Building the ‘White Stripe’: The Young Patriots, Jesse Jackson and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)

 ‘Steps on a journey of struggle’: Organizers share their experiences in the 1960s, the 1980s and today with bringing white people into the multiracial fight for collective liberation. By Beth Howard, Hy Thurman, Carla Wallace and Eddie Wong. Edited by Marcy Rein/Convergence. Posted February 18, 2024. A shorter version of this article appeared in Convergence magazine on Feb. 5, 2024.

Simple math tells us that we will not be able to defeat the MAGA Right without enlisting white people in a multiracial coalition. That work relies on and complements Black and POC-led organizing. But which white people do we organize, and on what basis? How do we deal with the white supremacy that runs deep in the veins of this country?

Too often Democratic Party and progressive activists slide by race, aim for the suburban center, and pit organizing white voters against a racial justice agenda. But substantial data and rich history point to the weakness of this approach for the long term. To bring that data and history to bear on the critical 2024 election cycle, the Working Families Party, the Sandler-Phillips Institute, and Showing Up for Racial Justice have convened the White Stripe Project. All three organizations center racial justice and emphasize the strategic significance of voters of color—but argue that white voters have a critical role to play as well.

Rev. Jackson stands with striking International Paper Company mill workers in Jay, Maine, on October 31, 1987. Unity Photo: Rick Jurgens. Unity Archive Project, https://unityarchiveproject.org/

To illuminate the history today’s “White Stripe” builds on, Convergence turned to organizers who have grappled with organizing white people in multiracial coalitions over the last five decades. Hy Thurman co-founded the Young Patriots, an organization of white Southern migrants to Chicago in the late 1960s – early 1970s. With “Free Huey” buttons on their lapels and Confederate flags on their jackets, they joined the Black Panthers and the Young Lords in the first Rainbow Coalition. Hy now heads the North Alabama School for Organizers. Carla Wallace organized in Kentucky for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and ’88 campaigns. She worked in the Louisville area, with LGBTQ people electrified by Jackson’s support—unprecedented for any presidential candidate—and also across the state with farmers, miners and other rural Kentuckians. Carla went on to co-found Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) in 2009, sits on the organization’s board, and organizes with its Louisville chapter. Beth Howard is the current Appalachian People’s Union director for SURJ, organizing in rural eastern Kentucky. Organizer and filmmaker Eddie Wong, who served as the national field director for Rev. Jackson’s 1988 campaign, moderated the Dec. 12, 2023 conversation. Additional material comes from a Dec. 15, 2023  interview with Hy Thurman by Convergence Print Editor Marcy Rein.

Eddie Wong: Let’s start by talking about the communities where you did or are doing work. Can you paint a little picture of the place to help frame things?

Hy Thurman: I moved to Chicago when I was 17 from Dayton, Tennessee, a very small rural town. I didn’t get much of an education because I had to drop out of school a lot just to work to help the family, because we would pool our money together and that’s how we would eat and try to pay rent on these shacks we were living in. I had a brother that lived in Chicago. He had been there a couple of years before I came and he was involved in a street gang in the Uptown community that gradually moved toward an organization called JOIN, Jobs or Income Now, which was started by Students for a Democratic Society, which came into the community to help people find jobs, but found out much more was needed.

There were over 40,000 people at that time, which was in 1967. There were some Native Americans there, Hispanics, very few Blacks. But it was mostly Southern white. We were subjected to all kinds of conditions. Women were being raped by the cops. People were being murdered by the cops. We were the first to be drafted. There was no health care. No food pantry, no jobs. Slum living. Some people were actually starving.

Photo from Young Patriots Organization and the Original Rainbow Coalition website.

I had to go to work at a day-labor agency where you would get to work for one day if you were lucky. And you’d have the worst jobs because you didn’t have any union representation. A lot of people were actually injured on the jobs, or injured so they couldn’t go back to work again. Right next to almost every day-labor agency was a blood bank. That was a facility where you can sell your blood, and that’s how some people actually supplemented their income.

