Fifty Years of Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition
Chicago-style coalition-building helped to produce the first Black mayor of Chicago and put its first Latinx representatives in office. Some even believe its legacy led to the election of the city’s first Black woman mayor. But unbeknownst to many, this form of organizing started in the streets fifty years ago with what was called the “Rainbow Coalition”: a progressive, fundamentally socialist movement that set the foundation for radical ideals and civil disobedience in Chicago.
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On a February afternoon in 1969, Chairman Fred Hampton and his contingent of Illinois Black Panthers went looking for a Puerto Rican kid by the name of Cha-Cha in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Hampton had just read in the paper that the Young Lords street organization had shut themselves in the 18th District police station—along with the police commander and the media—to protest the ongoing police harassment of Latinx residents.
The Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers established themselves on the West Side of Chicago in 1968 and functioned under a ten-point program of self-empowerment and service. Their Oakland, CA founding members were already involved in multiracial movement building through the left-wing and anti-war Peace and Freedom Party.
The Young Lords formed on the streets of Chicago in 1960 as a gang, but in 1968 they declared themselves a civil rights organization. In trips to the West Coast, they were exposed to the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets, and the American Indian Movement, who were mobilizing together for racial justice there.
Shortly after meeting, the two youths would found the original Rainbow Coalition: a “poor people’s army,” as José “Cha-Cha” Jimenez refers to it, that joined forces with working-class whites from the city’s North Side. As men were landing on the moon for the first time in a global display of American exceptionalism, the Rainbow Coalition was drawing citywide and nationwide attention to police brutality, premeditated gentrification, and institutional racism in Chicago.
“Fred took the Young Lords under his wing. He gave us the skills that we needed to come right out of the gang and start organizing the community,” said Cha-Cha, now seventy-one, leader of the gang-turned-political organization, in an interview. “We were already fighting for our rights in our neighborhoods, and we needed to form a united front. Our mission was self-determination for our barrios and all oppressed nations.”
In Chicago, the Black and Latinx activists became natural allies. Both communities had been battling Italian, German, Irish, and other white street gangs that were enforcing redlining at the street level. Black and Latinx Chicagoans lived together in the Cabrini-Green projects, attended overcrowded schools, and were denied entrance to certain beaches, restaurants, and public spaces; their parents had practically no access to city jobs or home ownership.
The youth, who rocked black and purple berets as their respective colors, began to identify the “pigs” at the Chicago Police Department and Mayor Richard J. Daley as their common adversaries.
At the time, Chicago was a deeply segregated city, recovering from the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—who, years earlier, led the Chicago Freedom Movement, a campaign against racist housing practices that cemented segregation. Widespread public discontent—and the possibility that the neighborhoods could erupt again—could be felt.
Those who remember Hampton say he had the leadership skills to arrange gang truces and bring together unlikely groups. Billy “Che” Brooks, Deputy Minister of Education for the Illinois Black Panther Party, credits him with reaching out to William “Preacherman” Fesperman and the Young Patriots, a street organization of white youths whose parents and grandparents had migrated from Appalachia seeking jobs, but now resided in slum-like conditions in and around the Uptown neighborhood.
The newly formed Rainbow Coalition embraced the historic momentum of 1969 to organize an unprecedented partnership between blue-collar workers from the countryside and a variety of poor urban dwellers. Hampton understood that creating these alliances was necessary to engage in a “protracted class struggle,” according to Che, who today mentors youth at Chicago Public Libraries.
“Our thing was that Black people organize in the Black community, Puerto Ricans organize in the Puerto Rican community, ‘mexicanos’ organize in the Mexican community, and poor white people organize in their community”— and then they come together, he explained in an interview.
“Today, we call it coalition politics,” Che said.
But at the time, the Rainbow Coalition’s ideology dismissed electoral politics, according to Che, and did not aspire to mere representation politics or a colorblind society, either. Rather, they sought to empower “all peoples of the world” to determine their own destiny —beginning with their own neighborhoods—“by any means necessary”.
