The story behind the original Rainbow Coalition : Code Switch In this episode we turn to late 1960s Chicago, when three unlikely groups came together to form a coalition based on interracial solidarity. It's hard to imagine this kind of collaboration today, but we dove into how a group of Black radicals, Confederate flag-waving white Southerners, and street-gang-turned-activist Puerto Ricans found common ground.

How three unlikely groups worked together to achieve interracial solidarity

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good, CODE SWITCH listeners? First, we want to wish you all a happy new year and good health in this Year of the Rabbit. We know that lots of folks - like, nearly 2 billion people around the world - are celebrating the Lunar New Year right now. But for a lot of folks here in the states, this is also a time of mourning.

The tragic shooting in Monterey Park, Calif., sowed terror in a community that was supposed to be celebrating. Instead, that city's Lunar New Year celebrations were canceled after a gunman attacked celebrants at a local dance studio. Eleven people were killed; nine people were injured. And we want to hear from y'all. Like, what does Lunar New Year mean to you, and what are some of your favorite memories of it? Like, how do you celebrate? And has that changed after the shooting in Monterey Park? Does living in the United States change the way you think about big celebrations in general? Send us a voice memo to codeswitch@npr.org. And don't forget to include your name and a way to reach you. We might include your voice in a new episode.

B A PARKER, HOST:

Hey, everyone, you're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm BA Parker.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. A few months ago, we were trying to answer some listener questions for our Ask CODE SWITCH segment at our Chicago live show. It was a lot of fun. But we got one question that was so meaty and that we started rabbit-holing on so much that we figured, like, yo, we should just make that question and the answer we got to it into an episode of its own.

PARKER: So today, we're going to get into it. The question came from a listener named Timnet Gidar (ph).

TIMNET GIDAR: My question is about this brief moment of interracial solidarity that I heard about, like, in the late '60s. So I was wondering how this happened.

DEMBY: So this is a question about Chicago, and Timnet is talking about this heady, exciting and fleeting moment where young people in that famously divided city of Chicago really tried to bring into being a different world. And, Parker, you and our producer Diba Mohtasham took the lead on reporting all this out.

PARKER: Yeah. We were fascinated by that moment in time because it's so hard to imagine this kind of collaboration in 2023. But in late 1960s Chicago, a bunch of community organizations teamed up to work towards anti-capitalist, anti-racist and anti-classist goals - groups you probably wouldn't expect to work together. The network they formed called themselves the Rainbow Coalition. Today, we'll focus on just three of these unlikely partners and how they rallied together.

DEMBY: All right, Parker, you are steering this ship. So set the scene for us. What was happening in Chicago in the late 1960s?

PARKER: Well, it's 1969. Of course, the city, like so many parts of the country, was still reeling and on edge following the violence and uprisings sparked by Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. And Chicago was then - and still is today - famously one of the most deeply segregated big cities in the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Now is the time to get rid of the slums and ghettos of Chicago. Now is the time...

DEMBY: Yeah, I remember reading about how, you know, obviously, before he was killed, Martin Luther King went north to Chicago to organize poor people. And he was met by an attack by all these angry white crowds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KING: ...That I have never seen - even in Mississippi and Alabama - mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I've seen in Chicago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: But the march will go on anyway?

PARKER: And during the violence and unrest after King's assassination, Chicago's mayor, Richard J. Daley, told the police to kill people rioting in the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD J DALEY: And very definitely that an order to be issued immediately to shoot to kill any arsonists or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in their hand in Chicago to fire a building.

PARKER: Even in times with less unrest, that kind of police violence was a big part of life in certain Chicago neighborhoods. The cops racially profiled people. They arrested them without telling them why.

DEMBY: You know, all the classics.

PARKER: Yeah. One group that was organizing against all this was the Black Panthers, who were founded to protect Black residents from police brutality and provide them with basic services.

JAKOBI WILLIAMS: So the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is started in Oakland, Calif., in 1966.

PARKER: This is Jakobi Williams. He's a professor and historian who wrote a whole book about this called "From The Bullet To The Ballot."

