In the last few years, our understanding of the social movements of the sixties has been transformed by new scholarship that looks beyond familiar narratives of SDS and the civil rights movement in the South. Works like Penny Lewis’ Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks, Amy Sonnie and James Tracy’s Hillibilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power and The Black Revolution on Campus by Martha Biondi have undermined notions that the movements in the sixties were largely bereft of class politics, or that identity was foregrounded in ways that marginalized economic struggles. In fact, identity and economic struggle were combined in innovative ways by groups not well represented by the existing labor movement. Not preserved in an amber of nostalgia like some highpoints of struggle, these struggles were nonetheless highly significant. The fact that they cannot be glibly classified as victories may in fact make them even more useful to understanding struggles in the present. Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974 by historian Gordon K. Mantler is a worthy addition to this literature. Focused on efforts to build multiracial alliances, mostly between African Americans and Mexican Americans, it highlights a number of these struggles, showing how assertions of identity, multiracial coalitions, and economic struggles could, for a time, all build together, rather than at the expense of each other.
The notion of multiracial coalitions, or “rainbow coalitions,” can seem natural, or a “no-brainer.” Until recently, the American polity largely excluded non-whites, and, to this day, whites constitute a large majority of the most privileged groups. On the other hand, less privileged, powerful and wealthy groups are also disproportionately non-white. Furthermore, whites are often racist against all those who do not look like them. At the same time, the position of poorer whites could conceivably be strenghthened through an alliance with people of color. However, the author identifies three concrete challenges to the scenario of inevitable multiracial coalitions. First, the history of different racial groups is quite varied, leading to different priorities in the present. Secondly, the evolution of struggle in the US led to an activist hierarchy in which African American leaders saw themselves as the leaders of all oppressed, sometimes folding other groups priorities into their own. Finally, the racial hierarchy in the US is not simply white and non-white. Racism against African Americans is more sharply posed, and other groups have sometimes acted to distance themselves from African Americans, in effect, asserting that they are not so far from whites. All of these emerged as concrete problems in efforts to build coalitions between African Americans and Mexican Americans. On the other hand, continued violence at the hands of police was a shared experience that facilitated unification.