Carla Wallace: The organizing I do today with SURJ was very much informed by the work in the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and ‘88. With Kentucky being among the poorest states in the country and one of the whitest in the South—the Black population and people of color population still hovers around 13% statewide—it means there’s no way to shift things without listening to and speaking to the pain of struggling white folks. So poor and working-class white communities in Kentucky were a part of who we were working with. In 1984 and ‘88 Jackson campaigned with a vision based in what is needed for folks to take care of their families. In Louisville, the Rainbow Coalition effort was anchored by the Black community. The white base part of it, or the white stripe, was cross-class, but it was focused on white workers, especially union workers in Louisville’s South End, white families that needed health care, students who were struggling to find jobs and pay off loans, and others on the margins.

Too often, candidates are told to “play it safe to win”.  But Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition was about taking on what mattered to people. Jackson was the first presidential candidate to come out on the pariah issue of equality for LGBTQ people. The roots of that came in part out of Louisville, and our struggle around LGBTQ equity in the 1980’s. In 1988, Jackson became the first presidential candidate in history to attend a national rally for LGBTQ justice in DC. I was newly out and it was my first demonstration on that basis in Washington as well.

Jesse Jackson supporters in Iowa, Feb. 1988. Photo from Unity Archive Project, https://unityarchiveproject.org/

Beth Howard: SURJ is prioritizing working-class white people, and Southerners. We organize that specific base because we know that those are the white people that have the most to gain from a multiracial coalition fighting for racial and economic justice. I organize where I’m from, rural eastern Kentucky and central Appalachia. Our priority project is the Kentucky People’s Union, in and around Ashland. Kentucky is one of the poorest states in the nation. As a whole state, it’s about 85% white, and I would say Eastern Kentucky is whiter than that. However, we are growing and becoming more diverse, just as KPU is growing and becoming more diverse. In our first photo that we have, at our first community meeting, we were 12 out of 13 white people. And in a photo from a year later, after we’d been organizing, bringing people into the group and building relationships, we  have 50 people and the group is multiracial, all ages, and many different identities and life experiences.

Eddie Wong: What issues and common concerns helped or help build multiracial work?

Hy Thurman: What got in our mindset in terms of trying to really do some organizing was we started following the Black Panthers. We could see that the Black Panthers was a group that that really was closest to what we were, on the street and the Black community. And of course, we’re watching Dr. King and we were also learning about the coal miners strikes and organizing in the South, the boycott of grapes by Hispanics. The Days of Rage were going on, and we were getting drafted. We were reading Rising Up Angry.

And we just got tired, and we said we can either run or we can fight, so we decided we’re gonna stand up and fight. We don’t care anymore, because what else are they gonna do to us? They’re gonna kill us anyway. I mean, that was our mentality. We don’t know what we’re going to do yet. We’re just going to go out and try to organize people. As a young group. five or six of us actually went out and organized a march on the police station. After this first encounter with the police, we marched on the police station with a couple hundred people. And that was also Hispanics and American Indians, a few Blacks—there weren’t that many in the community. And you know, Southern whites. After we did that, all hell broke loose and cops came down on us again, and they murdered one of our members….

Rising Up Angry was a monthly radical newspaper from the perspective of white working class youth in Chicago. It was published from 1969 to 1975.

We wanted people on welfare to quit being treated like animals. So, we went down and took over a welfare office and got some got some policies changed. We took over a hospital clinic that belonged to the Board of Health because they weren’t treating people the way they were supposed to. They only put their Board of Health Clinic in because we started the Young Patriot Clinic, but that’s where we started organizing.

We worked on a number of different projects with them [the Black Panthers]. When they would have rallies, we would go and the Young Patriots would serve as security, and we would serve them on planning. Course we were concentrating at that time on our health clinics, medical clinics, breakfast for children programs in which we are all working together. And they were helping us get the resources for that. They were also working on buying buildings in their poor communities. That’s when Freddie Hampton was assassinated, so a lot of it didn’t go through.

We were in court with them fighting the city tooth and nail when they were trying to close down all of our clinics and our breakfast for children programs. In a memo from [then FBI Director] J Edgar Hoover it says that the Black Panthers, SDS and those affiliated were a threat to national security because they were feeding children and teaching them revolutionary thoughts. They mentioned two other organizations that were with them, the Young Patriots and the other one was the Young Lords. We were all working in tandem with each other, you know, on these problems within our community.