WILLIAMS: So in '68, in Chicago, you get the founding of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Many of its leaders come from the West Side of Chicago. Fred Hampton, probably the most famous of the group, is from Maywood, Ill.

DEMBY: A lot of people will recognize the name Fred Hampton. He was the chair of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers and he was recently the subject of the movie "Judas And The Black Messiah."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH")

DANIEL KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) I am...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I am...

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) ...A revolutionary.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: ...A revolutionary.

KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) I am...

PARKER: We'll get to Hampton more later.

So the Panthers are organizing Black folks on the West Side. But on the North Side, there's this street gang. They call themselves the Young Lords, and they're made up of mostly Puerto Rican migrants. And one of the leaders, a guy named Cha Cha Jimenez, became politically active after he was locked up for drug possession. And because the Young Lords were poor and lived in a neighborhood that was being primed for redevelopment - it was near the city center and right on the lake - they watched as the Puerto Rican residents were pushed out as richer white folks moved in. So when Jimenez got out of prison, he decided that the Young Lords wouldn't be a street gang anymore. It was going to be an organization that provided essential services to their neighborhood, like child care and health care and free food programs.

DEMBY: So kind of along the lines of what the Panthers were doing, right?

PARKER: Exactly. Jimenez specifically looked to the Panthers as a model for the Young Lords. And there was one more group. In the uptown neighborhood, there was an enclave of working-class white folks who had moved from Appalachia to Chicago for better economic prospects.

DEMBY: So it was sort of like a great migration but for white folks.

PARKER: Essentially. Uptown was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. It had a certain reputation. A 1958 issue of Harper's Bazaar described the people there as, quote, "proud, poor, primitive and fast with a knife," unquote.

DEMBY: Yikes.

PARKER: Right? Here's Jakobi again.

WILLIAMS: They faced some of the same oppression that African Americans and Puerto Ricans were facing because they were poor.

PARKER: The police harassed them. They weren't getting basic services. People treated them like they were backwards.

WILLIAMS: So you have various entities in the Chicago community who called them derogatory term like hillbillies or poor white trash. So they were discriminated against. And so they organized themselves against what they saw as community not supporting them.

PARKER: And so at first, these poor white folks teamed up with white, middle-class, lefty college students. Later, they formed an organization run by and for poor white people in Uptown. They called themselves the Young Patriots.

DEMBY: OK. So you've got these groups who are working in different parts of the city. You got the Black Panthers on the West Side. You got the Young Lords who are Puerto Rican on the North Side, and you got the Young Patriots who are poor white folks in Uptown. And so they have, you know, different constituencies, so to speak. And we know from the listeners' questions that they kind of linked up like Voltron eventually.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE REWINDING)

PARKER: Gene, what is Voltron?

DEMBY: Oh, my God. I don't know if I should be offended as, like, an older millennial, or just, like, you're not sufficiently nerdy. Whatever. Anyway, the thing that matters here is that Voltron is a giant robot made up of these different colored parts that come together to form a super-robot to beat up the bad guys. That's the simplest, least nerdy and least embarrassing way I can explain it.

PARKER: OK. Yes. So it's kind of like Voltron.

DEMBY: OK. Yeah. So how did they end up working together?

PARKER: So one night, the Young Patriots were invited to speak at a church with a congregation of mostly middle-class white folks on the North Side. The Patriots were supposed to be giving a talk about police brutality, but the meeting turned raucous. It's a scene captured in the documentary "American Revolution 2." So here's what happens. The poor white folks and the Patriots at this meeting were trying to explain to the middle-class white folks that they just wanted decent housing and proper jobs. But some of the middle-class people came down on the Patriots, essentially saying, why is that our problem?

DEMBY: Of course they did that. Of course.

PARKER: And it turned out that one of the people who had coordinated the meeting that evening had also invited the Black Panthers. Now, one of the Panthers in particular watched these white folks yelling at each other, and in the documentary, you see him come to the defense of the Young Patriots, pushing back on the churchgoers. His name was Bob Lee.

WILLIAMS: His name was Robert E. Lee III, this African American man from Houston, Texas.

DEMBY: Wait, Robert E. Lee, like the Confederate general?

PARKER: Yes, like the Confederate general, though he wasn't named after him.

