“Some history is remembered; some is not,” James muses. He knows that bittersweet story from his own experience. He also knows that many veterans of the Sixties don’t have clear memories of Rising Up Angry, perhaps because the organization was based in Chicago— “fly over country”— not New York or California.

For nearly all of his adult life, James has been in the business of bringing people together. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the U.S. New Left was often fragmented and in splinter groups and sects—whether RYM I, RYM II, Progressive Labor, the Revolutionary Communist Party, The Revolutionary Union, Weatherman and more— James preached the gospel of unity; “everybody get together,” in the words of the Youngbloods. Confrontation wasn’t his priority.

James had a habit of bringing people together. Along with Katy Hogan, his longtime partner, he operated for decades Chicago’s ”late great” (as he calls it) Heartland Café. Now they’re at work on a book called, The Cafe: Hot Grits & Politics. “We had a good run,” James says. “We had a healthy mix of food, politics and music.” He has also brought students together at the class titled “Activists and Activism, 1960-1974,” which he has taught at Chicago’s DePaul University. With DePaul Professor Euan Hague he’s finishing a collection of interviews with Chicago organizers, such as Heather Booth, that’s on track to be published by the University of Illinois Press. Once a week for years, James hosted a radio /TV and internet show, “Live from the Heartland” that united the listening audience.

Before, during and after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago—and the “police riot” as the Kerner Commission called the bloody clashes in the streets— James crossed urban borders and boundaries that cops, codes and customs aimed to enforce and that kept whites from Blacks and browns and Blacks and browns from whites. “Workers of the world unite” was a faint echo in Chicago’s white working class neighborhoods.

 “Sometimes we’ve been confused,” James wrote in his first photo book which is now out-of-print. He added. ”Made to be confused.” False consciousness played havoc in the  working class communities and communities he knew in Chicago and elsewhere.

James and his Rising up Angry brothers and sisters tell it like it is in Rising Up Angry—Our Fight for a Better World which was launched in November 2023. Diane Fager emphasizes “dialectical thinking.” Peter Kuttner, who made the movie, Trick Bag: The Story of Rising Up Angry, insists on confronting people opposed to equality.

Long-time labor organizer and union member, Bob Lawson sees greater disparity now between haves and have-nots than in the 1960s, the American military unchecked, environmental devastation worse today than yesterday and unions on the ropes. “The worst thing that has happened in American history is the virtual loss of unions,” Lawson says. James tends to be more optimistic than Lawson. He echoes the cry of the legendary organizer, Joe Hill: “Don’t Mourn, Organize,” which has never gone out of fashion.

Born in 1942 and raised in a Connecticut town he calls “bourgeois,” James attended grad school at Berkeley, read Lewis Coser, studied conflict theory and thought he might teach sociology and emphasize unity and togetherness. But he had a James Dean-like spirit of rebellion that kept him away from academia. In Chicago, after his stint in Berkeley, he worked with JOIN to build an interracial movement of the poor in a neighborhood known as “hillbilly Harlem,”and where many of the residents had fled from Appalachia, and brought Confederate flags with them.

Drawn to Black music and the gospel of Jesus— the working man’s Jesus who stood with the poor and against the rich—James smoked weed, wore a black leather jacket and bridged the gap between hippies and “greasers,” as Chicago’s white working-class kids were often called, perhaps because they greased their hair, and or because they worked as “grease monkeys” in garages. Like them, James grew up with a passion for hot rods, racing and sports and without a belief in white supremacy. In college, he played football. For a time he wanted to be a minister.

In the late 1960s, James joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and recruited Bernardine Dohrn, who was then his girlfriend and who would go on to lead Weatherman and the Weather Underground. Later, she accomplished a lot as a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, though like James has not been recognized for the roles she has played on the left.

When Weathermen and women went underground, the clandestine and the subterranean didn’t appeal to James. “We’re not underground,” he wrote in his first book, though he grasped the necessity for the underground abortion network, the Janes Collective. In 1968, he managed Peggy Terry’s campaign for vice president when she ran with Eldridge Cleaver on the Peace & Freedom party ticket. Now, he’s in the thick of hyper local politics in the city that has been his home for more than half-a-century.

In the 1960s and 1970s, members of Rising Up Angry cruised the gritty streets of Chicago and talked with greasers and hippies. “Pigs hassling you?” was often the question that would break the ice and lead to in-depth conversations, though James was not and still isn’t automatically anti-cop. “It was good to know some cops,” he says. “We need a police force.” (He was not big on the recent defund the police campaign.) James and others in Rising Up Angry took photos of  greasers and published them in the newspaper on a page called “Stone Grease Grapevine.” Of course, the greasers loved seeing their beautiful smiling faces in print.

“There were no role models for radical whites organizing in white working class neighborhoods,” James says, though in the 1960s, he knew about Tom Watson, the populist who organized poor Blacks and poor whites to unite and fight. Then, Watson changed his tune and espoused white supremacy, the big bugaboo for white working class organizers. When he was a spokesman for Rising Up Angry, James also knew about Joe Hill and the Industrial Workers of the World. Still, he and his comrades had to make it up as it went along. (The name of the organization comes from a song in the 1968 movie, Wild in the Streets, that exploited the narrative of youth in rebellion.)

Inspired by the Black Panther Party, Rising Up Angry moved. in the early 1970s, away from militancy and from an emphasis on anger and toughness to compassionate programs that served and nurtured working people. The organization had a health clinic, and a legal program. It helped vets returning from Vietnam, operated a bookstore, hosted dances (until Mayor Daley canceled them), staged outdoor concerts and offered a people’s sports program,

The organization was in it for the long haul, not a single season or a summer vacation,  but in 1975, when the Sixties ended its long run, Rising Up Angry folded. James is still in it for the long haul, still hopeful and yet also apprehensive. “I can’t believe that Trump might win the 2024 election,” he says. “I’m concerned that we’ll lose many of our gains, including the right to an abortion and gay marriage.”

 He adds, “My hope is that one day the U.S. will be recognized in the world community as a nation that worked for the good of the Earth, and that white people will be recognized as a group that worked for the good of all the people.” For James that’s not magical thinking.

Historian Paul Buhle, who has written eloquently about that other James, (C.LR.) thinks that Michael James “deserves the biography that will never be written.” Michael is still writing his own story; someday someone might tell his tale, though he’s not holding his breath and waiting for that day. Perhaps that book will talk about race and class, which have played havoc with American politics and politicians, and perhaps it will show how James aimed to transcend deeply ingrained contradictions.

Is Michael James still angry? Yes and no. Not as angry as he once was, but still with some of the anger that once fueled him. He’s proud of the accomplishments of Rising up Angry, and eager for the organization and the newspaper to be recognized by historians and veterans of the Sixties, as well as organizers and activists today. He’d be pleased if generations younger than his appreciated the role that he and his comrades played at a time when whites were often divided from Blacks and Blacks divided from whites, and when Rising up Angry crossed racial borders and built bridges when some of his contemporaries said they couldn’t be built.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.