Bob Lee, a key member of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party (ILBPP), founder of the original Rainbow Coalition in Chicago, and self-described lifelong community organizer, passed away Tuesday March 21, 2017 after a battle with cancer. He was seventy-four years old. He leaves behind his wife Faiza, two brothers, a son, and a long list of activists and organizers influenced by his dedication to the poor and underserved.
I last saw Bob Lee less than two weeks before his death in his hospital room in Houston, Texas. Still the consummate organizer, he was trying to organize the hospital’s nurses and dining staff from the confines of his hospital bed. As I watched his efforts in amazement, Bob reminded me that “one should never pass up an opportunity to organize those in need.”
Bob Lee, named Robert E. Lee, III, was born on December 16, 1942, to Robert and Selma Lee. He grew up in Houston, Texas where he attended Phillis Wheatley High School along with two other deceased infamous classmates, Houston congressman Mickey Leland, and Carl Hampton, slain leader of People’s Party II, a local black revolutionary group inspired by the Black Panthers whose name was suggested by Lee to avoid police repression, all to no avail.
He acquired effective grassroots organizing skills by observing activists in his mother’s nightclub, the civil rights activism of his father, and the labor struggles of the Longshoreman’s Union that was directly across the street from his childhood home. Lee once declared, “I was raised around organizing. Any nightclub in the South during segregation; all the conversations that I listened to in the club were organizing work. So, I had an instinct by being raised in an organizing world.”
Lee moved from Houston, Texas, to Chicago in 1968 as a Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) volunteer stationed at the Isham YMCA. He was the recreation leader of the facility during the day and a counselor at night. Lee worked exclusively with gang members in the area, including African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Southern whites.
After the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, Lee joined the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party for the purpose of conducting community organizing. Due to Lee’s familiarity with and experience as an organizer of white youth on Chicago’s North Side, ILBPP deputy chairman Fred Hampton appointed Lee as field secretary and section leader for the area. The North Side consisted mostly of segregated, nonblack neighborhoods.
In late 1968, Fred Hampton and Bob Lee indirectly created the original Rainbow Coalition. Led by the ILBPP, the Rainbow Coalition included the Young Lords, a socially conscious Puerto Rican gang; and the Young Patriots Organization (YPO), a group of Confederate-flag-wearing Southern white migrants. This political formation later became famous when Harold Washington used it as a base for his successful bid for mayor of Chicago in 1983.
Lee was joined by fellow Panthers Hank “Poison” Gaddis, Jerry Dunnigan, and Ruby Smith in organizing with the Young Patriots on Chicago’s North Side, specifically Uptown, unbeknownst to Hampton and other Illinois Panther leadership. After Lee informed Hampton of their activities, the two men met on the roof of the Panthers’ headquarters alone. Both were well aware of the great promise but potential fragility of multiracial coalition-building. Bob Lee remembered:
[Fred Hampton and I] believed that solidarity in Chicago was stronger than anywhere else. We knew our organization would not last long, and we knew that we had to move fast. We didn’t fool ourselves . . . there was a mystique in the Party about my cadre because no one knew what Poison and I were doing. I only dialogued with Fred.
Lee would insist that “Fred Hampton introduced class struggle” to the growing movement in Chicago, citing “rallies and his speeches that set up the ideology in which I was able to apply.” Fred Hampton was the face of the Rainbow Coalition, and Bob Lee served as the legman. Hampton gave speeches and sat for interviews on behalf of the organization, but it was Bob Lee who was the mover and shaker of the group. Lee was out in the street politicizing North Side groups and introducing them to the Black Panther Party.
The first encounter between Lee and the Young Patriots actually happened by accident. Lee was invited to speak at the Church of Three Crosses on the Near North Side by Charlotte Engelmann, a white attorney. The congregation of the church consisted of predominantly upper-middle-class whites. Engelmann had also invited the Young Patriots to speak that night. Lee remarked:
In theory, one does not put southern whites and the Panthers together. It was a mistake in programming. When I got a phone call and was asked to speak, I was not informed about the Young Patriots attending. My intention was to introduce the Illinois Black Panther Party because the organization was new to the city of Chicago . . . The event was my first speaking engagement.
The Young Patriots had been invited to speak about police brutality. Bob Lee was surprised by the intense hostility and class dialogue between the two white groups, and he was unaccustomed to the way that the middle-class group verbally attacked the Young Patriots.