The Panthers were aware of the social uprisings taking place in Haiti and African countries to overthrow colonial-era dictators, while the Young Lords were just gaining consciousness of their status as second-class citizens from Puerto Rico—a “modern-day colony” of the United States, they said. This internationalist ideology and model of solidarity distinguished the Black Panther Party from separatist militant Black groups, and the Young Lords from other nationalist Latin American groups.
Hampton would often ask white liberals: “How can you go all the way to Vietnam without first going through the West Side of Chicago?”
Despite the gestures of solidarity, it was challenging for the youth of color to completely trust their hillbilly counterparts in the Young Patriots Organization who, in Southern tradition, wore the Confederate flag as their emblem. Che “was not ready for all that,” he said, and many Black Panthers and Young Lords were not enthused to break bread with the Young Patriots.
Enter Bobby Lee, a college-educated Texan and cousin of Black Panther Oakland chapter co-founder Bobby Seale, who had demonstrated great ability and patience when communicating with the white community. In the documentary American Revolution II, Lee speaks with a sixteen-year-old white boy in a straw hat who wants to take up arms to defend himself from detectives who slapped him around. Lee deescalates the crowded room in the film, speaking eloquently, and convinces them to go protest the police station instead. Noting Lee’s restraint, Hampton assigned him to help the Young Patriots launch their Survival Programs in Chicago.
The Survival Programs of the Black Panthers were meant to fill a void left by the municipal government and institutions that were not fulfilling the basic needs of all segments of society, in particular the Black community, they said. In response to the lack of healthcare for poor people in Chicago, the Panthers opened a network of clinics in North Lawndale and other Black neighborhoods with the aid of Quentin Young, MD, and other volunteer medical students. The Lords and the Patriots followed the Panthers’ model in their own communities.
The Rainbow Coalition youth—made up of Panthers, Young Lords, and Young Patriots—also launched free breakfast programs that were supported by donations from community businesses and ran free daycare centers for neighborhood children. Several operations were upheld by the women of the Black Panthers and women’s focus groups like the Young Lordettes and Mothers and Others (MAO). The federal government institutionalized the School Breakfast Program in 1975.
“We’re gonna fight fire with water. We’re gonna fight racism not with racism, but with solidarity. We’re not gonna fight capitalism with Black capitalism, but with socialism… We’re gonna fight with all of us people getting together and having an international proletariat revolution,” Hampton was recorded saying.
The overarching grievances of the Black-brown-and-white alliance revolved around the impact that both urban neglect and urban renewal, as gentrification was then called, were having on the slums and ghettos where they lived. The city wanted to “rehabilitate” some of those areas in their efforts to erect a twenty-first century world-class city, according to Mayor Daley’s proposed fifty-year development plan he called Chicago 21.
Across racial lines, poor and disenfranchised youth were routinely harassed, beaten, and incarcerated by the Chicago Police Department. In May 1969, Mayor Daley and State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan declared a “war on gangs” in Chicago, deploying 1,000 additional police to the streets. Twice, Hampton and Cha-Cha, along with Obed Lopez, a Mexican from the Latin American Defense Organization (LADO), were rounded up by 13th District police and charged with mob action for picketing a Wicker Park welfare office.
Hampton and Cha-Cha were sent to solitary confinement at Cook County Jail multiple times as a direct consequence of their street organizing. “This was an effort to criminalize us, to bankrupt our finances, to cause fear and put us away for life,” Cha-Cha said.
Che, seventy-one, remembered Hampton was sentenced after taking ice cream pops from the ice cream truck to pass out to neighborhood kids. Cha-Cha was jailed for stealing lumber to repair the Young Lords daycare center in order to meet city inspection, he said. Both served their time for those crimes. At one point Cha-Cha had accumulated eighteen cases and Hampton and Lopez each had nine cases.
As a high school dropout and former gang leader, Cha-Cha was a man of few words. Old press photos tended to depict him balancing a cigarette in his mouth. But his confrontational tactics were in line with Hampton’s and remain a hallmark of direct action.
In Lincoln Park, which has since become a playground for the rich, the first recorded acts of collective resistance to gentrification took place under Cha-Cha’s command. At the time, several institutions—among them the Children’s Memorial Hospital, and the McCormick Theological Seminary that was later absorbed by the DePaul University campus—were collaborating with the city to expand high-end housing near the lakefront: prime Chicago real estate. The developments were designed to exclude the Puerto Rican working class, the Young Lords found after studying the city blueprints.
