In the 1960s, the organization partnered with the Black Panthers and Young Lords, providing a model for multiracial coalition-building in Chicago.
By Mari Cohen
A few weeks ago, Emerald City Coffee, in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, hosted a talk on a 1960s-era radical group of poor, white Southern migrants called the Young Patriots, best known for organizing in the multiracial Rainbow Coalition with the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. On my way there, I walked past Harry S. Truman College, part of the City Colleges system. The campus is located roughly across the street from Emerald City. I would soon learn that the site now occupied by Truman College was once a key battleground in a fight between the Young Patriots and entrenched city leadership over what Uptown’s future should look like, and whom it should be designed for—questions that remain at the heart of political battles in Uptown and across the city today.
The event, sponsored by Illinois Humanities and the Haitian American Museum of Chicago, featured former Young Patriot Hy Thurman. Thurman moved to Uptown from Tennessee in 1967, at the age of seventeen. He was part of a wave of some forty thousand Appalachian migrants, fleeing the decline of mining and agriculture, who found affordable housing in Uptown as previous residents left for the suburbs and landlords broke down housing stock into small units to rent. The migrants’ presence transformed the formerly middle-class lakefront neighborhood, which soon earned the nickname “Hillbilly Heaven.” But the migrants found fewer jobs than expected and faced brutal police violence and slum living conditions, as well as lack of access to quality healthcare.
Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration viewed the residents of “Hillbilly Heaven” as threats to peaceful middle-class life in the city, according to Thurman. “We were not welcome there at all,” he told me in a phone interview after the event. “We were not welcome mainly because of Chicago and society in general looked down upon us as being white trash or in, you know, in inbreeding, and, you know, all kinds of stereotypes.”
When Thurman arrived in Uptown, fellow migrants had already been doing some organizing for better housing and against police brutality with a group called JOIN, aided by activists from Students for a Democratic Society. Some organizers broke off to form a migrant-led group called the Goodfellows, aiming to bring local gangs into progressive campaigns. In 1968, Thurman and other Goodfellows decided to form the Young Patriots Party. The name, Thurman says, was designed to recall how the Patriots in the American Revolution challenged power, not to align with modern American patriotism. The Patriots released an eleven-point program, which announced: “Revolutionary solidarity with all oppressed peoples of this and all other countries and races defeats the divisions created by the narrow interests of cultural nationalism.”
The Young Patriots modeled their organization after the Illinois Black Panthers and the Young Lords, a Lincoln Park-based Puerto Rican organization. The Patriots eventually came face-to-face with the Black Panthers at a meeting of the Lakeview Citizens Council, where they had gone to ask for money for their community problems. The request didn’t go over well with the council. “These were white middle-class people, and they considered us to be a gang,” Thurman told me. “And, you know, they came down on us pretty hard, and then Bobby Lee, who was a Black Panther, stood up for us.”
These days, as mainstream political analysts have painted the interests of poor white people and people of color as fundamentally opposed, the story of the Young Patriots offers an alternate vision of solidarity.
The Patriots continued to organize with the Panthers and Young Lords, eventually forming an activist network called the Rainbow Coalition. Prominent leaders included Thurman, Lee, the Panthers’ Fred Hampton, the Patriots’ William “Preacherman” Festerman, and Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez of the Young Lords. A group of southern whites might seem unlikely partners for radical Black and brown organizations, but Thurman says the alliance made sense, since his community also faced oppression from police and city government. Once, Thurman said, he was even beat with a stick by then-alderman Robert O’Rourke, a Republican who liked to ride around with the police.
The Young Patriots’ work, like that of the organizations on which they were modeled, involved a blend of militant direct action tactics and community programming: they opened a free health clinic, joined protests against police brutality, and organized breakfast programs for children. In 1970, the Young Patriots led a forty-one-person sit-in at a Chicago Board of Health clinic in Uptown, demanding the clinic modify its limited weekday hours to better serve the community. As a result, the clinic agreed to expand evening and Saturday hours.
