If the idea of black nationalists working for social justice with Confedrate flag-wearing white groups sounds improbable, a new documentary film by San Antonio filmmaker Ray Santisteban might be a revelation.

The First Rainbow Coalition airs Jan. 27 on PBS, with a free sneak preview this Saturday, Jan. 11, at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center. The hour-long documentary tracks the coming together of disparate, even hostile, opposites in 1960s to ’70s Chicago to address issues of police brutality, substandard public housing and public education, ethnic prejudice, and access to health care.

“I think few people could imagine that you could have the Black Panther Party in coalition with a poor southern whites group whose symbol was the Confederate flag,” Santisteban said. That group, the Young Patriots, also worked with the Young Lords, a former Latino gang that reorganized as a community group.

“It’s one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction things,” Santisteban said. “If somebody wrote it [as fiction], you would just laugh, and [say], ‘That’s ridiculous.’”

As a student at the New York University film school in 1993, Santisteban won an Academy Award for a documentary he co-produced, then went on to explore the Chicano movement in various films for screen and television, including Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1994. After a stint in Austin to produce a four-part PBS series ¡CHICANO!: The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, he relocated to San Antonio in 1998 to run the San Antonio CineFestival at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and continue producing films exploring Chicano history.

Ray Santiseban, director of the documentary The First Rainbow Coalition

As The First Rainbow Coalition demonstrates, the unusual collaboration among social justice groups hinged on the charisma of Bobby Lee, a young black activist who dared to travel north through highly segregated Chicago to the Uptown neighborhood, which is characterized by one resident as a slum for poor whites originally from the southern U.S.

That resident, Hy Thurman, said he and his fellow “hillbilly” residents were “classified as dangerous population” by the administration of Mayor Richard Daley and the Chicago Police Department. Uptown also suffered from the effects of police brutality, poor quality of public services, housing, and access to health care, as well as discrimination that prevented them from getting jobs and succeeding in education.

During a key first public meeting with the Young Patriots, Young Lords, and the Black Panthers, Lee was able to demonstrate the group’s common interests. In Thurman’s words, Lee showed them that “what was going on in your neighborhood, the same thing was going on in my neighborhood. … And how are you gonna change that? You ain’t going to change that by hating the people in the other neighborhood. But the fastest way to change that was for those neighborhoods to come together.”

Panther Bobby Lee speaks to white audience at a community meeting in uptown Chicago in 1969.

Young Lords leader Jose “Cha-Cha” Jimenez echoed Thurman’s sentiments: “Our communities were all struggling for the same cause… in unity there was force.”

The Rainbow Coalition was born, adopting a flag with a “rainbow” of white, yellow, red, brown, and black stripes meant to symbolize the various ethnicities of oppressed and underserved communities.

A synopsis describing the documentary describes the evolution of the movement: “What began as a drive to achieve a voice for poor communities quickly grew into a formidable youth-driven political movement” that soon formed bonds with other social justice groups, including Asian collective I Wor Kuen, the American Indian Movement, and Students for a Democratic Society.

The movement was seen as a threat by Daley, the Chicago police, and the FBI, which branded the Black Panthers as a black nationalist hate group, largely because of their vocal critique of the white power structure and their willingness to arm themselves.

The charisma of leaders such as Lee and Fred Hampton, a Black Panther deputy chairman, was considered dangerous, as was the coalition movement they engendered.

Jimenez states plainly that when he was younger and considered just a gang member, a routine offense would land him and his compatriots in jail for a weekend. Their evolution to a social justice movement, providing free breakfast to schoolchildren in their neighborhoods, along with free health care and a food bank for adults, marked them as hardened criminals facing life sentences, Jimenez noted. He was indicted for 17 felony counts, largely resulting from protest actions. He escaped to Wisconsin to train other activists before eventually turning himself in.

Hampton, however, was killed in an apparent political assassination by the FBI and Chicago police. “A lot of people underestimated what the government would do to repress a real, true poor people’s movement,” Jimenez states, with another speaker, Ericka Huggins of the Black Panther Party’s Oakland chapter, rhetorically asking, “What did [Hampton] do? He formed coalitions.”

Fred Hampton speaks at Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago, 1969.

After achieving a measure of racial integration and positive social change in the most segregated city in the nation, the coalition dissolved in 1973. But as The First Rainbow Coalition makes clear, the larger movement continued. Jimenez eventually ran for alderman in his district and received 40 percent of the vote. Black Panther Bobby Rush eventually became a congressman, and the election of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, influenced Barack Obama’s decision to become a community organizer in Chicago.

In promotional material for the documentary, Santisteban notes that 2019 was the 50th anniversary of the Rainbow Coalition’s formation. Airing The First Rainbow Coalition on PBS to a projected audience of 3 million to 6 million viewers might bridge past and future. He writes: “We feel this film is particularly important that this time, as its story counters growing voices seeking to divide us.”

Santisteban said he hopes the film inspires people to overcome perceived divides currently plaguing the nation. “What I’m hoping is that people see the potential to think about alliances as a way to transform society.”

In the film, former Young Patriots member and coalition founder Bobby McGinnis notes that despite the eventual defeat of the coalition by the FBI and Chicago’s political bosses, the effort was still successful: “They didn’t beat us. We did what we set out to do. We made a better community.”

The Esperanza center’s screening of The First Rainbow Coalition, at 6 p.m. Saturday, is free and open to the public. A question and answer session with Santisteban will follow.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...