Imagine what would happen if someone wore a Confederate flag button with clasped black and white hands (pictured) to a Trump or Black Lives Matter rally. Given what we have seen on the media, the person would likely be met with indignation, insults and perhaps physical violence.
This button, which the Southern Student Organizing Committee developed in the 1960s, symbolized a unique partnership between the Black Panther Party, the Young Patriots Organization and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican national group. I learned their story at the Black Panther Party's 50th-anniversary celebration in Oakland, Calif., where many of the founding leaders gathered. There I learned about the original Rainbow Coalition began in Uptown Chicago, known as "Hillbilly Harlem," because of its population of poor southern whites and African Americans.
"I thought conditions were bad in Tennessee," Hy Thurman, a self-professed hillbilly, said of the 1960s. "In Uptown Chicago, housing conditions were so bad that neighbors were literally freezing to death. The cops referred to us as a 'swarm of locusts' who were backwards, dumb, immoral and violent." Thurman, Marilyn Katz and others formed the Young Patriots Organization to mobilize their community. YPO used the Confederate flag as their symbol, less as a racist statement but as a "symbol against Northern aggression."
Elsewhere in Uptown, local Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Bobby Lee were organizing their community. Jose "Cha Cha" Jimenez, an immigrant from Puerto Rico and a member of the Young Lords gang, was doing the same thing, with more unlawful methods.
In April 1969, the three organizations joined to form the Rainbow Coalition of Revolutionary Solidarity. "It took some time to build trust among the communities," Thurman said. "Once we broke the ice, we were able to identify their needs and get them help. Many were surprised to hear that the Black Panther Party played a major role in getting medical personnel and equipment for the Young Patriot Health Clinic and provided food for kids before they went to school. We'd walk into our redneck bars with our rebel-flag vests and 'Free Huey Newton' buttons, and our friends wouldn't know what to do with us."
"YPO provided security detail at each of our BPP functions," Aaron Dixon said. "I can't tell you how many times having a white boy standing next to me saved my ass from getting arrested."
Mayor Richard Daly and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover made it their top priority to dismantle the coalition. YPO's William "Preacherman" Fesperman said, "We are the living reminder that when they threw out their white trash, they didn't burn it." In December 1969, the Chicago police, working with the FBI, arranged for the murder of BPP leader Fred Hampton Jr., who was the torchbearer for the coalition. Hampton's murder galvanized the community.
The Rainbow Coalition lasted for several more years before the Daly administration and the FBI dismantled it. "They found ways to frame us and throw us in jail," Cha Cha Jimenez said, "tearing the very fabric of our coalition apart."
Harold Washington, Chicago's first Black mayor (1983-1987), built his platform on the shared ideals of the coalition. Later, Jesse Jackson Sr. formed the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, with no affiliation with the original Rainbow Coalition. "We can trace Obama's rise to the presidency back to the Rainbow Coalition," YPO leader Marilyn Katz said.
As the panelists, now in their 60s and 70s, gathered on stage for a photo, I wondered how we can come together today. The true work of social change and healing needs to stem from ordinary people at the local level. My friend Lloyd Dennis, from New Orleans, wrote in a post: "If the poor and struggling white folk who support Trump would wake up and understand that the very wealthy, like Trump, are the reason working people carry this country on their backs, they would find common ground with folks of color, and the real revolution would begin."
The key is finding common ground, and we attain that through engagement in trust, love, story and struggle. "Serve the people. Love the people. Have faith in the power of the people," Pam Tau Lee said.
I hope we all follow the example of the Black Panthers, Young Patriots, and Young Lords to love, serve, and have faith that the power of kindness and humanity will emerge as the true winner.
Visit Kevin Fong's website at elementalpartners.net.