DEMBY: I wouldn't think so.

PARKER: I want that to be clear. But Bob Lee's name would actually create an opening because the Young Patriots was made up of Southerners.

DEMBY: OK.

PARKER: And even though they were lefties, all their signage and symbols were draped in the Confederate flag.

DEMBY: Wait. What? Huh?

PARKER: Yeah. OK. It was a whole thing. They wore the flag on their clothes. They hung the Confederate flag up in their headquarters, you know, quote-unquote, "Southern pride."

DEMBY: No. I don't know, man.

PARKER: Listen, I know. But more on that in a second. So back to the meeting. Bob Lee - the Black Panther, not the traitorous Confederate general...

DEMBY: Right.

PARKER: ...Had just moved to Chicago from Texas. It was supposed to be his first speaking engagement in the city. And he's watching all this, and he knows the Young Patriots want the same things that the Panthers want. So he gets to work at that meeting and mediates, throwing his arm around people, real-talking them, trying to get them to see that everyone in the room was dealing with the same BS and wanted the same things.

WILLIAMS: Let's see what we all have in common. You all have rats and roaches up here. We do too. You have police brutality. So do we. You have dilapidated housing. Yes, we do as well. What about your schools? They underfunded, underserved? So are ours. You being drafted to Vietnam? Well, we are too. So why do we hate each other, again? You have health care, dental? We don't either. So one - only thing that divides us is our so-called race. So let's rely on what we have in common, which is our poverty.

DEMBY: So Bob Lee is basically making an argument for class solidarity.

PARKER: Exactly. Now, some of the Panthers felt some type of way because, you know, there were white people proudly waving the Confederate flag.

DEMBY: Right.

PARKER: But for Bob Lee, that class solidarity was the key to everything. And so he starts spending a lot of time in their neighborhood making the case that their interests were aligned with those of the Panthers - against police brutality, against neglect, against, well, capitalism.

WILLIAMS: He becomes known as - de facto - the mayor of Uptown by this poor, white community. And he's able to organize community meetings with them and the police to stop police brutality, to help them set up free breakfast programs, free clinics. He's the glue in that community. Bob Lee brings the Young Patriots to the table.

PARKER: And that was how the alliance started.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: So just imagine, you see this Panther walking in with his leather jacket and his beret, his unapologetically Black bravado, holding hands or arm - linked arm-in-arm with this white guy with this big Confederate flag on his jacket.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRED HAMPTON: Black people need some peace. White people need some peace.

WILLIAMS: And they're walking in together talking about, we're brothers of the struggle. We're brothers in arms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMPTON: We're going to have to struggle relentlessly...

WILLIAMS: We're walking in class solidarity. We're the Rainbow Coalition. This blows anyone's mind. Chicago is very territorial, even to this day. It's a city of neighborhoods. And so the glue that binds them together are the survival programs.

PARKER: The Black Panther Party offered to help provide health care to the people in Uptown who didn't have a lot of access to it.

WILLIAMS: For the Young Patriots, their No. 1 issue was child mortality. They had this infant mortality rate that was egregious.

PARKER: Jakobi says people uptown were living in slums and lacked even basic services. So the Panthers, who already had a free health clinic thanks to their partnership with the Cook County health commissioner, went uptown and helped the Young Patriots set up the same services for their people.

WILLIAMS: They actually had real doctors, real gynecologists, real pediatricians.

PARKER: The Panthers did the same in Lincoln Park. That's where the Young Lords were based. The Young Lords, for their part, provided things like a free day care center so that women in the neighborhood could participate in this movement-building work, too.

DEMBY: So it sounds like they had a robust little economy going between all these different groups and all these different neighborhoods.

PARKER: They did, and it was really working.

WILLIAMS: This is not a facade. These folks are working in the serious fashion and protecting each other. They love and care for one another. Now, because of that work, later, the Young Patriots would virtually eliminate that symbol, that Confederate flag. The Panthers didn't ask them to do that, but they did.

DEMBY: I guess that's kind of what happens when you're, like, really in touch with the community, with people. You know what I mean? Like, you end up making space for each other. You're just like, all right, I'm going to stop doing this thing that bothers you because I want to be and stay in this space with you.

