Cross-Racial Alliances and Social Movements in the Late Twentieth Century

Endorsed by IEHS and LAWCHA

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 2:45 PM - 4:14 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; African American; Latino/a; Politics


The 1960s continue to dominate in both scholarly and popular discussions about grassroots social movements in the postwar United States. Though these accounts rightly credit 1960s-era movements with bringing about profound political and cultural change, this focus risks overshadowing how movements continued to transform political and social life in subsequent decades. This panel traces how during the 1970s and 1980s activists on the left advanced the unrealized dreams of 1960s movements while also pushing struggles for racial and economic justice into new terrains. Social movements navigated this period of ascending conservative political power, these authors argue, by adapting longstanding tactics, developing new strategies, and – perhaps most powerfully – forming multiracial alliances that brought black, brown, and white activists together in effective coalitions. Eddie Bonilla examines the creation of the Anti-Bakke Decision Coalition which brought together student activists of different racial backgrounds to defend affirmative action. Activists took to the streets to defend affirmative action and advocated the further institutionalization of Ethnic Studies leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). Bonilla stresses activists in the 1970s were critical as they faced the backlash of a rising New Right movement seeking to roll back the gains of the 1960s. Katherine Bynum traces the dynamic relationship between black, brown, and white community organizers in the fight against police brutality in Dallas in the early 1970s. In the wake of several police shootings, the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, and the Bois d’Arc Patriots, a white working-class organization, forged a cross-racial coalition to challenge ongoing racism and police violence, ultimately helping to establish a police review board and bring federal oversight to the Dallas Police Department. Benjamin Holtzman explores how in response to a rapidly growing and violent white supremacist movement in the late 1970s, civil rights veterans and younger activists came together to form the National Anti-Klan Network (NAKN). Holtzman traces how this multiracial antiracist coalition built the NAKN and deployed a variety of tactics to curtail the growth of white power organizations, as they also struggled to undermine the subtler forms of white supremacy that pervaded American society. Together, these works help historians to rethink both the role of grassroots social movements and the trajectory of American politics after the 1960s. In contrast to depictions of the post-1960s political left as being ineffective and fragmented – particularly because of divisions over identify – these presentations not only reveal progressive and radical political victories, but also how they came in part through mobilizing cross-racial alliances. As such, they suggest a reframing of this period as one of the grassroots left navigating through – rather than being stymied by – differences by putting racial solidarity into practice. At the same time, this panel will also highlight the internal and external challenges of maintaining these coalitions and what they reveal about race, politics, and grassroots organizing in the latter twentieth century.

Papers Presented

Building an Anti-Racist Movement: The National Anti-Klan Network (NAKN) and the Campaign to Combat White Supremacists in the 1980s

In the late 1970s, a violent and pernicious white supremacist movement grew across the United States as the economy deteriorated and as prominent politicians depicted gains by people of color as losses for whites. In response, a grassroots coalition comprised largely of black freedom struggle veterans and younger activists came together to take aim both at white supremacists and the subtler forms of white supremacy that pervaded American society. At the forefront of the struggle was the little studied organization, the National Anti-Klan Network (NAKN). This paper examines how antiracist activists formed and built the NAKN in the early 1980s and traces the principal strategies they deployed, from mass protests to media blitzes to educational campaigns. Over the 1980s, this paper argues, the NAKN fostered an interracial grassroots network that curtailed the power and influence of white supremacists. This paper complicates the prominent depiction by historians of the post-1960s American political left being disjointed and brittle by chronicling how the NAKN was an accomplished movement that was at once interracial, gender diverse, and intergenerational. The paper also builds on the scholarship on the aftermath of the postwar black freedom struggle by revealing a dynamic and overlooked path of movement veterans: former civil right movement participants and leaders who drew from their past experience in grassroots organizing tactics to counter the white supremacist movement in the late twentieth century.

Presented By
Benjamin Holtzman, Lehman College / CUNY

The Birth of the ‘Triumvirate Alliance’: Black, Brown, and White Organizing Against Police Brutality in Dallas, Texas

This paper examines the dynamic relationship between black, brown, and white community organizers in the fight against police brutality in Dallas in the early 1970s. Activists from each group had often worked independently of one another throughout the 1960s—forming temporary alliances via the labor movement, through coordinated efforts to desegregate Dallas schools, and together in the War on Poverty. However, three police shootings in the early 1970s pushed the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, and the Bois d’Arc Patriots, a white working-class organization, to form what Dallas newspapers called “a triumvirate alliance” to end police brutality. This paper demonstrates the larger significance of cross-racial coalitions of the long civil rights movement by arguing that black, brown, and white activists forged a network of communication that allowed activists outside of these organizations to collaborate. They fought racism and discrimination wherever it existed, helped establish a police review board, and brought federal oversight to the Dallas Police Department for the first time.