In 1968, the Patriots joined the Uptown Area People’s Planning Coalition (UAPPC), an alliance of Uptown groups that challenged the city’s urban renewal plans for the area. They became best known for the battle over the Truman City College site. Mayor Richard J. Daley and allies hoped that a college campus would revitalize the area—partially by evicting those living there, who were mostly poor southern whites. The UPPC wanted to use the site to build an affordable housing development, Hank Williams Village, that would include a medical clinic, child care facilities, a hotel for recent migrants to stay in upon arrival, a community police patrol, and more. Their plan would stagger construction to minimize displacing people from the area. Architect Rodney Wright got a grant to draw up plans, and the group secured financial support from developers and businessmen for the development. They even suggested an alternate site for Truman College that wouldn’t displace residents.
“But the powers [that] be, you know, refused us,” Thurman said during his presentation at Emerald City. “We also offered them other alternative plans to do it. The community wasn’t just a bunch of people who didn’t care. There are a lot of organizations that got together and just tried our best.”
The Uptown Community Council, in charge of urban renewal projects and appointed by Mayor Daley, killed the Hank Williams Village dream in 1969 and moved forward with the Truman College plan, which resulted in the demolition of twelve hundred low-income housing units and the displacement of some eighteen hundred to four thousand people, mostly poor southern whites, in the early 1970s. After the Chicago Police assassinated Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in December 1969, Young Patriots members feared for their safety as the police and FBI tried to tamp down the radical movement. With their power limited by displacement and repression, the Young Patriots Party officially disbanded in 1972.
These days, as mainstream political analysts have painted the interests of poor white people and people of color as fundamentally opposed, the story of the Young Patriots offers an alternate vision of solidarity. Patrick King recently argued in Viewpoint Magazine that the Young Patriots were aided by their ability to organize around their community’s specific regional Appalachian identity, which often left them in a marginalized position compared to other southern white people. The Young Patriots’ legacy also inspired later coalition building both locally and nationally. Successor organizations in Uptown, like the Heart of Uptown Coalition, saw the Young Patriots as a model, and Uptown groups eventually succeeded in electing progressive Helen Schiller, who represented them in City Council for more than twenty years.
A couple of weeks after the Young Patriots event, I sat at home, refreshing the Chicago Sun-Times’s election results page for the April 2 municipal runoff election. Alderman James Cappleman of the 48th Ward, who represents much of Uptown in City Council, was locked in a tight battle with Marianne Lalonde, a scientist challenging Cappleman from the left. I watched as the bars representing each candidate’s percentage of the vote stayed roughly equal all night: at times, one candidate slipped ahead of the other by a few votes, only to fall behind again by the same small margin. At the end of the night, with all precincts counted, Cappleman was ahead of Lalonde by only twenty-three votes.
The final results will take two weeks to determine, as mail-in and absentee ballots are counted and added to the tally. But the fact that Cappleman—who has nearly four times as much campaign cash as Lalonde, as well as the support of outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel—faces such a fight is evidence that his policies have sparked discontent in Uptown, which today is one of Chicago’s most diverse neighborhoods (though that diversity is now threatened by increasing property values). Cappleman evicted a homeless tent city and supported the demolition and replacement of affordable Single-Room Occupancies (SROs). The Chicago Reader reported that, according to an analysis by the group ONE Northside, the ward has lost 803 SRO units and gained 1,265 luxury units during Cappleman’s tenure.
Cappleman’s opponents say Uptown is in danger of losing its affordable housing amid a luxury building boom, and that the current alderman is part of the problem. Multiracial progressive groups, including Uptown Uprising, Asian American Midwest Progressives, and ONE People’s Campaign, campaigned for Lalonde and against Cappleman in the months leading up to the runoff. The neighborhood may no longer be “Hillbilly Heaven,” but, in 2019, the threat of displacement still looms, and the spirit of organizing lives on. ■
Mari Cohen is associate editor of Belt and senior editor and workshop manager at the South Side Weekly. She previously worked for Injustice Watch.
Cover image: Young Patriots Organization (YPO) leader Bill ‘Preacherman’ Fesperman (in cowboy hat), Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton, with arms akimbo, and Bobby Rush, with arms crossed, attend a downtown rally near the band shell of Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, 1969. (Photo by Paul Sequeira/Getty Images)
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