The focus of our May 3 discussion was Class and Inequality. We were honored to have Hy Thurman, author of Revolutionary Hillbilly, provide a presentation based on his community work in Chicago in the 1960s. A new incarnation of his organization, The Young Patriots, has recently been formed.
From Revolutionary Hillbilly, by Hy Thurman, 2020, Regent Press:
I was a founding member of the Young Patriots Organization (1967). We were a group of Southern white youth dedicated to serving and defending our community — an impoverished neighborhood called Uptown in Chicago. We were Southerners whose families migrated … looking for work. We came to form part of the First Rainbow Coalition, working together with the Black Panthers and Puerto Rican Young Lords. We fought against racism, police brutality, and city planners who administered the urban renewal programs to force poor people out of their homes.… We organized free health services, breakfast for children programs, food pantries and legal services for the poor. I attempt to preserve the history of a forgotten people dealing with the brutal conditions of migration, starvation, slum living, death, disease, classism, racism, police brutality and even murder.
In the remote, underdeveloped regions of Appalachia in the 1950s and 1960s, poverty was so widespread that people were experiencing hunger on a daily basis, and the results of malnutrition were catastrophic. Since these regions collected very little taxes, they were denied government funds to change living conditions. Programs in education and job training were unavailable to those in the mountainous regions due to unmaintained roads that prevented industry in the small towns, while it was difficult for many to travel to other towns to seek jobs.
During the harvest season, we would rise early before daybreak to work in the fields to survive. At the end of the day, we would pool our daily wages to come up with an amount that would assure us eating. Growing up in a small town made many poor whites and blacks a target for crimes by the local cops. They would arrest and falsely accuse young of crimes that were committed by the more privileged in the county.
The majority of the southerners came from mining regions after losing their jobs due to closed or mechanized coal mines. Mining towns were created and required miners to live in cheap shacks. A company store was set up, and the miners had to purchase needed food and survival items at a price that was often several times more than the wages of the miners. In the 1890s the miners had had enough abuse from the operators and joined the newly organized United Mine Workers Union. Others came from regions were textile mills closed due to the import of foreign materials and products, against which the southern mills could not compete. Farmers were forced to leave their land because of mechanized farming, or because their farms were repossessed by banks.
I arrived in Chicago in March of 1967 at the age of seventeen to escape the harshness of poverty, classism, lack of jobs and collapse of the farming economy due to the mechanization of farms in the South. I was also hoping to escape police harassment and class hatred in my home town. I had heard that Chicago was the “promised land,” that life was better up north, and that jobs were abundant for those who were willing to work. But there was a shortage of housing, and within my first two weeks in Chicago, I witnessed two cops beating an elderly man. Absentee landlords discovered a very profitable market by not maintaining the apartments and renting to poor migrants from the South and other parts of the world.
Many migrants had to rely on jobs with unethical day-labor agencies. These jobs were usually unskilled, menial jobs that were physically demanding, and with a high risk of injury.… Laborers were always worried about whether they would be chosen for work the next day, and if the job would be safe.… The lack of jobs in the North made it almost impossible for the Southern migrant to climb out of poverty. The stereotype that Southern whites were lazy and did not want to work is just plain wrong. The city of Chicago did not have the resources, nor the desire, to provide for the needs of the poor of any color. People of color are judged due to their skin color, and poor whites are looked down upon as an inferior class of white people.
The search and seizure law was used excessively to stop vehicles without any cause. Several vehicles were seized and never returned to the owner, without proof that the owner was guilty of any wrongdoing. Any person with a Southern accent was a target for the Chicago police.
In 1964, Students for a Democratic Society moved into Uptown to help the poor organize and control their community.… One SDS founder, Tom Hayden, believed that society could be changed by an “interracial movement of the poor.” Although the capitalist system had indoctrinated the poor that communism and socialism was bad for them, it wasn’t hard to convince community residents that workers should have ownerships of what they produced, and control over their future.
Lack of education and opportunities, as well as class hatred, played a major role in committing crimes to exist or face starvation. In its 5 year history, JOIN convinced residents to fight for their community. It taught “participatory democracy,” formed tenant unions, helped to organize a march against police brutality, built food coops, formed a People’s Theater, engaged in the war on poverty, helped perform lead screening drives, and held community rallies, picnics, and demonstrations at the welfare office and city hall.
In the 1950s, fifty million dollars in state and federal funds were used to build the University of Chicago in the Hyde Park neighborhood, removing poor Italians, Mexicans and Blacks, without replacing the housing … turning the neighborhood into an upper- and middle-class community.… Uptown was not exempt from Chicago’s removal plan.
Eldridge Cleaver (Black Panthers) and Peggy Terry (Peace and Freedom Party) attempted to educate the public that there was little difference in the living conditions of poor whites and poor Blacks, and that they needed to use the commonality to unite and organize with each other.
On December 4, 1967, Dr King announced the Poor People’s Campaign and a march on Washington DC to make the world and politicians aware of the plight of the poor.
The War on Poverty Program announced by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 provided federal funds to improve the lives of the poor, by attempting to offer much-needed services to poor communities.… The plan was a major failure, because the Johnson administration and Congress thought that bigger government was necessary and should control the program. We defined liberation as people having the freedom and power to make their own decisions concerning their lives.… The message that we were relating to the community had to be very clear and in the language that they understood.
In September of 1969, the doors of the Young Patriots Health Clinic, located in an apartment, was opened to the Uptown people. According to a report by the Chicago Board of Health, Uptown had the highest infant mortality in Chicago and the nation as a whole, due to lead poisoning, malnutrition, and the poor health of many children. November of 1969 was the beginning of continuous surveillance and harassment by the FBI and Chicago police.