Photo from Young Patriots Organization and the Original Rainbow Coalition website.

Carla Wallace: In Kentucky the Jackson campaigns had victories that rattled the National Democratic Party and the local Democratic Party, and for good reason. Much to their shock, in the 1984 race, we won the Third Congressional District, which was largely Black, but then we also won the overwhelmingly white Fourth Congressional District. We won because if you know how to organize you know how to win caucuses. You just knock the h-e-double “l” out of the doors and you get people there.  People were excited by Jackson’s candidacy, what he stood for, and they just needed support to engage the process. The Democratic Party saw that writing on the wall and did away with the caucus process in Kentucky and most everywhere else as well after that.  But even though they changed the rules, and it was a general primary in 1988, building with the leadership of Black Louisville and whites with a clear stake in peace and justice, we were able to win the Third Congressional District again as part of Super Tuesday.

We were also organizing statewide.  For decades in Kentucky and other states with large rural white populations, consultants and Democratic Party leaders would say “no, you can’t bring race into the conversation or you will just divide people”. That has been the accepted stance for decades and I believe it is what has turned Kentucky red—the bad red, over the decades. But the Jackson campaign’s work meant we could not hide race, and for those of us doing this work, we knew we had to bring race and economics together if we are to overcome the divide and conquer tactics used by those at the top.

Not since Kennedy in 1968 had a presidential candidate visited Eastern Kentucky. But when Jesse Jackson spoke in the Hazard gymnasium in early in ‘88, the huge largely white mining family crowd went wild. I was reporting on the event for a national progressive paper, and I asked a number of people why they were there for Jackson. And they said, “I know he’s Black, but he’s speaking to what we’re going through.”  To me, that gives the lie to the prohibition of talking with white rural working people about race.

Jackson told that largely white working-class crowd, “When the lights go out in the mine, no one knows what color anyone is.” And the crowd roared as he pointed our anger at the coal bosses instead of each other across the racial lines. Jackson’s rainbow agenda, plus the ground organizing that we did, added up to kind of a glimpse of what a cross-race working- class alliance could look like in Kentucky and other parts of the country too. That was incredibly hopeful and exciting for me as a younger organizer at that time.

Beth Howard: KPU started, as most community organizing projects do, with what we call a listening campaign where we went door to door throughout the community, talking to people and asking them, “What do you love about living here? What do you want more of, but also what are the problems? What are the things that keep you up at night? If you could make a change here to make Ashland a more just or fair or a better place for you to live, what would that change be?” And so what we heard over and over from working-class people white, Black and Brown was economic justice issues, primarily people having difficulty paying their rent, finding a place to live, a job that pays a living wage, that has health insurance and benefits, difficulty accessing health care, paying for medicine, getting to go to the doctor, and also the impacts that we’re still feeling from theoverdose crisis. And so after hundreds and hundreds of conversations, we came up with four problem areas that were the most prevalent; those were the ones I just named: lack of affordable safe housing, the overdose crisis, lack of access to quality healthcare, lack of good paying, safe jobs.

And we voted and we chose housing as our issue campaign. And so right now we’re working on a campaign to win a tenants’ Bill of Rights, which would be a package of ordinances that will be passed through the city council to make housing more safe and affordable for the residents in Boyd County. And our first piece of legislation out of that tenants’ bill of rights that we’re working to pass right now is to enforce a local rental registry, which Ashland has a version of on the books and doesn’t enforce. That would allow us to know who landlords are and which properties they own so we can get in touch with them and hold them accountable for the properties and skyrocketing rents. Also, so many people in Ashland don’t know where to go for housing or even where to look for a place to live and so this is a first step towards that. The economic justice issue of housing is a material issue that brings the multiracial working class together, which changes our communities but also transforms us as we do this work together.

Eddie: So, you’re finding common ground on the economic issues, but you’re also battling historic ideologies of racism and white supremacy. How do you reconcile those things in your organizing?

