The First Rainbow Coalition
Credit: Independent Lens/PBS

As a member of the 1960s radical left, John Judis has written about why that movement failed and issued a warning to today’s progressives about not making the same mistakes. He begins by noting a speech by anti-war activist Tom Hayden in 1969.

At the time, many on the new left thought a revolution was imminent. Major cities had been set ablaze by rioters; gun-toting members of the Black Panther Party had confronted legislators in Sacramento; hundreds of thousands were marching against the Vietnam War; and with Richard Nixon in office—and the war showing no signs of abating—the protests were turning violent.

Hayden, too, was confident about what lay ahead. Perched on the edge of the stage in a denim work shirt and blue jeans, he spelled out his vision for a new American revolution. I still recall him saying—in the language of the period—“We already have the blacks, the browns, the women and the students,” and then adding that if we could also get blue-collar workers, we’d have the basis for a revolution.

Judis suggests that the reason the movement stalled was because they failed to achieve Hayden’s vision.

There were always new-left radicals who tried to build bridges. But by the late ’60s, when Hayden was urging outreach to what was then an overwhelmingly white working class, many revolutionaries had abandoned any attempt to create a popular American majority…

What also doomed the new left was that…the movement began to splinter into identity groups; indeed, this was the beginning of what has come to be known as “identity politics.” Black nationalist and later Latino, Native American and feminist groups pursued their own demands with some success, but the larger movement lost a sense of cooperation and coherence.

What Judis failed to acknowledge is that in Chicago, the Black Panther Party was working to create the first Rainbow Coalition, the subject of a film that aired Monday night on PBS (it is available for streaming on their website).

The film depicts the efforts of Chicago Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Bobby Lee to form a coalition with members of the Young Lords and Young Patriots. The former were Puerto Rican and the latter were whites who had migrated from Appalachia to Chicago. These groups came together to do things like feed children and provide free medical care while fighting against police brutality.  As Fred Hampton said in the clip above, “we’re going to fight racism, not with racism, but we’re gonna fight it with solidarity.”

The power of that kind of coalition is demonstrated by the reaction it elicited from the white power structure. Initially, their efforts were attacked and sabotaged, while participants were arrested and jailed. But then, on December 4, 1969, the apartment where Fred Hampton was sleeping was raided by the police and he was assassinated.

Documents stolen from the FBI in 1971 uncovered the efforts to infiltrate these groups and undermine their work through a program known as COINTELPRO. They also proved that the assassination of Fred Hampton was carried out under the direction of the FBI.

Back in the 1950s, the FBI initiated this counterintelligence program in order to discredit these militant groups. One of its main goals was to “prevent the rise of a black messiah.”

As Michael Harriot explained on Twitter, by 1969, “Stokely Carmichael publicly denounced the Panthers, MLK was dead, Malcolm was dead. And in Chicago, there was this young kid rising named Fred Hampton.” I’ll let Harriot take it from there.

When Hampton joined the Black Panthers, the feds were worried. It had nothing to do with violence. It didn’t really have anything to do with the Civil Rights Movement.

They KNEW Fred Hampton was different.

Like the others, Hampton started out with mainstream black organizations. By the time he was a teenager, he was organizing his own youth chapter of the NAACP in his small Illinois suburb.

In a SINGLE YEAR, he had 500 members.

If this sounds like hype, consider this:

When Hampton attended his FIRST BPP meeting in Nov. ’68:

-the FBI had already opened up a file on him A YEAR EARLIER.
-his phone had been tapped for 9 months.
-he had been designated as a “key leader” on the FBI’s “agitator index” for 5 months

Fred was different, yall.

In six months, he had brokered a nonaggression pact with every gang in Chicago. He was teaching gang members the law. He upset the city hospitals when convinced doctors to volunteer and give FREE medical care.

But this isn’t why he was dangerous…

6 months before his death, the charismatic Hampton organized the Conference for the United Front Against Fascism. Calling the conglomerate the “Rainbow Coalition,” the group included black gangs, Puerto Rican gangs and others.

From July 18-21, 1969 people from across the US attended the conference, including lawyers, politicians and civil rights activists from all walks of life. They would all agree that ALL the organizations would fight for black freedom

FIVE THOUSAND people attended the conference and they all reached the conclusion that black liberation could only be achieved through armed self-defense and community control of police.

But that wasn’t why Hampton was dangerous.

There was a group at the conference called the Young Patriots who adopted the Panthers’ 11-point plan. The Puerto Rican Young Lords promised solidarity, as did The Red Guard, a Chinese American group.

But here is why this was a problem:

Of the 5000 people who were in attendance, MOST were white.

Fred was creating a national coalition for armed resistance against racism. It would be the next phase in the Civil Rights Movement

Fred Hampton was assassinated eleven months after the Tom Hayden speech that Judis referenced, which raises the question of whether it was actually the splintering of identity politics that ended the movement. Or, did it begin to die that night in the apartment of a 21-year-old who posed such a threat that he had to be eliminated?

The film that aired on PBS to document this history ends with the dissolution of the Rainbow Coalition after Hampton’s death as leaders went underground. But they also point to the legacy it left in Chicago.

  • In 1974, Jose “Cha-Cha” Jimenez, of the Young Lords, ran for Chicago alderman and got over 40 percent of the vote,
  • Rainbow Coalition members organized to defeat Edward Hanrahan, the state’s attorney responsible for the assassination of Fred Hampton.
  • The vision of a Rainbow Coalition helped elect Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago in 1983.
  • Jesse Jackson revived the concept of a Rainbow Coalition during his 1984 presidential campaign.
  • Bobby Rush, a member of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, was elected to Congress in 1993.
  • Barack Obama was inspired to move to Chicago in 1985 because of the legacy of the Rainbow Coalition and Harold Washington.

Back in 1967, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton published a book titled Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. They articulated a vision about the kind of coalition Hampton went on to develop in Chicago.

It is hoped that eventually there will be a coalition of poor blacks and poor whites…and we see such a coalition as the major internal instrument of change in American society. It is purely academic today to talk about bringing poor blacks and poor whites together, but the task of creating a poor-white power block dedicated to the goals of a free, open society—not one based on racism and subordination—must be attempted. The main responsibility for this task falls upon whites…Only whites can mobilize and organize those communities along the lines necessary and possible for effective alliances with the black communities. This job cannot be left to the existing institutions and agencies, because those structures, for the most part, are reflections of institutionalized racism. If the job is to be done, there must be new forms created. Thus, the political modernization process must involve the white community as well as the black.

I agree with Judis that today’s left could learn a lot from these ’60s radicals—both their successes and failures. It is clear that that was the goal of Ray Santisteban in making the film, The First Rainbow Coalition. That’s why I would encourage everyone to watch it.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.