ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Civil rights activists were still mourning the 1968 assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Richard Nixon was president, the Vietnam War hadn’t ended, and urban racial tensions remained.
In that climate, a 24-year-old Black Panther Party member from Houston named Bobby Lee went into a Chicago neighborhood of poor Southern white migrants with a stunning and straightforward plea: Join us.
A new PBS documentary is exploring a little-known movement that brought together blacks, Latinos, and poor whites from Appalachia that later resulted in the upending of politics in the American Midwest.
“The First Rainbow Coalition,” scheduled to begin airing Jan. 27 as part of the Independent Lens series, shows how members of the Black Panther Party organized Puerto Rican radicals and Confederate flag-waving white Southerners to help tackle poverty and discrimination. The union shocked some allies and scared police and the FBI, who feared the coalition would upend the social order.
It would eventually change Chicago.
Filmmaker Ray Santisteban said it took him 14 years to complete the project. The effort only took off after he convinced Lee, the ailing organizer behind the multi-ethnic effort, to speak publicly for the first time.
The subject of race also has come under scrutiny under President Donald Trump, who has been accused of making racist statements.
“Funders would tell me, ‘this was an interesting film but what does this have to do with today?’” Santisteban said. “Then, the country changed. I started getting calls about four years ago about it.”
In 1969, Lee reached out to Southern white migrants in a northern Chicago neighborhood called “Hillbilly Harlem” to join him in fighting poverty and police misconduct.
“They were poor. It was a slum. You could smell it,” Lee told Santisteban. “And you could smell a slum.”
Wearing a beret and his hands behind this back, Lee stood in front of a room of whites. To ease the crowd’s anxieties, Lee told the crowd, “my name is Bobby Lee. But my real name is Robert E. Lee.” It was an ironic reference to the former Confederate general who now shared the name with a black revolutionary.
“We laughed,” remembered Hy Thurman, a white man from Tennessee and a member of a group called the Young Patriots.
The police mistreated them like the police mistreated blacks, Lee told the crowd. Landlords also refused to change living conditions in their homes like the homes of black residents, he said.
“What do you want in your community? What do you want here?” he asked.
Lee also enlisted the Puerto Rican group, the Young Lords, to join the new multi-ethnic struggle.
The coalition began pressuring landlords about conditions and challenged police on their tactics. When eight police officers from the Cook County state’s attorney’s office raided an apartment and killed Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, the coalition helped Republican Bernard Carey defeat Democratic Cook County State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan.
It wasn’t the first time there was an attempt to forge a multicultural alliance. New Mexico-born education pioneer George I. Sanchez and NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall corresponded in the late 1940s on ways to fight segregation. Japanese Americans would join Latinos in California to push for desegregation.
During the Civil Rights movement, Mexican American and African American advocates tried to create a coalition in Houston. The Houston group fought even over whether they should be called the Black/Brown or Brown/Black Coalition until future Congresswoman Barbara Jordan told participants to call themselves the B and B Coalition.
Chicano activists in the 1970s would later seek to build alliances with members of the American Indian Movement in South Dakota.
Santisteban said he remains in awe of what Lee and his coalition did despite efforts by the FBI to break them up and disrupt their plans. Eventually, the groups went their separate ways or dissolved.
“But those personal relationships remain to this day,” he said.
Later, a similar coalition would go on to help elect Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor. Another similar alliance would push a then-unknown state senator named Barack Obama into the U.S. Senate.