 Hy Thurman: Some of the people that came along to work with the Young Patriots couldn’t handle it. They were still very, very, very racist. Eventually they had to be kicked out, or they would leave because it was hard.

I had had a discussion with Fred Hampton about why in the hell would he allow somebody like us into this coalition that he formed. Why somebody like me? My people were responsible for enslaving his people, responsible for rape, death, selling the family off and creating them as property. And he said I know that some of your guys are racist, but you’re anti-racist, and that we can work with you. And that’s why we took you into this coalition, because you’re pretty much like us, we have the same politics. We’ve gone through the same thing. But now we’re trying to make a revolutionary change in this country. So, he accepted us into this coalition, even though we were wearing a Confederate flag. And we had talked to them about this flag.

What we were trying to do was to reach racist people by using a racist symbol. We were able to have this flag with a with a free Huey button or something from a third world country or Martin Luther King or something like that next to it, and it would spark up conversation. It was a contradiction. And so we were able to talk to people who were racist. people that were in the Klan and other groups, just racist people.

There was a man that was a Klan member, and I got into a conversation with him about the flag and all it represented, and why we would wear a flag with a Free Huey button or whatever. And I had asked him, “Okay, what if you had a child that was dying?” And he did have children. And I said, “What if your child needed an organ transplant or that child was going to die? And all of a sudden, it became available, but it belonged to a Black person. Would you take this organ to save your child’s life?”

Without hesitation, he said, “Yes.” And I said, “What’s the difference? What are you looking at? We’re always seeing just the colors, and how society has treated us as different and how society has taught us that we’re white and we’re superior, you know?” And so he got it. Eventually he got it. He brought his kids to our clinic.

Beth Howard: Economic issues can get us in the door, but then how do we grow and transform and how do we understand that everything that we want to win materially is going to depend on white working-class people being in strong solidarity with Black and brown people? We’re organizing in the heart of Appalachia, and we have a long, long history and legacy of some of the most powerful multiracial organizing in the country when we look at mine workers organizing. One of our inspirations with the Kentucky People’s Union is the miners who were in the Battle of Blair Mountain.

The battle of Blair Mountain was 10,000 miners, multiracial immigrants, largely Italian immigrants, Black miners and poor white miners, who came together in the largest labor uprising in this country’s history fighting coal bosses and their hired gun thugs for the right to unionize.

One of the coal barons during the years of the West Virginia mine wars was Justus Collins, and he was very open about the way he structured his mines and mining town. He set up his mining housing so that a third were white miners, a third were immigrants and a third of them were Black. And he did that on purpose because he thought the cultural differences, the language barriers, and race would keep them fighting with each other and they would never have enough commonality to actually overcome that and to unionize. And of course, we know that good organizing helps us do that, right?

And so the good organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World and the United Mine Workers of America, came in and brought the miners together so that at the peak of this conflict in this uprising, there were 10,000 of them, and they wore red bandanas so that no matter where they were, no matter if they had language barriers or cultural barriers, they could see that bandana and know that they were in solidarity.

And so we wear red bandanas around our necks and this is a symbol of unity. We use these stories and this history as an example of the best of us. I don’t want to paint this history as if that was a perfect, utopian time. It absolutely was not. However, it was also remarkable, right?

We do try to use our history as political education to keep bringing people along and to talk about race directly.

One of the things that we know, too, is that when we can get people in the door by organizing around housing or a material condition, and when we ensure that group is multiracial, people do start building relationships with one another and that’s how I believe we change our hearts. And I’m not sure those relationships would happen unless we were working on something that brought people in with a very clear self-interest, and then that self-interest becomes a shared interest of the group.

Rev. Jackson stayed with farmers during his presidential campaigns. (L-R): Roger Allison,Jack O’dell, advisor to Rev. Jackson, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Unity Photo. additional info from Rhonda Perry: Actually, this was at a farmer’s house, Perry Wilson Senior, who was being foreclosed on the next day in Plattsburg MO. Rev Jackson spent the night at his house. It was Easter Sunday 1985. The next day was the sale. Over 1,000 people showed up to protest. I think this was the largest gathering of farmers, civil rights groups and labor at the time. Rev Jackson’s participation helped make this issue national news and proved to be a key moment in the movement for many farmers around the country to see who was on their side.