PARKER: I mean, not to say that it was utopic in any way. Getting very different people to try to swim in the same direction is always going to be contentious and messy.

DEMBY: Yeah.

PARKER: But they were really trying to make it work.

Coming up - you didn't really think this interracial solidarity network could last, did you? How the Chicago Police Department and the FBI stomped out the Rainbow Coalition. Stay with us.

DEMBY: Gene.

PARKER: Parker.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

PARKER: We've been hearing about the forming of the Rainbow Coalition, this coming together of radical leftist groups, notably the Black Panthers, Young Lords, made up of mostly Puerto Ricans, and the Young Patriots, a group of Confederate flag-waving white folk who worked together towards a larger goal of class solidarity in Chicago.

DEMBY: And, you know, for a few years at least, these groups managed to band together to make life better for the people in their neighborhoods. They worked across the city and across races to fight against police brutality, to improve housing, to get health care services. But we know that despite all their work, this team-up would not last. So, Parker, tell us what happened.

PARKER: The long story is that the success of the Rainbow Coalition's programs started attracting the attention of the police and elected officials. This is when the U.S. was fighting in Vietnam and losing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

WALTER CRONKITE: That the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Preparations are going ahead for the withdrawal of the balance of the 25,000 American troops.

PARKER: And anti-war protests across the country were threatening President Nixon's political standing. Here's professor Jakobi Williams again.

WILLIAMS: And so the Nixon administration, when they take office, their whole issue that he campaigns on is stopping - when he sees these protests, he sees this as crime.

PARKER: The Nixon administration viewed dissent as a threat. The Rainbow Coalition, which was made up of these subversive groups, was seen as the beginning of a revolution that could threaten the U.S. government. Authorities like the FBI went so far as to create disinformation campaigns. They tried to instill distrust and create divisions within the group. They added violent captions to a coloring book made by the Panthers, sending copies to sponsors of the Panthers' free breakfast program, encouraging violence between the Panthers and the other groups. Eventually, they went from trying to destabilize these groups by sowing discord to just outright eliminating their members.

WILLIAMS: And so they take the gloves off, and they began to attack these organizations. So people are killed, falsely imprisoned and exiled. The most egregious example, obviously, is Fred Hampton.

DEMBY: I know a little bit about Fred Hampton, so I'm going to take this next part, Parker. Fred Hampton was this charismatic leader in the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMPTON: I am a revolutionary, and you're going to have to keep on saying that.

DEMBY: On December 4, 1969, Chicago police officers, who were acting on a tip from an FBI spy who had infiltrated that Black Panther chapter, raided the West Side apartment where Hampton was sleeping in bed with his pregnant fiancee. The police fired 90 shots into that apartment. And it's believed that the spy who infiltrated that Black Panther chapter had drugged Hampton before this police raid, so he never left his bed when the police opened fire. But when the officers realized that Hampton wasn't killed by that first salvo of bullets, they went into the bedroom where he was laying down, and they shot him twice in the head. Fred Hampton was 21 years old.

PARKER: Here's Jakobi on Fred Hampton's influence.

WILLIAMS: Think about this. Not even Martin Luther King or Malcolm X - two of the pillars we think of in this period - can get Confederate flag, Southern whites to form a coalition and work in solidarity. Not even they were able to accomplish that. But that's what Fred Hampton and his Black Panther Party was able to do. And you can't divorce the Rainbow Coalition from why he's killed.

PARKER: In the wake of Hampton's murder, the police continued to harass and target the other members of the coalition.

WILLIAMS: Everyone goes underground to stop from going to prison. So all these things happen to try to end the movement. So the Black Panther Party of Chicago ends in 1974.

PARKER: And with the dissolution of the Black Panthers, the Rainbow Coalition started to splinter. But its effects lasts for decades. In 1983, Chicago elects its first African American mayor, Harold Washington, in large part because of the ways the coalition changed the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The United States.

HAROLD WASHINGTON: I, Harold Washington, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And the Constitution of the state of Illinois.