Presented By
Katherine E. Bynum Chávez, Arizona State University

Multiracial Communists, the Anti-Bakke Decision Coalition, and the Fight to Defend Affirmative Action, 1976-1978

“Smash the Bakke Decision! Down with Imperialism! End National Oppression” was the rallying cry of activists during marches on October 15, 1977 that took place across the country to build support for affirmative action programs. The Anti-Bakke Decision Coalition organized the National Day of Solidarity against the Bakke court case (1978). Formed by the Marxist-Leninist Asian American organization I Wor Kuen, ABDC also had members from the primarily Chicana/o August 29th Movement and the African American organization, the Revolutionary Communist League, formerly known as the Congress of African People. These three organizations formally merged in 1978 to form the League of Revolutionary Struggle, arguably the most critical organization of the New Communist movement that existed from 1978 to 1990. This paper examines how communists of color organized in the defense of affirmative action and for the expansion of Ethnic Studies nationwide in higher education. The Bakke case catalyzed mass organizing across the nation while making its way to the Supreme Court. Activists crossed-racial lines to create multi-national and working-class organizations to mobilize communities for the struggles of equal access to higher education. They tied the protests against Bakke with the efforts of the “Third World” and the oppression facing workers and women in the United States. More generally, this research will highlight the historical fight for equal educational rights by activists who utilized Marxism-Leninism to argue that the structures of the Ivory Tower discriminated against minority students.

Presented By
Eddie Bonilla, Boston College

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Kathleen Belew, Northwestern University
Kathleen Belew is a historian, author, and teacher. She specializes in the history of the present. She spent ten years researching and writing her first book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Harvard, 2018, paperback 2019). In it, she uses previously classified FBI documents and vivid personal testimonies to explore how white power activists created a social movement through a common story about betrayal by the government, war, and its weapons, uniforms, and technologies. By uniting Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi, skinhead, and other groups, the movement mobilized and carried out escalating acts of violence that reached a crescendo in the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City. This movement was never adequately confronted, and remains a presence in American life.

Belew, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago, has spoken about Bring the War Home in a wide variety of places, including The Rachel Maddow Show, The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell, AC 360 with Anderson Cooper, Frontline, Fresh Air, and All Things Considered. Her work has featured prominently in documentaries such as Homegrown Hate: The War Among Us (ABC) and Documenting Hate: New American Nazis (Frontline).

Belew is co-editor of and contributor to A Field Guide to White Supremacy.

This research has received the support of the Chauncey and Marion Deering McCormick Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Jacob K. Javits Foundation. Belew earned her BA in the Comparative History of Ideas from the University of Washington, where she was named Dean’s Medalist in the Humanities. She earned a doctorate in American Studies from Yale University. Belew has held postdoctoral fellowships from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (2019-20), Northwestern University, and Rutgers University. Her award-winning teaching centers on the broad themes of history of the present, conservatism, race, gender, violence, identity, and the meaning of war.

Presenter: Eddie Bonilla, Boston College
Eddie Bonilla is a Postdoctoral associate in Latinx Studies at the University of Pittsburgh after being a Postdoctoral fellow in Ethnic Studies at the University of Illinois. He received his PhD in History from Michigan State University. He is currently working on his book manuscript, Homegrown Communists in the Age of Reagan: Multi-Racial Politics and Socialist Revolution.

Presenter: Katherine E. Bynum Chávez, Arizona State University
Katherine E. Bynum is an Assistant Professor of History at Arizona State University. She received her PhD in 2020 from TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. Her book project titled Civil Rights in the City of Hate:” Grassroots Organizing against Police Brutality in Dallas, Texas connects carceral studies with Black and Brown civil rights historiographies, showing how both African Americans and Mexican Americans, simultaneously and relationally, built liberation movements that centered on the struggle against policing and police violence. She also published a chapter in the edited anthology, Civil Rights in Black and Brown: Histories of Resistance and Struggle in Texas (UT Press, 2021).

Presenter: Benjamin Holtzman, Lehman College / CUNY
Benjamin Holtzman is an Assistant Professor of History at Lehman College/CUNY. He is the author of The Long Crisis: New York City and the Path to Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2021). His research and teaching focus on the political and social history of the United States, with particular emphasis on capitalism, cities, race and class, and social movements. Holtzman’s work has appeared in Modern American History, Journal of Social History, and Journal of Urban History as well as popular publications as The Washington Post, Jacobin, and Shelterforce. His research has been supported by fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. Holtzman is currently working on his second book, “Smash the Klan”: Fighting the White Power Movement in the Late Twentieth Century.