Carla Wallace: The Jackson campaign gave us a lot of lessons around what organizing at the intersection of racial and economic justice could look like. Jackson used to say, “We’re moving from the racial battle grounds to economic common ground and on to moral higher ground.” None of that was ever about hiding the way white supremacy divides us and lets the bosses and the corporations run the country and the world for their benefit. It was about shining the light on how white people, especially working class white people, were sold a lie about our problems being because of Black and Brown people instead of about corporate exploitation, militarism and how we get divided based on race.

We never hid the race part. We were about working with people to see how our divides were letting those on the top get away with exploiting us at home and abroad and people resonated with that. Jackson gave people something to believe in, an agenda that put people first. At the time we were in the midst of the impact of the Reagan tax cuts to the rich and doubling the military budget at the expense of the poor.  Back then and today, when you talk with white folks who are hurting, people know they’re hurting.  They also know that somebody else is benefiting at their expense. But if we are not talking about the race piece, then where the rage is targeted is at immigrant people and Black people or transgender people. That is why we have to talk about all of it, and stop assuming that is too much for people, or that it will divide people.

When we don’t talk about race, we leave a hole the size of a mountain for the other side to plow right into. The other side is not afraid to talk about race. They’re not afraid to talk about trans issues. They’re not afraid to talk about abortion. We avoid those issues at our peril.

In our Kentucky SURJ work, we are talking with tens of thousands of people at the doors, and on the phones. We are connecting with people in Eastern Kentucky, in South Louisville which is largely white and working class.  We are talking to them about transgender issues, we’re talking to them about abortion, we are talking with them about racial justice, and we are winning people to our side.

As the US-funded death toll in Gaza rises, I’m remembering Jesse Jackson as a presidential candidate unafraid to talk about cutting the military budget in order to fund schools and housing and jobs. Jackson pledged no first strike to keep the US from being able to initiate a nuclear war. Jackson was not afraid to support peace with justice for Palestine.

We raised the issues and connected the issues to how they impacted people’s lives. We talked about how the same people at the top refusing to make health care available to everyone, were funding the killing of people in other lands around the world. The movement was much stronger and more intentional then in connecting the issues of militarism and war to why we didn’t have what we need to take care of people at home. It is critical that we get back to making those connections today, and the Jackson Campaign gives us a lot of lessons on how to do so.

Eddie Wong: As a pastor, Rev. Jackson was able to define morality using, basic Christian concepts and a radical Christian interpretation of Jesus, whereas the Right today has a very distorted, fundamentalist and exclusionary view of Christianity. Do you find it useful to weave that into how you how you talk to people about values, actually referencing the people’s Christianity?

Carla Wallace: People resonate around values and caring for each other, caring for communities and it is critical that we center values in our organizing. After the huge floods in Kentucky, we were calling people in eastern Kentucky with SURJ. I remember that most of the conversations I had with people were about how neighbors were caring for neighbors. In the absence of government support, people were taking care of each other. That’s a value that can have religious roots, or roots in our humanity but that has to be more strongly woven in to how we approach this work. The other side wants to say they’re the God people. But actually caring about transgender people, believing a woman has the right over her own body, those can be very godly issues, too. We shouldn’t shy away from talking about values. You can’t organize in the South, or most places really, without understanding and respecting the role that values, and people’s faith plays in their lives.

Beth Howard: I do think we cede a lot of territory when we are not prepared or willing to talk with people about their faith and about their need for community. At KPU we are able to be with each other in a way that is showing our values very clearly on the outside. The red bandanas are a value statement, right? That’s a value statement that we all belong here, that we don’t turn our backs on each other, that we’re all part of the group. Many of our meetings, our community potlucks, we open to houseless people, to people in the community, anybody that wants to come is welcome there just as they are, which are values that should be central to Christianity, the dominant religion in the region. I think for people who feel a longing for spiritual community, but do not feel welcome by the churches they grew up in or who can’t find the right church community for them, a community organizing group can be a place where people come together with others who share their values and take action on those values together. We have a diverse group and that diversity also means we have members who are Christians, members who are active in their church, members who are atheists, and many other spiritual and faith identities who are working together to make their community a more just place to live.

