The Rainbow Coalition: An amazing interracial union in 1960s Chicago
When misery is commonplace, quarrels are set aside. This is the conclusion of a devastating documentary by Texas filmmaker Ray Santisteban, which PBS broadcast on January 27.
Can you imagine the Black Panthers standing up to a group of poor whites whose symbol is the Confederate flag? It seems impossible, doesn't it? Well, it happened in Chicago in the '60s, when fed up with police brutality and poor access to education, health care, and housing, a group of so-called "white trash," the Young Patriots, decided to make a truce with their Latino rivals, the Young Lords--a gang that had been turned into a community group--and the famous Black Panthers to fight together against the discrimination that made them equal.
This is the extraordinary story told by "The First Rainbow Coalition," a documentary by San Antonio filmmaker Ray Santisteban, which will air on PBS, and features a young Black activist, Bobby Lee, who mustered the courage to go north of segregated Chicago to the poor white area with the firm purpose of sealing an alliance with his fiercest racial enemies –in pursuit of the common good.
"You know when they say reality is stranger than fiction," said Santisteban. "If someone had written it (as fiction), you would laugh and say, 'That's ridiculous.”
But it was real.
According to Hy Thurman, a resident of the "white man's" neighborhood, he and his fellow "rednecks" were considered "dangerous" by the mayor of Chicago at the time, Richard Daley, and by the police department in general, and were suffering the effects of "unjust" and prejudiced justice that prevented them from even getting a job.
So Bobby Lee brought peace between gangs and got the first meeting between the Young Patriots, the Young Lords, and the Black Panthers, proving, according to Thurman, that "whatever happens in their neighborhood, happens in ours. And we weren't going to change anything by hating each other. The quickest way to do that was to bring the neighborhoods together."
"What I hope is that people see the potential of thinking about alliances as a way to transform society," Ray Santisteban.
Also, Young Lords leader Jose "Cha-Cha" Jimenez will declare at one point in the documentary: "Our communities were fighting for the same cause... in unity there was strength."
Because of their interracial alliance, the newly formed Rainbow Coalition adopted a yellow, white, red, brown and black striped flag as a symbol of diversity in these oppressed communities.
What began as a sporadic union, out of necessity, soon developed into a political movement that came to forge ties with other communities, such as the Asian collective I Wor Kuen, the American Indian Movement, and Students for a Democratic Society.
But for the FBI, Chicago police and Mayor Daley himself, this union with the Black Panthers, which they called a Black nationalist hate group, was a threat. They were afraid of the charisma of Bobby Lee and Fred Hampton, the Panther vice president, and they did not take into consideration, as the Young Lords' leader Jimenez explained, that they were providing free breakfasts for children in their neighborhoods or organizing food banks for adults.
They were branded as criminals. Even he, who was charged with 17 counts as a result of his protest actions, escaped to Wisconsin to train other activists before turning himself in.
With Hampton, it was worse.
In the documentary, they point out how the Panther leader was "apparently" killed by the FBI.
"Many people underestimated what the government would do to suppress a truly poor people's movement," Jimenez explained. Meanwhile, Ericka Huggins of the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party wondered, "What did he (Hampton) do? She formed coalitions.
Although the coalition dissolved in 1973, having achieved positive changes in Chicago, the spirit of the Rainbow continued to be with its protagonists:
Jose "Cha Cha" Jimenez ran for city council in his district and got 40% of the vote; Panther Bobby Rush became a congressman, and the election of Harold Washington as Chicago's first Black mayor marked young Barack Obama to fight for the rights of his community.
"What I hope is that people will see the potential of thinking about alliances as a way to transform society," concluded director Ray Santisteban, who is also the author of other celebrated documentaries and series exploring the Chicano movement.