All power to all the people: the Black Panthers and the Rainbow Coalition

Note: I’d like to thank Jakobi Williams, a professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington who specializes in the Black Power and civil rights movements, and Hy Thurman, a member of the original Young Patriots and Rainbow Coalition, for contributing their invaluable insight and expertise to this column.

Poverty, inequality, racism, gentrification, police brutality — if we are to defeat these social problems, we should look to the past at organizations, such as The Black Panther Party and the Rainbow Coalition, that have successfully implemented programs that fought these issues.

The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale to combat police brutality in Oakland. Armed Panthers monitored police patrols to discourage abuses of power, and if confronted, they would cite their legal rights. In addition, the Panthers provided lessons on self-defense to black communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Black Panthers’ open carry tactics led the then-Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, to enact the Mulford Act, which outlawed the public carrying of loaded firearms. Isn’t it interesting how conservatives suddenly became pro-gun control when it was black people who were open-carrying?

By 1969, the main focus of the Black Panther Party, which had expanded across the nation, was their “serve-the-people” programs. The most prominent of these was the Free Breakfast for Children program, which by 1970 provided free breakfast to 20,000 children in need. Other programs that the Panthers ran included free schooling for children and adults, interfaith temples, free health clinics, the Sickle-Cell Anemia Research Foundation, a free ambulance service, free food, free clothing and shoes, an employment assistance program, a nationwide newspaper, cooperative housing, children’s daycare, free plumbing, maintenance and pest control and legal aid and education.

What is distinctive, and often overlooked, about the Black Panther Party is its intersectionality. By 1970, approximately 40 to 70 percent of the party’s members were women. Beyond the party itself, the Black Panther Party would be responsible for coalition building across multiple lines, most especially in Chicago, where the work of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois BPP and deputy chairman of the national BPP, and others would build an interracial, working class alliance.

Early in his work with the Panthers, Fred Hampton and Bobby Lee were instrumental in helping to peacefully negotiate a non-aggression pact between Chicago’s street gangs in 1969. This would only be a prelude to one of their greatest achievements; forging an alliance among the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots, a radical white Appalachian immigrant group and the Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican nationalist group, thus creating the anti-racist “Rainbow Coalition,” dedicated to implementing anti-poverty programs for all working class people. The coalition would later expand to include the radical youth group Rising Up Angry. In Chicago, the most segregated city in America to this day, the Panthers had managed to build an effective interracial coalition.

The interracial, anti-capitalist community building done by the Black Panthers and Rainbow Coalition united workers of all races and ethnicities behind a common cause, and at the same time demonstrated alternative solutions to the capitalist state. For this reason, it would draw the ire of the federal government. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had initiated the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in 1956 to infiltrate and disrupt the Communist Party, U.S.A. Hoover’s program would go on to target and disrupt the activism of civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Despite reports from agents who had infiltrated the Panthers that the organization’s main focus was feeding children and fostering community service programs, Hoover insisted that the agents destroyed the BPP and “eradicate (the BPP’s) ‘serve the people’ programs.” FBI infiltrators would work to break apart the Black Panther Party and Rainbow Coalition using false flag operations: operatives purposely incited violence. Their most egregious crime was the assassination of Fred Hampton.

On the night of Dec. 3, 1969, Fred Hampton would have his drink spiked with sedatives by an FBI infiltrator. At 4:45 a.m., Hampton’s apartment was raided by a 14-man, heavily armed Special Prosecutions Unit from the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Mark Clark, Hampton’s bodyguard, was sitting in the front room of the apartment on guard duty with a shotgun. As the officers broke into the apartment, they would shoot him in the chest, killing him instantly. The only bullet that would be fired by the Panthers during the raid would be a single shot caused by Clark’s death convulsions. Hampton, under the influence of barbiturates he had been slipped, was sleeping next to his eight-and-a-half-month pregnant fiancée. In this vulnerable state, Hampton was killed, shot with two bullets point-blank into his head. Several members of the Young Patriots and the Young Lords organizations fell victim to the FBI, Illinois State Police and the Chicago Police Department as well. All three organizations were eventually destroyed by the FBI COINTELPRO.

It is public knowledge that the Chicago Police Department raided Hampton’s apartment while he was sleeping and killed him in cold blood, and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was directly involved, as revealed by documents pertaining to COINTELPRO. In 1971, leaked documents revealed that the FBI had given the CPD the floor plans to Hampton’s apartment and made a deal with the deputy attorney general to cover up their involvement in Hampton’s assassination. The FBI and the CPD eventually settled a case accusing them of conspiring to assassinate Fred Hampton. But not a single officer or agent was charged.

Despite the FBI’s destruction of the organizations, the Black Panther Party and the Rainbow Coalition remain exemplars of mutual aid, and in many ways, they function as models for modern radical organizations. The legacy of their work is felt in a variety of ways, from community clinics, to legal aid offices, to worker’s cooperatives, to farmers’ markets. But we can always do more. “Serve the People” programs are needed now more than ever, and if we do not organize them, then who will?

As it stands, Hy Thurman, a member of the original Young Patriots Organization, is currently working to revive the group to organize people of all races and ethnicities and help implement new “Serve the People” programs. If you want to join in on the fight against racism, poverty and systemic oppression, joining forces with the revived Young Patriots is a good place to start.



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