Coming from the South, it was a culture shock for me. I had never seen that before, because in the South whites were united around race . . . I had never seen whites attack poor whites before. I had never seen poor whites having to explain themselves to other whites before . . . When I was called upon to speak, I made my speech, and it was an emotional tie-in with the Young Patriots because I felt the hostility toward them. And that was the beginning of our alliance.
Bob Lee introduced the youth gathered that night to the ideology of the Black Panther Party and its community service programs. The Young Patriots were easily persuaded to work with the Panthers, being receptive to the concept of class solidarity. The YPO’s introduction to class solidarity that transcended racial divisions, courtesy of Bob Lee, also forced members to reassess its vestigial identification with the Confederate flag.
As Lee and others helped organize the Young Patriots around Panther ideology, the group quickly became the leading political representatives of the Uptown neighborhood, an alternative to the electoral clientelism of then-mayor Richard Daley. Together, the Panthers, the YPO, and the Young Lords in Lincoln Park helped to form the Uptown Coalition of Poor People. The community coalition united residents against owners they now identified as slumlords.
The first Rainbow Coalition was short-lived, as it fell apart after Hampton’s tragic assassination in December 1969. Lee wasn’t entirely bitter about Rev. Jesse Jackson’s appropriation of the concept for his own political gains and agendas during the 1980s — in his opinion, Jackson “gave it a new set of legs.” But he had a greater appreciation of Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign of 1983, which recognized the historical roots and power of the earlier iteration of the Rainbow. According to Bob Lee,
It was not until the election of Harold Washington that organizers realized the actual strength of the Rainbow Coalition, which also helped members to understand the local power structure’s commitment to eliminating the group, as it was a real political threat to machine politics in Chicago.
Lee left the Panthers and returned home in 1970, where he continued his work as a grassroots community organizer until his death. I first met him in 2007, at his home in Houston, where I first interviewed him for my book, From the Bullet to the Ballot. Before he would sit with me for an interview he wanted to check my commitment to organizing those in need.
Lee was bound to a wheelchair later in life, due to multiple sclerosis. Nonetheless, he drove me around the Fifth Ward, where he was known as the “mayor.” An elderly African-American woman flagged down our car, and we pulled over. She told Lee that she needed a pair of shoes, taking care to mention her shoe size, and Lee told her he would find her a pair. A few blocks later, an older African-American gentleman asked to have his lawn cut. Shortly thereafter, Bob Lee approached a young man who told us he had not eaten in a few days.
A few hours later, we borrowed a lawnmower from a neighbor. Lee made a stop at a community center and picked up a few pairs of shoes for the woman. The young man who needed food mowed the older gentleman’s lawn, then he met us at the elderly woman’s home, who needed the shoes. We then sat down for a meal and all ate heartily. Everyone he helped that day assured Lee that they would vote for El Franco Lee, Bob Lee’s brother who preceded him in death, for Harris County Precinct 1 commissioner, and for other candidates that Lee supported.
Lee did all this important work from a wheelchair. His example inspired me to become the activist that I am today. He trained me how to connect with those in need, how to meet people at their level, and the significance of relationships in fostering grassroots community organizing. In our current climate of racial and political polarization, aggravated by the election of our orange president, Lee’s work in organizing across race within the class is all the more necessary.
If Bob Lee could unite folks across deep-seated racial differences — especially folks like the Young Patriots — in the segregated 1960s, then we have no excuse not to equal, if not eclipse Lee’s success in our current polarized context. Speaking as a historian, I see no need to reinvent the wheel in order to address Trumpism today.
It was activists like Lee, his fellow Black Panthers, and the original Rainbow Coalition who created change in our nation, by daring to enter distant neighborhoods and forge alliances. It is through the continuing nuances of applying the methods of the past to the grassroots organizing tenets of today, including social media, databases, digital archives, algorithms, and so on, that the extremes of our moment’s polar opposites will be connected to establish a conduit of understanding, communication, and respect.
As a political symbol, the Rainbow didn’t refer just to a series of colors; it signified an arc of connection between different places and people. For Lee and others who participated with him in struggle, this was the only possible starting point for revolutionary solidarity.
Originally published in Viewpoint magazine.