Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is an American hero whose non-violent philosophy and efforts related to civil rights challenged and changed the social foundation of America. Dr. King’s focus on economic equality was a new path for him. This was a path toward what Dr. King called “constructive democratic change.” It was Dr. King’s vision and intention to forge a multiracial coalition of poor people in America.
What if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final vision of a multiracial alliance to end poverty in America had been successful? How would America have changed? Look and feel like today? The Poor People’s March on Washington organized by Dr. King was designed and planned in order to gain economic justice for all poor people in America. The success and impact Dr. King envisioned was not to be. Dr. King’s assassination occurred four months before the March. Perhaps Dr. King underestimated the economic power structure in the United States. As troublesome as he might have been because of his fighting for voting rights and access to public places, etcetera -- and even his criticism of the Vietnam War, while worrisome, was tolerated -- it was his intention to interfere in the economic system of America that went too far. King had to go.
The activity of establishing a class consciousness and uniting poor whites and blacks against economic exploitation has been crushed at every turn. Racism has been the tool most often used to sabotage such movements. One early attempt at a class-based alliance occurred in the late 1890s when the Populist movement took root.
Dismal conditions impacted Southern farmers as cotton prices declined in the 1890s. As they became more frustrated and poorer, white farmers organized The Farmers Alliance, the political beginnings of an agrarian protest movement. At nearly the same time, the Colored Farmers Alliance was also organized. These two groups attempted to form an interracial coalition that would result in shared prosperity.
Racism and classism by the establishment parties, however, doomed the movement.
This alliance between poor whites and blacks was especially threatening to the power of the establishment parties. The key to the defeat of the Populist movement was the white supremacy campaign carried out by the Democratic party. Democratic propaganda created fear in poor whites that blacks would become their social equals. The lack of class consciousness (awareness of their own social and economic rank in white society and manipulation by the powerful elite) and most importantly, the psychological threat of black social equality was sufficient to keep poor whites from fighting to free themselves from their lower-class position.
Probably the most successful but short-lived attempt at interracial unity occurred in Chicago during the 1960s. An unlikely alliance of groups who had been conditioned to be enemies in American society was formed. In a revolutionary move, a coalition of working class and poor whites, “The Young Patriots,” joined the Black Panthers and the Young Lords (Latinos) in a multiracial alliance to eliminate systemic class oppression and to become the original “Rainbow Coalition.”
The Young Patriots were from families of poor whites from Appalachia who lived in what was called Uptown Chicago. These families had migrated to Chicago in search of job opportunities as had the blacks during the First Great Migration from 1910 to 1930. Poor, struggling, and harried by the police, this group of “dislocated hillbillies” had their own set of problems. While poor whites resorted to racism as a reaction to their lower-class position, their leader William “Preacherman” Fesperaman made it clear to poor whites that racism against blacks and other people of color only weakened their class power.
This group of southern whites, “hillbillies” as they were called, had to understand, challenge, and denounce the myth of white supremacy while fighting for the class interests of poor working-class white people. This was no easy task: they wore Confederate flags on their lapels but preached an anti-racist philosophy.
Under the leadership of Fred Hampton, the Rainbow Coalition made tremendous strides. For instance, the Young Patriots following the lead of the Black Panthers and established breakfast programs for children and free health clinics; they organized tenant unions, and they supported women’s rights. The effectiveness of this alliance apparently led to its downfall. The Young Patriot’s breakfast programs and health clinics were forced to close due to harassment by Chicago officials. Patrons of the health clinics were harassed by the police, and Young Patriot meetings were disrupted. The final and most destructive blow to the Rainbow Coalition was the pre-dawn assassination of Fred Hampton, charismatic leader of the Black Panthers, by the Chicago police. His assassination sent waves of fear throughout the alliance and rightfully so. The old method of racial divide and conquer was used again to good effect in order to cause distrust among alliance members. Rumors of a black takeover of the white neighborhood or that the Patriots were operating with the Klan were used to establish suspicion among the groups. Finally, as the alliance was put under great scrutiny, panic set in. As each of the groups - the Young Patriots, the Latin Lords, and of course the Panthers - came under greater scrutiny by the COINTELPRO (Counter- Intelligence Program) conducted by the FBI and local authorities, members of the alliance went into hiding.
While their duration was short, The Rainbow Coalition made a difference in the hearts, minds, and material lives especially of the poor whites. The Young Patriots understood the role that racism plays in keeping poor working-class whites oppressed. They also were keenly aware that to create class-based power, white racism had to be confronted and eliminated.
Despite the obvious obstacles and barriers, is a class-based multiracial alliance still conceivable in the United States?
Can addressing the impact of classism upon poor, working-class whites prevent young white men from engaging in racially and class motivated violence?
Are liberal and progressive whites willing to organize class-based multiracial alliances to eliminate economic inequality?