Patriots, Panthers, Lords, and Rainbows
Imagine what would happen if someone wore this button to a Trump or Black Lives Matter rally. Given what we have seen on the media, the person would likely be met with indignation, insults, and perhaps physical violence.
Young Patriots Organization button Credit: Unknown
This button, developed in the 1960's, marked a unique partnership between the Black Panther Party (BPP), the Young Patriots Organization (YPO), and the Young Lords. I learned their story at the Black Panther Party's 50th Anniversary Conference and Celebration in Oakland, CA, where many of the founding leaders gathered. In one rousing panel, Aaron Dixon and Stan McKinney (BPP), Hy Thurman and Marilyn Katz (YPO), Jose "Cha Cha" Jimenez (Young Lords) spoke of the formation of the original "Rainbow Coalition*." Other notable elders on the panel included Lenny Foster (American Indian Movement), and Pam Tau Lee (Chinese Progressive Association).
The Rainbow Coalition began in Uptown Chicago, known as "Hillbilly Harlem," because of its population of poor Southern whites and African-Americans. Hy Thurman, a self-professed hillbilly, migrated from rural Tennessee in search of a job. "I thought conditions were bad in Tennessee," Hy said. "In Uptown, housing conditions were so bad that neighbors were literally freezing to death. The cops referred to us as a 'swarm of locusts' who were backwards, dumb, immoral, and violent." Hy Thurman, Marilyn Katz, and others formed the Young Patriots Organization to mobilize their community. YPO used the Confederate flag as their symbol, less as a racist statement but as a "symbol against Northern aggression."
Elsewhere in Uptown, local Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Bobby Lee were organizing in their community. Jose "Cha Cha" Jimenez, an immigrant from Puerto Rico and a member of the Young Lords gang, was doing the same thing, albeit using more unlawful methods.
In April, 1969, the three organizations joined together to form the Rainbow Coalition of Revolutionary Solidarity. "It took some time to build trust among the communities," Hy Thurman said, "Once we broke the ice we were able to identify their needs and get them help. Many were surprised to hear that the Black Panther Party played a major role in getting medical personnel and equipment for the Young Patriot Health Clinic and provided food for kids before they went to school."
Black Panther and Young Patriot Credit: S. Shames
Rainbow Coalition gathering Credit: unknown
"We found creative ways to stand together and disrupt perceptions of both the communities and the authorities," Stan McKinney added. Hy Thurman chimed in, "We'd walk into our redneck bars with our rebel flag vests and 'Free Huey Newton' buttons, and our friends wouldn't know what to do with us." Every publication and event featured the Black Panther logo and Confederate flag side by side. "We provided security detail at each of our functions," Aaron Dixon said. "I can't tell you how many times having a white boy standing next to me saved my ass from getting arrested."
Mayor Richard Daly and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover made it their top priority to dismantle the coalition. YPO's William "Preacherman" Fesperman said, "We are the living reminder that when they threw out their white trash, they didn't burn it." In December, 1969, the Chicago Police in conjunction with the FBI arranged for the murder of BPP leader Fred Hampton Jr., who was seen as the torchbearer for the coalition.* Mr. Hampton's murder galvanized the community even more.
The Rainbow Coalition lasted for several more years before it was dismantled by the Daly administration and the FBI. "They found ways to frame us and throw us in jail," Cha Cha Jimenez said, "tearing the very fabric of our coalition apart."
The spirit and influence of the original Rainbow Coalition lives on. Harold Washington, Chicago's first Black mayor (1983-1987) built his platform on the ideals of the coalition. Later, Jesse Jackson Sr. formed the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, although it has no affiliation with the original Rainbow Coalition. YPO leader Marilyn Katz said, "We can trace Obama's rise to the presidency back to the Rainbow Coalition." David Alexrod, Obama's chief strategist, applied the principals of the original Rainbow Coalition to the campaign.
“The original Rainbow Coalition was a grassroots movement that helped people to build bridges in spite of their differences. It helped common people to actually see their commonalities and humanity," writes Jakobi Williams in a recent article for Tikkun.
As the panelists, now in their 60's and 70's, gathered on stage for a photo, I wondered how we can come together today. Because no matter who becomes our next president, the true work of social change and healing needs to stem from ordinary people at the local level.
Original Rainbow Coalition Panel Credit: Kevin John Fong
I reflected on a post by my friend, Lloyd Dennis, from New Orleans, who wrote: "If the poor and struggling white folk who support Trump would wake up and understand that the very wealthy, like Trump, are the reason working people carry this country on their backs, they would find common ground with folks of color, and the real revolution would begin."
The key is finding common ground, and we attain that through engagement in trust, love, story, and struggle. "Serve the people. Love the people. Have faith in the power of the people," Pam Tau Lee said.
Wherever we may find ourselves on November 9th, I hope we all follow the example of the Black Panthers, Young Patriots, and Young Lords to love, serve, and have faith that the power of kindness and humanity will emerge as the true winner.
Questions for Reflection and Consideration
- Please take a few moments to watch this video from a Young Patriots gathering in 1968. Observe the transformation that occurred as Black Panther Party representative Bobby Lee spoke to them. When and how did this transformation, for both parties, happen?
Fast forward to 2016, and we have a gathering of Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter activists. How might a conversation and transformation like this occur?