We really have tried to speak our values out loud that are centered in love and tolerance and acceptance and walk the talk as well. We do our political power-building work so that every human being. every person deserves the right to a safe place to live, and we’re going to do our power-building work to do that. And we’re also going to take care of each other.

Photo from Kentucky People’s Union website.

Eddie Wong: I used to read Rising Up Angry, and there was generational side: young white people were rebellious. Beth and Carla, what do you see happening among young white people? Is that a point of engagement and growth for multiracial kind of understanding?

Beth: KPU is intergenerational, which is one of the things I’m really proud of about it and grateful for. And so I see a lot of young white people who are really open and who have their heart in the right place, and they think racism is bad and they don’t want a part of it so  a group like KPU is a place where they can continue to take those seeds and grow them and be able to take action and sharpen their political understanding of the world. And young people are very radical and courageous!

As we talked about earlier around Christianity, a lot of younger people in Eastern Kentucky grew up similarly to how I did. There’s a lot of people who grew up in evangelical churches, who are now over 18, maybe away from where they grew up, away from the day-to-day influence of their parents, and they question things that they were taught in a very conservative church. A lot of young people are coming out as queer, and they may have been in a church that made them feel like that was not okay or they felt shamed or ostracized. In spite of that, many of them had a community there, they had family there, and they’ve had to leave that faith community to be who they are.

Some of them are grieving that sense of community and so I think a group like Kentucky People’s Union is a place for young people. Our local pride groups or our local racial and economic justice campaigns are a way for young people who want community and want to grow and want to act on the values that I believe that they’re so open to. And so, we have a lot of younger leadership and they teach us so much, they keep us sharp, they keep us open and hopeful. And I think young people looking at what I’m looking at, the conditions that their future holds, is very radicalizing, to wonder and to ask what are we going to do to fight climate change? What are we doing so that we have a future? And so, I just see that openness and that willingness to fight that I think keeps all of us fiery.

Carla Wallace: The youth coming into the movement work today refuse the silos that separate issues. We’re seeing young people flood into the streets right now around Palestine. I never thought Palestine would be the entry point for most people—it would be something that would come after you looked at racial justice or being queer for example—but Palestine is an entry point right now.  In 2020 when we had the Black-led uprising here in Louisville in response to the murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police, the numbers of young white folks who were right there immediately, in the streets, holding the line, is a testament to what is possible in organizing white young people.

 Eddie Wong: We’re right into the last topic, which is fighting MAGA in the electoral arena. People are so alienated from politics in general and then Biden’s not helping us any. How do we fight the disaffection and then how do we organize if we if we are not able to succeed?

Hy Thurman: In electoral politics, if I didn’t put anything on Facebook anymore about Trump, somebody would come back and say, “You sound like a Democrat.” If I put something about Biden, they come back and say, “You sound like Trump,” and that’s how divided everything is. To me, they’re just Republicrats, they’re both the same. And that’s the point we’re trying to get over but we’ve got a long way to go. We got a lot of white supremacy out there. You still have the MAGA supporters. We still have Nazis, but we can’t let that scare us. We have to keep going.

The North Alabama School for Organizers, we have joined down with the Poor People’s Army. We will be organizing nationally, to get people to come to the DNC and RNC conventions. We hope to have a massive rally at each of these to try to get the message out as to what the masses of the poor people are going through…. we also will have classes, on fascism, organizing and inviting people in, you know where they are.

I still respect my one of my mentors, Fred Hampton, and I still read everything that I can about him and try to continue his legacy. He always said, “We have to be boots on the ground.”  Those boots have to be real. They ain’t stilettos. They’re not any of these other important, expensive boots, but we got working-class boots. And those are the ones that we have to put down on the ground. That’s what the working-class people have to see.

Photo from Showing Up for Racial Justice Facebook page.