The Young Lords became emboldened after one of their members, Manuel Ramos, was killed by an off-duty cop, and another, Pancho Lind, was beaten to death by a white gang. The Lords notoriously occupied the institutions that were taking over their neighborhood and presented landlords with a list of demands for institutional access. But first, they trashed the Urban Renewal office in Lincoln Park, shutting it down for months and sending a clear message of resistance to the city.
The occupations didn’t just put the Young Lords on the map: a $25,000 payout obtained from the occupation of the university building helped to found the People’s Law Office, a social justice firm that represented the Rainbow Coalition against legal pressure from the police and the city.
In public appearances, the Rainbow Coalition was backed by community residents and Black and brown street gangs—but they also had the support of unions, Independent Precinct Organizations, college students and activists who supported the movement through Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Rising Up Angry, and countless other organizations. Their allies included Concerned Citizens of Lincoln Park, the West Town Concerned Citizens Coalition, the Northside Cooperative Ministry, Neighborhood Commons Organization, and Voice of the People.
“It was really based on common action,” said Mike Klonsky, a former Chicago leader of SDS (who, like Hampton and Cha-Cha, had a reward out for his arrest). “If there was a protest or a demonstration, the word would get out and we would all come to it and support each other. If somebody was arrested, we would all raise bail. If somebody was killed or shot by the police, we would all respond together.”
Klonsky, now seventy-six, appeared with Cha-Cha, Hampton, and Yoruba, a Young Lord-in-training from New York, in newspaper photos of a press conference held by the Rainbow Coalition. The former leader of SDS, which by 1969 was splintering due to ideological differences, said they were publicly distancing themselves from the Weathermen, a militant faction of SDS who organized a three-day series of violent protests in October called the Days of Rage during which the Weathermen rampaged through the Gold Coast and blew up a statue to police who died during the 1886 Haymarket Riot.
The Coalition knew that Black and brown activists would face the brunt of police retaliation for the Days of Rage—which Hampton denounced as “adventuristic, masochistic, and Custeristic”—and proposed a march from People’s Park (a vacant lot on Halsted and Armitage they had also occupied) to Humboldt Park as an alternative.
“We believed in self-defense, but not provocation,” Klonsky said.
Still, high-profile activists and associates like Klonsly endured government surveillance under COINTELPRO—an infamous program of the Justice Department which sent undercover agents to disrupt radical movements from the inside—and the Red Squad, a CPD intelligence unit dating back to the Haymarket Riot that kept track of their every move.
“Their specific job and duty was to harass us,” Che said. “We had informants within the infrastructure of our organization who we referred to as provocateurs, who caused dissention and were created to destroy and basically annihilate us.”
The Coalition youth protested the torture of Seale, who was chained and gagged while in court for his participation in the Democratic National Convention protests, and the federal charges placed on the Chicago Seven activists for alleged conspiracy and rioting. Around the same time, the Rev. Bruce Johnson of the People’s Church—a United Methodist Church the Young Lords took over and turned into their headquarters—was brutally stabbed, along with his wife Eugenia, in their parsonage in a case that remains unsolved.
The confrontations between CPD and the Panthers were becoming increasingly intense. They engaged in a shootout over the summer that killed Black Panther Larry Roberson. Then in November, police alleged they were responding to a domestic dispute in the South Side when a shootout broke out that claimed the lives of Black Panther Spurgeon “Jake” Winters and police officers Frank Rappaport and John Gilhooly.
In December of 1969, the FBI conducted an overnight raid on Hampton’s apartment with intelligence provided by an infiltrator. He had just been named spokesperson of the national Black Panther Party. A barrage of police bullets struck him in his sleep as he lay beside his pregnant fiance, Akua Njeri, who survived. Another occupant, Black Panther security chief Mark Clark, was also killed.
