A new PBS documentary is exploring a little-known movement that brought together blacks, Latinos, and poor whites from Appalachia, in a Jan. 20, 2020 story. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

A new PBS documentary is exploring a little-known movement that brought together blacks, Latinos, and poor whites from Appalachia, in a Jan. 20, 2020 story. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Film probes radical black-Latino-poor white 1960s alliance

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 neighbourhood 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 mastermind 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 neighbourhood 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,” remember 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.

By The Associated Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta Health Services declared a COVID-19 outbreak at Revera Aspen Ridge on Feb. 1. (Photo by Advocate staff)
Two COVID deaths linked to Revera seniors residence in Red Deer

35 active COVID cases at seniors residence

Red Deer musician Lorry Boschman has written a song about love in the time of COVID-19. Proceeds from his single, Romance during a Pandemic, will be donated to the local United Way. (Contributed photo).
Local musician records a song about love in the time of COVID-19 — for charity

Lorry Boschman will donate some proceeds to the United Way

Preliminary data shows Alberta’s suicide rate declined in 2020 — but some mental health critics say it’s too early to draw any conclusions since more dire pandemic impacts are only now being felt. (metrocreative stock)
Alberta’s suicide rate seems to have declined in 2020

But some experts say it’s too early to credit the pandemic

The union representing workers at the Olymel meat processing plant in Red Deer confirmed the death of a worker on Wednesday. (Advocate file photo)
Union confirms death of worker from Olymel plant

An investigation by the UFCW 401 local has confirmed another death connected… Continue reading

The courthouse in Iqaluit, Nunavut, is shown on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. A Nunavut judge has granted a mining company's request for an injunction against hunters who protested at its site for a week last month, halting the mine's operations. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Emma Tranter
Nunavut judge grants injunction against hunters who protested at mine site

Nunavut judge grants injunction against hunters who protested at mine site

A woman walks towards the entrance of the TransAlta headquarters building in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Calgary-based power generator TransAlta Utilities Ltd. says it has set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal
Alberta utility TransAlta vows to be carbon neutral by 2050 as it notes $167M loss

Alberta utility TransAlta vows to be carbon neutral by 2050 as it notes $167M loss

Pedestrians walk past Shell Canada's headquarters before a news conference in Calgary on August 26, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Shell Canada employing ‘agile teams’ to power energy transition and reduce emissions

Shell Canada employing ‘agile teams’ to power energy transition and reduce emissions

A sign board in Toronto shows the closing number for the TSX on Thursdsay October 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Investor frenzy accelerates Canada stock market activity in February, TMX reports

Investor frenzy accelerates Canada stock market activity in February, TMX reports

Falling Canadian dollar coins or loonies are pictured in North Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, May 29, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
North American stock markets fall as technology takes hit from higher bond yields

North American stock markets fall as technology takes hit from higher bond yields

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Conservative MP David Sweet joins chorus calling for end to COVID-19 restrictions

OTTAWA — A Conservative MP has joined the chorus of voices calling… Continue reading

The Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade is seen in Lower Onslow, N.S., Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The RCMP says two officers who fired towards a civilian and another RCMP officer during last year’s mass shooting will remain on administrative duties until internal inquiries are completed .THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
N.S. RCMP who shot at firehall on administrative duty during internal reviews of case

HALIFAX — The RCMP says two officers who fired towards a civilian… Continue reading

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. Efforts to increase Canada's ability to produce vaccines is among over 100 projects receiving new federal money. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Over 100 new projects to get $518 million in federal research funding

OTTAWA — Efforts to boost Canada’s ability to produce vaccines are among… Continue reading

Most Read