Beth Howard: At SURJ we talk about having a block and build strategy, and that we need both. Blocking is our electoral work, blocking a MAGA takeover. And so, we are doing electoral work as an organization in Wisconsin, Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, and Arizona, and we are focusing on a strategic sector of working-class white people. The work that I do in the Kentucky People’s Union is part of that build strategy, where we are going out and building the thing we need to win long term. And sometimes those two strategies overlap, our block and build, such as KPU building a base around a housing campaign and running our members for city council so we are governing, too.

Kentucky often gets labeled a red state, but what I like to tell people is we’re a low voter turnout state. Our voter turnout in 2023 was only around 38 percent. And of course, that is because we have so much voter suppression and also because we live in a place where over and over elected officials, politicians, have shown up and made us promises they never delivered on, and we’re very smart people. We have very long memories. Memories that go through generations. And there is a large distrust of the government and politicians sometimes, because the only time we hear from them is when they want our vote. That’s what I’ve heard Carla speaking to around the Jackson campaign is that he did show up and he did care.

And I have seen that too. We just reelected our Democratic governor, Andy Beshear. And Eastern Kentucky went blue at the top of the ticket. People were willing to vote for a Democratic governor, even if they voted Republican all the way down the rest of the ticket and were registered Republicans. We called thousands of voters, people who were undecided and people we knew were already with us. And the number one reason that rural working-class white people were voting to reelect Andy Beshear is because of the flooding and climate catastrophes that hit Eastern Kentucky, because he showed up and he delivered relief, and because of COVID relief. Andy Beshear’s response during COVID was one of the best governor responses in the entire country.

And again, I think this shows Kentucky values those values that we’re talking about that we care for each other, we have each other’s backs. And while any elected official is imperfect, his re-election was important because he is also a governor who showed up in the wake of disasters, who called trans kids “children of God ” and who stood up unquestionably for abortion rights.

And I think the other thing I want to say is that it’s not that people in Appalachia don’t believe in the government. We want to believe in a government that we see actually do something for us and that works. We want to see somebody care about us and then put some actions behind that. And I think when we have candidates that do that, we can use electoral organizing as power building, and we can elect people who give a damn about us.

One of my mentors, Jerome Scott, who was a co-founder of Project South and a leader in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, would say we have to take every opportunity that we can to talk to working-class people, and electoral politics is one arena and we can’t leave it off the table. And so, I have that mindset even when I’m not excited about it. This is one way that working-class people are thinking about politics and about issues that are happening in the world, and I’m going to take that opportunity to knock on their door. To pick up a phone and call them.

Carla Wallace: Part of what I learned in the Jackson campaign was—and for folks who were in it this was a very hard conversation—was that all that energy that got generated and all those people mobilized through electoral work, was not directed into an ongoing organizing project that we could sustain and build on in the years since. We tried to move the electoral gains into intersectional multiracial organizing, but we didn’t have what we needed to make it sustainable. I don’t put that on Reverend Jackson. It’s an ongoing challenge on the Left and the progressive movements that we’re still grappling with today. I think it comes back to us being clear that our overall goal is building multiracial power for collective liberation, for real democracy.  When we are grounded in that, then everything we do, and how we do it, can add up to getting there.

Base building organizing, including the organizing of white people, with an emphasis on working-class white people, rural white people—must be central. And we cannot do that without strong organizations. It is a weakness on the Left that has to be rectified of we are to ever build what we need for the deep change that is necessary.

I’m excited about the emergence of a united front that is serious about electoral work as a key part of how we stop fascism.  I am hopeful about more of us doing that work in a way that builds what we need not only for the more short-term wins, but for long-term change. I see everything through the lens of how we build people-power.  That people-power has to be anchored in those communities that most need what this system can’t give us: health care, housing, jobs, a cleaner earth, community, public space, peace. I’m not fixated on there only being one way to do that, but I am fixated on what works. Direct action, street protest, building alternative institutions, even community organizing and electoral work are only good and right for the moment if they are building what we need to be stronger than the other side. To be able to take care of each other in the face of a system that doesn’t, and eventually gain the governance that is needed to win the world we deserve, we need a lot more power than we have now.  I’m all about building that power—multiracial power. It’s going to be led by a Black vision for the world we need and it’s going to be in multiracial coalition. There is no way we will have the numbers we need if we are not organizing the white stripe of this movement for liberation.  And that piece—that is on those of us who are white.

