1960s Chicago activists to visit IU Bloomington for panel discussion Friday

They were the original Rainbow Coalition — community activists who joined together to fight racism, start social-service programs and take on the entrenched Democratic Party machine in 1960s Chicago.

And the coalition made for surprising allies during those racially polarized times. It included the Illinois Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican Young Lords and even the Young Patriots, white Appalachian migrants who wore Confederate flag emblems as a symbol of Southern pride.

Rainbow Coalition members at an April 1969 news conference. Hy Thurman, who will visit Bloomington Friday, is standing at left.

Rainbow Coalition members at an April 1969 news conference. Hy Thurman, who will visit Bloomington Friday, is standing at left.

This Friday, four members of the coalition will be at IU Bloomington to talk about group’s legacy. They’re coming at the invitation of Jakobi Williams, associate professor of history and African-American and African diaspora studies, who writes about the coalition in his 2013 book “From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago.”

The four — Hank “Poison” Gaddis and Lynn French of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez of the Young Lords and Hy Thurman of the Young Patriots — will take part in a panel discussion at 3:30 p.m. Friday, March 28, at the Schuessler Institute for Social Research, 1022 E. Third St. Williams will moderate.

Eventually joined by Native American, Asian-American and Chicano activists and the campus-based Students for a Democratic Society, the coalition marked a turning point in the politics of racially segregated Chicago, Williams says. It won support with community services, such as a free breakfast program for children. But 1960s politics were violent as well as tumultuous. Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers and a founder of the coalition, was killed in a police raid in 1969. Others moved on but many remain involved in political activism and community organizing.

Most people associate the words Rainbow Coalition with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition. But Williams credits the term and the approach to racial coalition-building to the Illinois Black Panther Party and its allies. He says their influence continued, playing a key role in the 1983 election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago and Jackson’s campaigns for the White House in the 1980s and serving as an unacknowledged inspiration for the election of Barack Obama as president.

Obama may have made the idea of cross-racial coalitions sound fresh and new, Williams said, but he didn’t originate the idea. “It’s not a new phenomenon,” he said. “These folks were doing it in the ’60s.”

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