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The Achilles' Heel of the American Dream

Book Review: “Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power” profiles the radical, working-class movements of the '60s and '70s—a guide for transformation today.

Hillbilly Nationalists Book Cover

Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power
by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy
Melville House, 2011, 200 pages, $16.95

Occupy demonstrations across the United States raise the urgent question: How can outpourings of discontent be developed into creative, community-rooted organizations capable of long-term work to reshape economic, political, and social life? 

Anyone grappling with this task will appreciate Amy Sonnie and James Tracy’s new book, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power. It makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of radical U.S. social-movement-building during the ’60s and ’70s by describing the organizing efforts of poor and working-class whites—a constituency historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes in the book’s introduction as “the Achilles’ heel” of the American Dream.

Hillbilly Nationalists combines archival research with extensive oral history to critically examine five white, working-class, radical community organizations—Jobs or Income Now, Young Patriots Organization, and Rising Up Angry in Chicago; White Lightning in the Bronx; and October 4th Organization in Philadelphia. 

These groups were inspired by the community-based “organize your own” strategies of the Black Panthers and distinguished themselves through their culturally-rooted approach to community organizing, described as “meeting people where they were at.” 

The book moves from profiles of an eclectic cast of working-class history makers such as Peggy Terry, Junebug Boykin, and Mike James to the broader context of social, political, and economic changes of the time. 

By highlighting individuals and community organizations that defied assumptions about the racist and reactionary nature of poor and working-class white communities, Sonnie and Tracy provide us with important untold histories of the New Left. These histories reveal how critiques of racism, patriarchy, and empire are a natural fit for class-based community organizing and remind us that poor communities of all colors have the capacity to define and confront, on their own terms, the injustices that constrain their lives. 


Sean Burns wrote this article for Making it Home, the Summer 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Sean is a Berkeley-based historian and leads the band, Professor Burns and the Lilac Field.

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