DEMBY: Wait, so was Harold Washington part of the Rainbow Coalition? Like, I can't imagine he ran for mayor of the third-largest city in the United States as an anti-capitalist who was skeptical of the police. Like, that's not possible now, and it definitely was not possible in the Reagan era.

PARKER: No, he wasn't. But the Rainbow Coalition demonstrated that there could be a multiracial political coalition in Chicago. Washington's campaign looked at that and tried to braid together a multiracial voting base from across the city. He ran on the platform of upending Mayor Daley's political machine, which had been in power for decades and hoarded the best city jobs for its cronies. Washington ran on what he called a neighbors-first platform and promised to bring jobs to the city's working-class residents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The one candidate qualified to be the mayor - Harold Washington.

WASHINGTON: We can all win.

PARKER: And materially, he was leaning on the ways the Rainbow Coalition had transformed the electorate in the city. As one example, all that organizing the Young Lords did in the 1960s and '70s led to tens of thousands of Puerto Rican Chicagoans getting registered to vote. And the legacy of that Rainbow Coalition influenced other political leaders. It went national when Jesse Jackson ran for president.

DEMBY: Jesse Jackson, another Chicagoan.

PARKER: Now, Jesse Jackson wasn't a part of the original Rainbow Coalition either. But in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, he name-checked the organization.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSE JACKSON: The Rainbow Coalition is making room for Arab Americans. The Rainbow Coalition is making room for Hispanic Americans. The Rainbow...

(APPLAUSE)

JACKSON: ...Is making room for the Native American, the most exploited people of all.

PARKER: After his speech, Jackson started the National Rainbow Coalition, a new organization unaffiliated with the original organization.

DEMBY: Right.

PARKER: And that's the Rainbow Coalition I knew about - Jesse Jackson's group.

DEMBY: So both Harold Washington's mayoral campaign in 1983 and Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in 1984 were both directly downstream from the original radical, Chicago-based Rainbow Coalition.

PARKER: And so was, to some extent, the political career of another person who made Chicago his home around the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Some of you may know that I originally moved to Chicago in part because of the inspiration of Mayor Washington's campaign.

PARKER: Barack Obama moved to the South Side to become a community organizer in 1985. Obama teamed up with white organizers to salvage manufacturing jobs for Black folks in the city. He worked with white folks in the suburbs after Chicago's steel industry crashed. He organized churches across theological lines to do job training.

DEMBY: But by the time Obama was a president, like, you start to see rainbow coalitions - small R, small C - kind of being bandied about as a generic description for the diverse voting base that put him in the White House. Like, it just meant diverse voters at that point, right?

PARKER: Yeah. And it makes me kind of sad to think that the term has been somewhat diluted, although I do know that there are organizations that are trying to maintain the legacies of both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the original Rainbow Coalition, like the new Poor People's Campaign. They're organizing around the idea that issues like racism and sexism and ableism are all connected and that people who are struggling against those things must find common cause with each other. And there are members of the original Rainbow Coalition who are still alive.

WILLIAMS: A whole host of Panthers, Young Lords and of whole - most of those folks are still doing the work, even in their senior years, 'cause there's no retirement for revolutionaries. The revolution hasn't come.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKER: And that's our show. This episode was produced by Diba Mohtasham with help from our intern, Olivia Chilkoti, and it was edited by Dalia Mortada and Courtney Stein.

DEMBY: And we would be remiss if we did not shout-out the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - Lori Lizarraga, Veralyn Williams, Karen Grigsby Bates, Christina Cala, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Jess Kung, Kumari Devarajan and Steve Drummond. Our art director is LA Johnson. Our engineer was Gilly Moon.

PARKER: Special thanks to Timnet Gidar for the inspiration behind this episode.

DEMBY: And we want to hear from y'all. Our email address is codeswitch@npr.org. Follow us on Instagram @nprcodeswitch - all one word. And we just wanted to give a quick shout-out to our CODE SWITCH Plus listeners, we love y'all. We appreciate you, and we want to thank you for being subscribers. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH Plus means you get to listen to all of our episodes with no sponsor breaks - that's what's up - and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, if you rock with us, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch. I'm Gene Demby.

PARKER: I'm BA Parker.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

PARKER: Hydrate.

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