“Racism was a demon that had to be driven out and slain if we were going to have unity with other groups and to believe that all people have a right to self-determination and freedom… We had to change to make life tolerable, and for life to have some sort of meaning.” —Hy Thurman, a founding member of the Young Patriots
Defying the stereotypes that they were ignorant “hillbillies” and hopeless racists, Uptown Chicago’s southern migrants and their allies organized the Young Patriots Organization(YPO) in 1968. Uptown had some of the worst poverty in the city and living conditions were grim with hunger and poor health for many.
The Young Patriots grew out of the work of the Uptown JOIN organization, a unique collaboration between southern migrants and young radicals from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). First organized in 1964, JOIN organized community meetings, marches, rent strikes, pickets and civil disobedience to protest the poverty producing policies of the Mayor Richard J. Daley Democratic Machine and its corporate sponsors.
In 1966 a group of Uptown young men left JOIN to form the Goodfellows. They felt that JOIN was too dominated by the mostly middle class students, even with their good intentions. Hoping to unite the local youth gangs into a progressive political force, the Goodfellows initially targeted the rampant police brutality that plagued the Uptown community.
The Goodfellows organized a march to the Summerdale police station, showing Uptown that a new day was dawning. Retaliation by the Chicago police came swiftly. The cops raided the JOIN office, planted drugs and arrested a number of key organizers. The raid showed that the Daley Machine viewed the growing rebellion in Uptown as a threat to its power.
In 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King proposed a Poor Peoples Campaign which would up set up a multi-racial 1968 encampment in Washington DC. Participants would use civil disobedience to pressure Congress for social programs to end poverty and stop the unpopular war in Vietnam.
Dr. King’s assassination and the subsequent urban rebellions did not deter the the Poor Peoples Campaign from coming to Washington in 1968. It also did not deter Uptown activists from joining the campaign in DC.
Members of the Goodfellows like Junebug Boykin, Bobby McGuiness and Hy Thurman began discussing the possibilities of a multi-racial working class alliance in Chicago. They studied the Illinois Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Organization who were combining political militancy with community organizing and direct service programs.
The Young Patriots eventually allied with the Illinois Black Panther Party (African Americans based on the South and West Side) and the Young Lords Organization (Latinos based in Lincoln Park ). The Panthers and the Young Lords were battling poverty and racism in their communities. The three groups formed the original Rainbow Coalition, which became an influential revolutionary working class movement for liberation.
The idea was to build a movement of the oppressed which crossed the traditional racial lines that divide working people. With help of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, the Young Patriots Free Health Clinic opened in September of 1969. This was only one example of how the Patriots, Young Lords and Panthers collaborated in mutual aid. The Clinic attracted doctors and nurses from local medical schools and hospitals to serve a population largely excluded from the mainstream health industry.
Responding to the dire needs of an abused and impoverished community, the Young Patriots also organized breakfast for children programs, food pantries and legal services In Uptown. Their service programs were not welcomed by the Daley Machine who used the police and various city departments to harass them. The Patriots fought back with demonstrations and sit-ins.
They demanded that the local Chicago Board of Health clinic expand its hours and with their allies, the Young Patriots led an occupation of the clinic with patients accompanied by 4 doctors, 3 nurses and 3 social workers. They followed that up with a rally the next day, forcing the City clinic to expand its hours and hire more staff.
The YPO also had a vision for Uptown that clashed with the Daley Machine’s plans to evict Uptown residents and build a community college. The YPO joined with Voice of the People led by Chuck Geary, later renamed the Uptown Area People’s Planning Coalition (UAAP). The UAAP brought in architects to design and plan a Hank Williams Village, named for the famous country music singer.
Hank Williams Village was based on the layout of a southern town with single family homes as well as affordable condos. Medical facilities would be available along with green space with parks and playgrounds. The plan included a food co-op, a public laundry, pharmacy and a hotel for new arrivals who needed inexpensive shelter until they found jobs..
Despite widespread support for the plan, it was ultimately blocked by powerful financial interests, the land was cleared for the college and many residents evicted. This was a major blow to the Young Patriots because their members and supporters were among those forced to leave their homes.
During the entire time of its existence the Rainbow Coalition had come under intense police pressure including assassinations, arrests, and constant harassment. John Howard and Raymond Tackett of the Young Patriots were both murdered under murky circumstances. Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated.
The mass eviction of Uptown residents combined with the police repression took their toll and the YPO was forced to disband as an organization in 1972. The Rainbow Coalition as a formal organization came to an end in the early 1970’s.
The infamous COINTEPRO program targeted the Rainbow Coalition on orders from the highest levels of the US government. A radical movement of working class people united across racial lines was viewed by US ruling circles as a threat to capitalism itself.
Past efforts to build multi-racial radical movements in the USA had also come under severe repression: Reconstruction, the Populist movement, the radical unionism of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the southern tenant farmer revolt during the Great Depression, the CIO’s industrial union organizing and the civil rights movement itself. The Rainbow Coalition proved to be no exception.
Yet the idea lived on, both in segregated Chicago and in the USA as a whole. A number of Rainbow Coalition veterans were instrumental in the campaigns of Harold Washington, the reformist African American mayor of Chicago from 1983-1987. Jesse Jackson borrowed the name “Rainbow Coalition” for his progressive presidential bids in 1984 and 1988.
Today Chicagoans can experience the rainbow of racial unity in the Fight for $15, the education justice movement, the housing rights movement as well as in present day Uptown community organizations.