Radical History

14 Apr


Source: http://openclipart.org/detail/168935/fist-by-rapperklimov

When I was in college, I wrote my thesis on the first Rainbow Coalition, militant namesake of Jesse Jackson’s current organization. Theirs is a lost history of radical empowerment – part of the struggle of writing about it was simply trying to find any sources at all. Many of the websites that put me on the trail of the coalition’s history are gone now. The primary sources I have access to at the moment I can pretty much count on my fingers. James Tracy, who was himself one of Uptown’s organizers in the 1960s and 1970s, is pretty much the only person to have written a book on the subject.

The Rainbow Coalition arose from the least mainstream end of many minority communities in Chicago; the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots, the Young Lords, I Kor Wen, and more. The Panthers, neglected in civil rights history as they are, are easily the most well-known of these groups. Some sources for the history of the Young Patriots do exist, mostly in the form of films and documents obscure except among extreme left organizers. The invention of portable video cameras was the first information revolution – and the activists of 1960s and 1970s Chicago kept their history alive and accessible through film.

One of the biggest problems I had getting my thesis idea approved was in answering that most fundamental of academic questions, why does this matter? Why is this group influential? How does this fit into the literature? I managed to answer these questions well enough to convince my advisor to give me the go-ahead, but with distance I can tell you that my answers were pretty thin. An activist can say, these people mattered because of what they tried to do, not how well they succeeded. The fact that you don’t know about them is in itself a reason to write about them. But that’s not a very academic response. In retrospect, I view that paper as a failure not just because it wasn’t terribly good, but because it split the different between academia and activism. I tried much too hard to bring aloof intellectualism to the history of a group that was meaningful because it wasn’t run by aloof intellectuals.


Rainbow Coalition leaders from the Black Panthers and Young Patriots.

Source: I used this in my paper, but that webpage I cited to is gone. Photo credit to an S. Shames, but that’s the best I can do.

But I didn’t really want to write about the Rainbow Coalition because it had some sort of sweeping impact on civil rights across the nation that fits into the greater narrative (even if I remain half-convinced by my own arguments). I wanted to write about it because it was amazing and nobody told me about it in school. I only stumbled across it by chance in college. A multi-racial, radical coalition of the poorest minorities in a notoriously segregated city had crossed incredible hurdles just by talking to each other, let alone forming an organization. These were the people who didn’t buy in to the strategy of nonviolence. When you’re coming up through grade school, if you talk about the Panthers at all, they’re generally presented as non-constructive and misguided. Yet here they are, creating a separate structure of support outside of society, coming up with answers for their own communities.  They started their own newspapers, community oversight groups, breakfast for kids programs. They were educating and fighting for themselves and nobody, to use a loaded term, carpetbagged it in there to help them do this. It wasn’t top-down, it was actual bottom up.

Even if the coalition was ground down beneath the heel of COINTELPRO before it made much of a dent in the American mainstream – therefore ‘failing’ in some sense – ignoring its history is taking part in its suppression. There is value in the idea of bearing witness.


Source: http://www.theremainsoftheweb.com/tag/the-lavender-panthers/

Recently I’ve been thinking about the out-groups that don’t make it in, this time in the context of queer culture. I’ve been reading about the Lavender Panthers and ballroom culture – groups that don’t blend in to the mainstream queer rights movement going forward in the courts.  All history has a thesis; I know the story of the white, gender binary-ed, upper-class queer movement. Now I want to talk about what everyone else is doing.


“I say, good sir, I should like to engage in holy matrimony and serve in the armed forces to defend this great nation. I enjoy apple pie and baseball greatly.”

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_LGBT_actions_in_the_United_States_prior_to_the_Stonewall_riots


3 Responses to “Radical History”

  1. Hy Thurman August 3, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    I am a co founder of both the Young Patriots Organization and the Rainbow Coalition and will be willing to talk to any that is interested in our history.

    Hy Thurman

    • sidkettle August 4, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

      Pleased to meet you–I would love to talk to you sometime about your work. Soon I’m going to be out of the country for the next month or so, but you can reach me at sm1th_303(at)yahoo(dot)com if you’d like to talk.

      • Hy Thurman August 9, 2013 at 7:30 pm #

        Pleased to meet you also. I will be contacting you via email.

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