Distraught members of the Coalition unofficially disbanded, and a handful of the leadership went underground after Hampton’s assassination, fearing for their own safety. Thousands of people lined up to witness the open crime scene, while lawyers from the People’s Law Office disputed the later-disproved official police account, which had falsely claimed a heavy firefight on both sides. Having assassinated its most vocal leader, the Feds had effectively crushed the 1960s’ most promising push for united, cohesive social resistance in Chicago.
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Black Panther Party Deputy Minister of Defense Bobby Rush and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Chicago leader of Martin Luther King’s Operation Breadbasket, spoke at Hampton’s funeral. In time, both demonstrated political aspirations. The notion of voting for politicians from the community began to sound more palatable in the absence of revolutionary spokespeople.
Although he was not considered a “viable” candidate by the establishment, Cha-Cha became the first Latinx candidate to announce a run for office in the city of Chicago, a decision he says he made in 1973 while sitting in Cook County Jail. When he was released, Cha-Cha traded his purple beret for a suit and tie, and with North Side organizers Walter “Slim” Coleman and Jim Chapman launched his campaign for alderman in the 46th Ward.
Cha-Cha ran on a pro-low income housing and anti-displacement platform, and lost, but garnered an unexpected thirty-nine percent of the vote and grew in name recognition. His campaign built a base of newly registered voters—Puerto Ricans could vote, as opposed to Mexican immigrants and many other Latinx Chicagoans at the time—and that carried over to Mayor Harold Washington’s campaign in 1983.
Washington, who ran on a Neighborhoods First agenda, did not count on the support of most of the Black aldermen in the Council whose wards were beholden to the mayor’s patronage jobs. Up until that point, only one former alderman, Leon Despres, had dared to speak up against Daley. So members of the original Rainbow Coalition network re-emerged to get out the minority and progressive white vote for Washington and other candidates who openly challenged the Daley machine, including Helen Shiller’s 46th Ward aldermanic run.
Rush would later comment that Washington’s election was “directly linked” to the assasination of Fred Hampton and the values he pioneered in Chicago.
Klonsky said he “can trace a straight line between 1969 and […] the election of Mayor Harold Washington, the first Black mayor.”
As the North Side Hispanic Precinct Coordinator, Cha-Cha put together a rally for Washington in Humboldt Park that, according to the Sun-Times, attracted 100,000 Latino residents. “As some of the audience waved Puerto Rican flags, Washington welcomed them in Spanish with a greeting of ‘unity and strength’,” the paper read.
However, Cha-Cha did not get a job with the Washington administration due to his criminal record and past drug use. He found refuge from law enforcement in Michigan, where he currently resides, goes to university, and maintains a Young Lords committee remotely.
From Washington’s supporters and the organizing network of the Rainbow Coalition emerged a wave of progressive leaders that sought political power in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s. Some recognizable names include former Cook County Clerk David Orr, former 15th Ward Alderman Marlene Carter, former City Clerk and current chair of the Board of Education Miguel del Valle, former MWRD Commissioner Joseph Gardner, former 25th Ward Alderman Juan Soliz, former 44th Ward Alderman Dick Simpson, former U.S. Representative Luis Gutiérrez, and his replacement in Congress and former mayoral candidate, Jesús “Chuy” García, and aldermanic candidates like Paul Siegel and Rudy Lozano.
In 1984, before President Barack Obama entered the picture as a state senator, Jackson would run for president unsuccessfully, delivering a speech titled “Rainbow Coalition” at the Democratic National Convention. He subsequently adopted the name for the non-profit he founded, and then merged with his Operation PUSH to form the Rainbow/PUSH civil rights organization. Jackson did not respond to requests for comment.
But the electoral power built by the Rainbow Coalition faced pushback from traditional voting blocs. Washington faced legislative blockades from the regular Democrats during the racist Council Wars, in which white alderman (and one Latinx) banded together to systematically vote against the mayor’s proposals throughout his first term.
The mayor’s death from a heart attack in 1987 caused divisions among Black voters who were split on a Black successor. The tragic loss of Washington allowed for the status quo to fall back into place under Mayor Richard M. Daley, who—among other self-serving maneuvers—enabled the corrupt Hispanic Democratic Organization that recruited city workers to manipulate the Latinx vote in his favor.