Photo from SUJR website.

Beth Howard:  One of the things that I take away about working with working-class white people, especially in Appalachia, is that we are a group of people who have been called trash, white trash, hillbillies. So I think that one of the most important things we can do is treat people with dignity and respect, like they matter, and just show them love and to help them feel and know that they are inherently worthy, and that they are needed. Largely in movement, in progressive spaces or liberal spaces, we’re not welcome. We’re usually the butt of a joke, right?

And that has got to change. And not just the attitude, but actually creating a group that is built by them and that is for them. And that is still my hope in creating the Kentucky People’s Union and our other projects that are rooted in grassroots organizing in Kentucky and Appalachia. This is the group that I wish my family had. And I am very proud and grateful to be in this legacy of the white stripe of the Rainbow Coalition. And that I’ve been carrying on in the traditon of those who have gone before me, those I’m lucky enough to be in the lineage of like Hy and  the young patriots, our ancestors from Blair Mountain and people like Anne Braden and Carla and other people who have taken on this task of organizing working-class Southern people. And I think that every time I knock on a door, every time I pick up a call, it brings me closer to them so I’m always carrying that with me.

Carla Wallace: The struggles that have gone before us are so important for us to lift up—not just what they accomplished, for our wins are too few—-but the journey of struggle. Sometimes we can be in a struggle and it can feel like this is the hardest it’s ever been. I get great hope seeing that up against the odds, over and over, people have resisted and will continue to resist, will continue to fight for change. We’re showing up for ourselves and for each other and that gives me hope when it feels so uphill and so hard.

A shorter version of this conversation first appeared on Convergence.

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Author bios:

Beth Howard is the Appalachia Peoples Union Director for Showing Up for Racial Justice. She lives in Lexington, KY, but grew up in a rural white working -class community in Eastern Kentucky. She has organized in the American South for 17 years, serving as a lead organizer on winning campaigns to raise the minimum wage, restore voting rights, and win treatment programs for incarcerated people. She’s also worked on engaging white working-class Southerners in electoral campaigns, including the 2021 Georgia runoff and the defeat of the 2022 Kentucky abortion ban ballot initiative. Beth is the creator of the viral narrative campaign Rednecks for Black Lives and she’s been featured in the NBC News Now’s National Day of Racial Healing special, Matter of Fact’s Listening Tour with Soledad O’Brian, NPR’s Here and NowNow This News, and the book Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections.

Carla F Wallace has been part of organizing for change for over 40 years, with a focus on the South and her home state of Kentucky.  She is a co-founder of Showing Up for Racial Justice (known as SURJ) which moves white people—in particular, those who are poor. working-class and rural—to be part of the multiracial struggle for collective liberation. Mentored by southern civil rights activists in the Black Liberation Movement and by white racial justice fighter Anne Braden, Carla also co-founded Louisville’s Fairness Campaign, which has been nationally honored for its work winning LGBTQ equity by centering racial justice and connecting community organizing and electoral work. Carla has been inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

Hy Thurman originally comes from Tennessee and now resides in Alabama. In the late 1960s, when he was 17, he moved to Chicago and settled in the predominantly Southern white Uptown community. He became a community organizer and co-founded the Young Patriots, a group of displaced anti-racist Southern white youth that created health care services and breakfast for children programs and fought police brutality and urban renewal plans to destroy their homes. He also cofounded the Rainbow Coalition, which was made up of the Young Patriots, the Young Lords (a Puerto Rican gang turned political) and the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, to fight for self-determination in their communities. He is presently working with the Second Rainbow Coalition and directs of the North Alabama School for Organizers. Hy is the author of Revolutionary Hillbilly: Notes from the Struggle on the Edge of the Rainbow (Regent Press, 2020).

Moderator Bio:

Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine. He is a longtime activist in the political and cultural arenas. In 1988, he served as the National Field Director of the Jesse Jackson for President campaign and later as the Western Regional Director of the National Rainbow Coalition.

 

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