A talk given at the Third Unitarian Church of Chicago on February 23 2014. I was asked to discuss my involvement in the freedom movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Parts of this story have been told elsewhere. In addition, this is based on imperfect human memory. If you remember any of it differently, please comment.
It was the first week of April 1968. A native of Washington DC, I was living in nearby Silver Spring Maryland. I had a stack of leaflets to deliver to the Students for a Democratic Society (better known as SDS).
Dr. Martin Luther King was scheduled to lead a march to the White House in support of the Poor Peoples Campaign. The leaflets announced the march and I was thrilled. I had never marched with Dr. King before.
By 1968 King had moved in a radical direction. He envisioned a multiracial encampment of poor people in Washington to wipe out what he called the “triple interlocking evils of racism, exploitation, and militarism”. He spoke of an era of revolution that would change the whole structure of American life. He called it the Poor Peoples’ campaign.
I volunteered to help. My work was nothing glamorous, I would be moving supplies and food to the tent city King was planning.
The march never happened. On the night of April 4 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis. Overcome by a deep and primal rage I remember thinking,” America is going to burn to the ground tonight and I’m not sorry.”
Massive urban rebellions did break out across the nation as thousands of troops and police battled for control of America’s cities. Sections of 14th street in DC burned, a neighborhood I had lived in as a small child when it was a low income white area.
The Poor Peoples Campaign took place, but it had little impact. After the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the great liberal hope for president, the nation turned to Richard Nixon.
I spent the next several months wondering what to do next. The answer came in 1969 when I was a first year teacher in the DC Public Schools.
The Black Panther Party was emerging as a major voice for black radicalism and socialism. They had adopted much of King’s political program, but advocated armed self defense instead Gandhian non-violence. The Panthers wanted to be left alone to conduct their free breakfast programs for children, their liberation schools, their free health clinics, their community organizing, and their militant street protests against police brutality.
They also sought allies from other racial groups and like King, came to advocate a multi-racial social movement. That put them directly into the crosshairs of the FBI and local police.
There had already been deadly shootouts. BPP leader Huey Newton was in prison after a confrontation that left a police officer dead and Newton seriously wounded. It was life during wartime, both at home and in Vietnam.
The violence did not deter a young African American from Maywood IL named Fred Hampton. He, and a talented organizer named Bob Lee, along with others, assembled what they called a rainbow coalition among the working class youth and their allies in Chicago.
With the African Americans of the Black Panther Party, it included the Puerto Ricans in the Young Lords Organization as well as disaffected Appalachian white migrants in the Young Patriots, plus former SDSers and white working class kids in the Rising Up Angry organization. Young people of all colors in the most racially segregated city in the north were talking revolution.
Then on December 4, 1969 the police assassinated Fred Hampton as he lay sleeping in his bed, drugged by an undercover informant. Mark Clark was killed and several other Panthers wounded.
Jakobi Williams who wrote the book From the Bullet to the Ballot, a history of the Illinois Black Panther Party, believes Hampton’s assassination was the official reaction to the multiracial revolutionary alliance of young people. who were supposed to be at each throats over racial differences. These young people were not following the script that American racism had laid out for them.
It was racism and poverty kept the whole corrupt Chicago political economy going. Mayor Richard J. Daley & the city wealthy elite felt threatened. That fear spread all the way to the Washington power elite.
When I heard the news in DC, I felt compelled to to act. Some of the Chicago Young Patriots had decided to go national and organized the Patriot Party. There were already several chapters across the country working closely with the Panthers.
I called a friend I knew in the DC Patriot Party and volunteered to help. So in January of 1970 I began working in the basement of the DC Black Panther office, printing Panther and Patriot literature. Ironically the party office was near the familiar streets of my DC childhood . And they say you can’t go home again.
The Panthers I worked with were some of the most dedicated people I have ever known. Before becoming a Panther one of them had sat in my class when I was a student teacher at Coolidge High School. We studied Orwell’s 1984.
I used my Ford van to move furniture and supplies and take people to meetings. I helped Panthers and Patriots plaster the walls of DC with revolutionary posters. I picked up bundles of Black Panther newspapers for the circulation manager, Sam Napier. To help the Panthers and Patriots with their free clinic plans, I volunteered at the existing Washington Free clinic to gain experience.
I also practiced shooting guns, hoping that I would never have to point one at another human being. BTW, the DC Panthers kept guns strictly for self defense. I never saw a Panther wave a gun the entire year I worked with them.
1970 culminated with a mass meeting in Philadelphia where thousands of people came to hear Huey Newton speak. It seemed the national rainbow movement was growing. But all through that year there had been numerous raids, shootings and imprisonments.
The repression took its toll.The FBI COINTELPRO program was in full swing. The Black Panther Party split into two warring factions based on real differences as well as government dirty tricks. Sam Napier was among those killed in the internal strife that tore the Black Panther Party apart. The Patriot Party disbanded in confusion.
I walked away in sadness and anger. By that time the sight of a gun made me sick and I vowed never to touch one again. I have kept that vow.
But the idea of a rainbow coalition lived on. In 1975 I moved to Chicago and worked in the aldermanic campaign of Cha Cha Jimenez the former Young Lords leader. Cha Cha lost but did get nearly 40 % of the vote in the Uptown community.
The death of Fred Hampton had caused several black elected officials to break with the Daley machine. One of them was a then little known state senator named Harold Washington.
In Harold Washington’s quest for the Mayor’s office he was assembling a team of black insurgents as well as rainbow coalition veterans like Mike James,Cha Cha Jimenez, Helen Shiller and Rudy Lozano Sr. Rudy was assassinated in 1983. Assassinated? Do I detect a pattern here?
Harold Washington lost his first campaign in 1977, but used the rainbow model to win in 1983 and again in 1987, despite a vicious racist campaign launched against he and his supporters. Harold was a reformer not a revolutionary, but he understood the importance multi-racial unity for positive change. I worked in all 3 of his campaigns.
Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama would copy some of the Chicago rainbow tactics for their own ambitions, like running for president of the United States.
But the grassroots model of Chicago rainbow politics is very much alive. I saw it in the Chicago teachers strike of 2012 working as a volunteer in strike HQ. Chicago’s working class, in the most residentially segregated city in the North, ignored the official propaganda against the strike & came together in support the Chicago Teachers Union. This was the union who made racial apartheid in education a public issue.
I saw the rainbow again on the streets of Chicago with the Fight for $15 campaign when low wage workers of all races challenged some of the wealthiest corporations in the USA. Now raising the minimum wage is on the agenda. Imagine that.
Racial divisions were introduced in the early days of American capitalism to pit white labor against black labor and keep as many people in poverty as possible, with the burden falling heaviest on workers of color. People like Dr. King and Fred Hampton died trying to undo that ugly history. We have inherited their legacy and the struggle continues.
Power to the People!