The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Resurrecting the alliance of black revolutionaries and Southern whites, decades after a government crackdown

There’s an old, grainy black-and-white video floating around YouTube that shows Black Panther Bobby Lee addressing a group of poor white migrants from the South and Appalachia. “I wanna introduce a man that come over here tonight from another part of town but he’s fighting for some of the same causes we’re fighting for … so I’m gonna introduce you to Bobby Lee here,” says a member of the Young Patriots Organization, a political group that organized poor white migrants in 1960s Chicago.

Lee takes the stage. “I’m a Black Panther, I’m a section leader of the Black Panthers. … The Panthers are here,” he tells the audience. “You have to tell us what we can do together. We come here with our hearts open, you cats supervise us. Where we can be of help to you.”

He starts walking around the skeptical-seeming crowd, making his case for their common ground. “There’s police brutality up here, there’s rats and roaches. There’s poverty up here … that’s the first thing we can unite on, that’s the common thing we have, man.”

He approaches a young white woman and encourages her to speak. At first she’s shy, but Lee and the YPO speaker say they don’t want to be doing all the talking, that they already talk too much and that their movement needs more leaders. She finally gets up and airs her worry over the police, how a cop pulled a knife on her brother and when she asked him what he was doing he told her it was none of her business and to “get the hell out of there.”

The video cuts to an older Southern white guy. “I want you people to stick together and I’ll stick by the Black Panthers if they’ll stick with me, and I know they will,” he says.

Hy Thurman, a founding member of the YPO who was at the 1969 meeting recorded in the video, tells The Watch that this was “the original Rainbow Coalition” — poor whites, poor blacks and Latinos (a group called the Young Lords) joining forces to fight against the oppressive policies of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Thurman was born in Dayton, a small town in rural Tennessee, and started working on a farm “from the age of 3.” “I’d dropped out of school in the ninth grade but before that I’d started working the fields,” he says. When he was 17, Thurman decided to try his luck in Chicago, joining a larger wave of migration from rural areas to the industrial cities of the North. But the flood of poor people strained Chicago’s resources. “There was a high unemployment rate,” he says. “There were many reasons for that, of course. People came from the South that didn’t have skills in demand in the Northern city of Chicago. It was mostly rural people who had done farming, mines … a lot of the agricultural areas of the farms that cut people’s jobs.”

When he moved to Chicago, he joined what he calls a “typical street gang” called the Peace Makers. But after some bad experiences with Chicago police, he says, some members of the Peace Makers decided to become a political group instead of a gang. So they split off into a group called “Good Fellows.”

“We said no, there’s other ways to serve the community, so we started organizing. … We wanted to show that blacks and Southern whites could work together,” Thurman tells The Watch. They prioritized problems in poor communities in the city: poverty, poor health care, a lack of child care, and police brutality.

The Vietnam War draft and police crackdowns thinned the ranks of the Good Fellows, Thurman says, but a few remained committed and became the Young Patriots in 1969.

He describes how this coalition was able to organize racially diverse communities: “No big leader in the Rainbow Coalition” — each group would listen to the needs of the other. “We’d go into their community and they’d tell us what to do,” and vice versa. That included help with building health clinics and food banks, with breakfast programs and legal help — whatever they needed. For example, if a poor person needed to see a medical specialist, coalition members accompany them to make sure they weren’t sent away.

“It was a poor people coalition,” Thurman says, “Poor people organizing in their own community against racism and supporting the black power movement at the time.”

All of this interracial organizing did not please authorities in the city — or in Washington. “Unfortunately, Mayor Daley and J. Edgar Hoover had different ideas,” Thurman says.

Dec. 4 marked the 47th anniversary of the murder of Fred Hampton, a 21-year-old Chicago Black Panther targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program. Chicago police burst into Hampton’s apartment and shot him dead while he was in bed. They claimed people in the apartment had fired first, but investigations revealed police had discharged almost 100 bullets into the apartment, while there appeared to be only one that may have come from the apartment. Documents revealed that Hoover feared the rise of a “black messiah” or “electrifying leader.”

“They murdered Fred Hampton, and there were other murders too,” Thurman says. Churches that facilitated the activities of the Rainbow Coalition were told to stop. In 1969, the Rev. Bruce Johnson and his wife, Eugenia, were murdered — the murder was never solved, but activists believe that it may have been linked to their work with the Young Lords.

Police hassled the Young Patriots, Black Panthers and Young Lords in endless ways, Thurman says, until many couldn’t keep the movement going. Thurman went back South, where he had to contend with being called that “n—– lover from Chicago.”

“We were all beaten, most of us jailed. Most of us had to go underground a long time,” Thurman says.

Thurman thinks the political moment needs a movement like the Original Rainbow Coalition. And some young people are trying to do that. Kameron Malik Robinson, the 17-year-old black chairman of the Birmingham Chapter of the Young Patriots Organization, got in touch with Thurman over Facebook. “I’d been studying the Chicago BPP and rainbow coalition independently for about as long as I’ve been doing spoken word and anti oppression work (nearly two years)” he tells The Watch. “The YPO’s shifting the spectrum of allies and manipulating the prejudice of the dominant group tactics recently came to mind as the perfect combination to use in order to work with the polarized majority (i.e. White folks upset by the election results). When I found out Hy lived in state I reached out to him and to my network and set the meeting up in order to get the Birmingham chapter established.”

“As a whole YPO offers a chance at self-determination to all marginalized folks whether they are plagued by classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, or what have you,” says Robinson, “Part of the self-determination is working for livable wages and access to education and other human and democratic necessities.” At the same time, the needs and priorities of marginalized people shouldn’t be subsumed in economics: “We need to feel safe and we don’t if our oppression is a secondary issue,” he tells The Watch.

Thurman is proud to say the Birmingham chapter is “racially mixed; most of these kids are poor. There’s lesbian, queer, gay, trans … and they’re looking for ways to fight.”

When I express surprise to Thurman that a 66-year-old white guy who lives in Meridianville, Ala., is so caught up with progressive politics like transgender rights, he’s only mildly offended.

“The ones that I know, older guys, people are welcoming it,” Thurman says. “That’s a part of the country, a part of right now. [Transgender people are] oppressed, discriminated against and this is a way for them to voice their opinions.” The only people he says he’s heard disparaging transgender people are “Trump supporters, ‘Trumpeters,’ — hell, they just don’t like polite people.”

He thinks that now is a moment for a movement that fights economic, race, gender and sexual injustice, because the new administration scares him, and he does not frighten easily.

“It’s scary. It’s like the ’60s, maybe worse,” Thurman says. “But I’m not afraid of it anymore — they can’t do that much more to me.”