Since the ‘70s, more than thirty white, Black, and Latinx aldermen have been indicted or accused of serious corruption charges, ranging from bribery to extortion to embezzlement. Most recently, veteran aldermen Ed Burke, Danny Solis, and Carrie Austin have made headlines for being of interest to federal investigators.
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And from [Washington], I can draw a straight line to what’s going on today with Black Lives Matter—and even the election of Lori, a gay Black woman,” said Klonsky, who today co-hosts Hitting Left, a political radio show on Bridgeport’s Lumpen Radio. “Her election stands on the shoulders of Harold.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot succeeded two-term Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose legacy of police cover-ups led to his decision not to run for a third term, with an anti-corruption platform that sought to eliminate the remnants of the old patronage machine at City Hall. Early in her campaign, Lightfoot promised to reform the culture at the Chicago Police Department and address affordable housing. Her campaign swept all wards—though at thirty-five percent, voter turnout in the 2019 election was significantly short of the eighty-two percent turnout when Washington won in 1983.
The issues that Lightfoot and her opponent—another Black woman, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle—championed were brought to the surface by the organizing work of people at the grassroots level. Throughout Emanuel’s term in office, activists protested the police killings of Laquan McDonald and Rekia Boyd, the mass closure of public schools and mental health clinics, and the ongoing exodus of families from traditionally Black and brown neighborhoods.
The organizing by youth groups like Black Youth Project 100, and labor groups like the Chicago Teachers Union—along with tenants groups, independent political organizations, and cross-neighborhood coalitions like the Grassroots Collaborative—all helped to set the agenda for the mayoral race.
Both activists and reformers have criticized the mayor during her first hundred days in office, arguing that she has not made enough progress on the talking points of her platform. And these groups are keeping the pressure on: they are fighting for a fifteen-dollar living wage, an elected school board, eliminating cash bail, nixing a $95 million police training academy, and improving sanctuary city protections for immigrants under President Donald Trump.
These are values that have been embraced by a new crop of young, multicultural Democratic Socialists and progressives in City Council. Their agendas claim to prioritize a people-powered way of doing government—“for the many, not the few” (as Hampton would say)—that removes big money from politics and ensures community benefits agreements for residents as their neighborhoods develop.
The freshmen aldermen are not only backing, but spearheading measures like a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) and lifting the statewide ban on rent control. Aldermen from across the city have advocated for the Homes for All, Bring Chicago Home, and the Development for All ordinances that aim to regulate real estate developers and secure affordable living for working families, the homeless, and people with disabilities.
The ideological shift in City Council can be credited to socialist ideas gaining ground in recent years, but also to years of good old-fashioned door knocking and coalition building across neighborhoods. The Black Caucus, the Latino Caucus, and the Progressive Caucus are expected to intersect with one another to a degree that we have never seen before.
Politics in Chicago have come a long way since Hampton met with Cha-Cha fifty years ago. The trajectory of fearless grassroots, youth-driven, intersectional organizing that was set in motion by the 1969 Rainbow Coalition still resonates today.
There [was] an event to commemorate fallen Young Lords and the unsolved deaths of Young Lords allies the Rev. Bruce and Eugenia Johnson at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church, 925 W. Diversey Pkwy., on September 29 at 10:30am, followed by a “justice march” to the site of old People’s Church, 834 W. Armitage, in Lincoln Park. bit.ly/YoungLordsMarch
“All Power to the People,” an exhibit celebrating the legacy of the Illinois Black Panther Party, is open for viewing at the Woodson Regional Library’s Harsh Research Collection, 9525 S. Halsted St., through December 31. chipublib.org
Documentary The First Rainbow Coalition, chronicling much of the history in this article, will premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival on October 24 and 25 at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. José “Cha-Cha” Jimenez of the Young Lords, Hy Thurman of the Young Patriots, and Henry “Poison” Gaddis of the Black Panthers, with director Ray Santisteban, will attend both screenings. $18. chicagofilmfestival.com
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[Jacqueline Serrato is an independent journalist born and raised in the Little Village neighborhood. Follow her on Twitter @HechaEnChicago.]