IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A Latino Young Lord remembers Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton: He united the oppressed

"We all were living in shoddy housing. We all were not receiving education. We all were getting our asses kicked by the police," says Felipe Luciano. "Why shouldn't we get together?"
Image: Daniel Kaluuya in a scene from \"Judas and the Black Messiah.\"
Daniel Kaluuya in a scene from "Judas and the Black Messiah."Glen Wilson / Warner Bros.

The movie "Judas and the Black Messiah," which opens Friday, is drawing critical acclaim and award nominations as a crime drama about the real-life story of Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton and William O'Neal — the FBI informant who betrays him.

But Puerto Rican activist Felipe Luciano remembers another story about Hampton that took place largely offscreen — the friendship of two activists that starts in prison and plants the seed for a much wider alliance among Blacks, Latinos, whites and other members of communities working for civil rights.

"He was the one who got Cha Cha to move away from gang warfare to organization," Luciano said about Hampton and his friendship with José Cha Cha Jiménez, the founding member of the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican activist organization.

Image: Felipe Luciano
Felipe Luciano raises his fist during a news conference on Dec. 30, 1969.New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images

"From then on they became long, fast friends. Cha Cha talks about it with love and admiration often. He met his mother. He met the people in his family. He met his wife," Luciano said. "And the rest is history."

While most people may associate the term Rainbow Coalition with Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in 1984, the first multicultural Rainbow Coalition was founded by Hampton on April 4, 1969, in Chicago, which Luciano called "the most progressive movement of its day."

The diverse movement was led by the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, and it was initially joined by other groups in the city. They included the Young Lords, which transformed into an activist organization for Puerto Rican and Latino communities, and the Young Patriots — an activist organization made up mostly of Southern whites.

The Young Lords drew controversy for their tactics and politics, but they are credited for their advocacy and demands for better housing, health care, education and living conditions for Puerto Rican communities around the country.

"We all were not being paid. We all were living in shoddy housing. We all were not receiving education. We all were getting our asses kicked by the police," said Luciano, describing the hardships that many people of color and marginalized whites faced in 1960s America. "Why shouldn't we get together?"

Luciano, who was born in East Harlem and co-founded the New York chapter of the Young Lords, said Hampton was able to find common ground with other groups because he understood their oppression.

Hampton recruited and rallied coalition groups to support one another at protests, strikes and other actions that called for community empowerment and self-determination.

"He was able to go into an Appalachian meeting place and tell them, 'I think we need your help and you need ours,'" Luciano said.

Onscreen, "Judas and the Black Messiah" includes historic footage of the Black Panthers movement from the 1960s and re-creates Hampton's passionate speeches galvanizing crowds of activists.

"So, how we win this war? What's our most lethal weapon?" Hampton (played by the award-nominated Daniel Kaluuya) asks onscreen. "There's strength in numbers. Power anywhere there's people."

Shaka King, the director, said that what resonates with him and with many activists today is Hampton's way with words.

"He had this ability to take these ideas that are generally rendered complex and make them incredibly accessible in a way that was also entertaining and funny and witty," King said. "He's an example. When you speak to activists doing this work today, they all point to him as a godfather and a hero."

Hampton was the deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers and a youth organizer in the NAACP.

Galvanizing the oppressed

Luciano remembers meeting Hampton on a trip to Chicago. He said Hampton "had a beguiling style" that attracted people from different backgrounds, even when they did not initially understand the discrimination that others faced.

"It was difficult for Appalachians to understand white skin privilege," Luciano recalls as an example of a cultural wall that Hampton was able to overcome. "But once we got close, and once we started talking with one another and touching one another and listening to one another, they began to understand what the deal was. But they really understood the oppression of being poor and being working class."

Image: Felipe Luciano
Felipe Luciano at a film festival screening in Beverly Hills, Calif., in September 2018.Emma McIntyre / Getty Images for Film Independent

Today, Luciano said, many of the advancements to celebrate and defend diversity owe to early activists who were able to overcome racial barriers to work with one another.

He recalled how Puerto Rican World War I veterans from the all-Black 369th Regimental Army Band became pioneers in jazz and Latin music.

They included the legendary trombonist and composer Juan Tizol Martínez, who played with Duke Ellington, and the songwriter Rafael Hernández Marín, known for hundreds of popular Latin songs, including the bolero "Silencio."

Luciano also pointed to such seminal figures as the Black Puerto Rican intellectual and activist Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, who played an important part in documenting Afro-Latino and African American history during the Harlem Renaissance.

Divisions remain

Yet race still divides Latinos and Blacks.

"It's impossible to live in America and to have been colonized by the United States and not internalize the racism of this country. We call it 'colorism' in Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, every skin color has a value," he said.

Luciano said that many Puerto Ricans had relationships with the Black community but that they still believed that their children should not marry Black people because they endured the heaviest burdens of discrimination.

"You don't want to be them. 'Con los negros no se puede janguear,' they used to tell us," meaning "you can't hang out with Black people," he said. "And they used to tell our daughters 'tenemos que adelantar la raza,' meaning you have to progress the race, you have to move the race forward."

And now, both Luciano offscreen and King through his film want younger generations to remember early community activists like Fred Hampton who fought against discrimination.

"I think we try to frame them firstly as young community organizers really coming from a place of love for their people," King said about the Black Panthers, "interested in providing them with necessary services that they felt the government wasn't providing."

Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.