Solidarity isn’t just a word. It is a process, and sometimes it is an uncomfortable process. Not only was racism a central issue in our efforts to liberate our people, we also began to develop a new awareness of the gay, lesbian and women’s liberation movements that were gaining popularity and demanding liberation in the US and around the world.
Culturally Southern people are fundamentalist Christians, believing that God put government officials in power and guided their decisions. Any organizing had to directly come from our own understanding of the situation, and not from outside political activists. It was important to teach our people that the middle and upper classes enjoyed their wealth due to the poor and working class laboring at minimum or low wages.
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense, founded in 1966 in Oakland, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, was a black political organization that provided a revolutionary model of service to the people with a Ten Point program that guided their activities.… The Young Lords started in 1959 as a Puerto Rican street gang … in 1968 the gang changed from street fighting to a political organization. Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party invited them to form a partnership which would become the “Original Rainbow Coalition.” The Lords (Puerto Rican Group) led demonstrations against police brutality, for women’s rights, welfare rights, economic and social equality, as well as self-determination.
The Young Patriots officially entered into the national radical movement in April 1968. We were welcomed into the coalition due to our anti-racist politics, and because we were a group that had proven that many members had evolved from street gang members and poor oppressed Southern whites into community organizers.
Pacifism and compromise with the power structure had been a failure for the poor.… Private property needed to be abolished. Not private property of homes, cars, clothing, etc., but the abolition of the private ownership of factories, utilities, communication and transportation services, natural resources, and educational and medical services.
The COINTELPRO program of the FBI used fraud, false news articles, letters and surveillance to categorize us as a subversive group along with other groups and individuals such as Martin Luther King, NAACP, American Indian Movement, women’s rights groups, SDS, and even Albert Einstein. On December 4, 1969, head of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party Fred Hampton and Black Panther party member Mark Clark were murdered by the Chicago Police Department in the early hours of the morning while they were sleeping. Fred Hampton was a visionary and believed that street gangs should stop waging war against each other.… His belief was that gangs needed to channel their energy into serving their community.
The Young Patriots saw the need to address the Confederate flag.… We had grown in our knowledge of the Civil War, and it had become clear to us that the South was the counterrevolutionary and reactionary side of the conflict. Truman College opened its doors in 1976, taking up a quarter of Uptown’s residential area. The Young Patriots organizing base was literally wiped out in a matter of a few months. The Southern migrant was once again sent out on the migrant trail. Many went back to the South to eke out whatever living they can. Some moved on to other cities, while others turned to alcohol and stayed in Chicago.
We also discussed --
The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? By Michael J. Sandel, 2020. Summarized by Rob Katz.
Meritocracy means a society where leaders are chosen solely on the basis of merit or ability. More broadly, it describes a society that is organized around the principle that people should be able to rise in the world as far as their talent and hard work takes them. What are the Benefits of Meritocracy? Sandel focuses on three: An economic system that rewards effort in combination with talent is likely to be more productive, less discriminatory on the basis of race, sex, and other invidious characteristics, and affirming of human freedom and human agency.
What’s Wrong with Meritocracy?
First, in the USA, meritocracy is more myth than reality. “Of those born poor in America, few make it to the top. In fact, most do not even make it to the middle class. Studies of upward mobility typically divide the income ladder into five rungs. Of those born on the bottom rung, only around 4 to 7% rise to the top, and only about 1/3 reach the middle rung or higher. Although the exact numbers vary from one study to the next, very few Americans live out the ‘rags to riches’ story celebrated in the American dream. In fact there is less economic mobility in the United States than in many other countries [like Germany, Spain Japan, Australia, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark].”
Second, even when it functions properly, meritocracy has a dark and destructive side: “The notion that your fate is in your hands, that ‘you can make it if you try,’ is a double edge sword, inspiring in one-way but invidious in another. It congratulates the winners but denigrates the losers, even in their own eyes. For those who can’t find work or make ends meet, it is hard to escape the demoralizing thought that their failure is their undoing, that they simply lack the talent and drive to succeed.”
“The tyranny of merit … consists in a cluster of attitudes and circumstances that, taken together, make meritocracy toxic. First, under conditions of rampant inequality and stalled mobility, reiterating the message that we are responsible for our fate and deserve what we get erodes solidarity and demoralizes those left behind by globalization. Second, insisting that a college degree is the primary route to a respectable job and a decent life creates a credentialist prejudice that undermines the dignity of work and demeans those who have not been to college; and third, insisting that social and political problems are best solved by highly educated, value neutral experts is a technocratic conceit that corrupts democracy and disempowers ordinary citizens.”
What Is To Be Done?
Shifting Focus from Markets to Debating the Common Good
“Thinking about pay, most would agree that what people make for this or that job often overstates or understates the true social value of the work they do. Only an ardent libertarian would insist that the wealthy casino magnate’s contribution to society is a thousand times more valuable than a pediatrician’s. The pandemic of 2020 prompted many to reflect, at least fleetingly, on the importance of the work performed by grocery store clerks, delivery workers, home care providers, and other essential but modestly paid workers.… In market-driven societies, interpreting material success as a sign of moral desert is a persisting temptation. It is a temptation we need repeatedly to resist. One way of doing so is to debate and enact measures that prompt us to reflect, deliberately and democratically, on what counts as truly valuable contributions to the common good and where market verdicts miss the mark.”
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.