The original Patriot Party was a group of socialist radicals who sought to stoke revolutionary fervor among poor and working-class White people, decking themselves out in Confederate flags while taking their political inspiration from the Black Panthers. With chapters in cities nationwide, the Patriot Party was one of several organizations that formed in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the belief that Whites would abandon racist beliefs once they learned that capitalism was the real enemy.
As Amy Sonnie and James Tracy document in “Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times,” the group became a part of the original “Rainbow Coalition” along with the Panthers and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican street gang that morphed into a political movement. But it soon fell apart amid violence and constant surveillance from the FBI.
Like the Panthers, the Patriot Party sought to reach people in poverty-stricken neighborhoods by offering free health clinics, a free breakfast program and even its own “liberation schools” that sought to impart revolutionary ideals to children. In Eugene, Ore., the group distributed free firewood to rural Whites who relied on wood stoves for warmth. A 1970 pamphlet explaining the group’s mission contained a list of demands that included “an immediate end to police brutality,” freedom for “all oppressed White people” held in prisons, and an end to all sexism and racism.
“The South will rise again, only this time with the North and all the oppressed people of the world,” the pamphlet, which was later seized by police in a raid on the group, optimistically predicted.
The group’s existence was the result of infighting on the left. In 1970, it split off from the Young Patriots Organization, or YPO, amid internal disagreement over how to best create a mass movement for disadvantaged White people. Both the YPO and Patriot Party targeted “disaffected youth, the chronically unemployed, welfare recipients, recovering drug users, day laborers, blue-collar workers and white ethnic communities,” including newly arrived Italian, Irish and Polish immigrants, Sonnie and Tracy write. They also sought to build solidarity among “dislocated hillbillies” who had left impoverished Appalachian communities for cities such as Chicago and Cleveland, but who found themselves still struggling to make ends meet.
Though their political aims couldn’t have been more different, these White revolutionaries adopted an aesthetic that wouldn’t be out of place in today’s far-right circles. The Patriots “adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of southern poor people’s revolt against the owning class,” Sonnie and Tracy write, and proudly emblazoned it on denim jackets and berets. Sometimes, it appeared alongside “Resurrect John Brown” buttons referencing the legendary 19th-century abolitionist.
There was a practical explanation: Confederate flag patches could be cheaply obtained at military surplus stores. But the decision to embrace iconography that was also popular with white supremacists raised eyebrows and led to some wariness from members of the Panthers and the Young Lords.
Today, even identifying as a “patriot” can carry certain unsavory connotations. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s database of hate groups contains more than 50 organizations whose names contain the term, including numerous branches of the white-supremacist Patriot Front. But the Patriot Party of the 1970s believed that full racial equality would honor the vision of the founders of the United States, and declared the Constitution to be “groovy.”
Like many other leftist groups of its era, the Patriot Party was heavily surveilled by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. For a good portion of its existence, “there were more people watching the group than there were members,” Sonnie and Tracy note. Members were frequently arrested on charges of possessing illegal drugs or weapons — like the Panthers, the Patriots emphasized the importance of being armed — and the ensuing legal battles prevented them from focusing on their goal of organizing the working class. (In his previous career as an attorney, Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera represented the president of the Eugene, Ore., Patriot Party chapter, Charles Armsbury, who was arrested on federal firearms charges.)
There was also the omnipresent specter of violence. The Eugene chapter’s office was attacked by an armed gunman, the authors of “Hillbilly Nationalists” noted, and the 10-year-old daughter of one member was assaulted by an unknown assailant in a drugstore and spent weeks in the hospital. Armsbury recalled that far-right militias “weren’t too happy with blacks and whites in a rural area cooperating with each other.”
Within just a few years of its formation, the Patriot Party’s activities were reduced to distributing a left-wing newspaper, and the group soon effectively ceased to exist. Before long, its name was being appropriated by supporters of a failed presidential candidate who believed in the need to form a third party, leading to the short-lived Patriot Party of Ross Perot.