From First Rainbow Coalition: Young Lords members protest at 18th Ave. Police Station, Chicago
Deep Dive

From Race Riots to Rainbow Coalitions and Heatwaves: Chicago Activism on Racial and Economic Justice

January 28, 2020 by Craig Phillips in Beyond the Films

It would be foolhardy to try to succinctly sum up the political history of one of America’s most historically politically complicated cities–Chicago–in one sweeping post. Rather, consider this a basic primer of touchstones that connect some key dots, with recommendations for ways to learn more, as you think about the histories presented in two essentially Chicago documentaries, and by extension, two quintessentially American stories: The First Rainbow Coalition, and Cooked: Survival by Zip Code

From the protests and upheaval of the 1960s to the tragedy of the ’90s heat disaster, Chicago has often been a hotbed of unrest and reassessment, oftentimes paralleling the story of America, but in its own big way. It is, after all, what Carl Sandburg once called the “City of the Big Shoulders” and “Freight Handler to the Nation.” And as the “Hog Butcher to the World” (also Sandburg), Chicago was the subject of Upton Sinclair’s seminal, harrowing 1906 work The Jungle, about the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants working in the meatpacking industry. Sinclair was an activist-writer in his way, though while he stimulated change through his words:

When The Jungle was published, its readers were outraged—but not in the way Sinclair had hoped. Their primary concern was food quality rather than the dangerous labor practices and cruel treatment of animals that Sinclair sought to expose. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he said. Using the public’s reaction to the novel, Theodore Roosevelt pushed Congress to pass both the Pure Food and Drug Act, which ensured that meatpacking plants processed their products in a sanitary manner, and the Meat Inspection Act, which required that the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspect all livestock before slaughter. [Source]

Workers in the union stockyards, Chicago, date unknown. Public domain.
Workers in the union stockyards, Chicago, date unknown.

While sometimes larger than life, these Chicago histories reflect on all of us, they are American stories. 

The history of Chicago mayors alone would make the most colorful collection of anecdotes: They have generally (but not always) been members of the Democratic Party, but on all points across the political spectrum, some beloved, some considered corrupt, some both — many powerful and often at odds with the rising activists representing the underrepresented, the people at the margins. Mayors figure prominently in both First Rainbow Coalition and Cooked, but here I’ll touch more on just some of the other seminal people and events in 20th century Chicago activism, with links and clips to help you learn more.

Early 20th Century Activism

As detailed in the book City Indian: Native American Activism in Chicago, 1893-1934, Native Americans were active on the political front in the city, raising their point of view on numerous issues. When Republican Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, a famously larger than life figure who ran the city from the 1910s to the early ’30s, declared that Chicago public schools teach “America First,” American Indian leaders publicly challenged him to include the true story of “First Americans.” 

(*“Thompson was a buffoon, a smart showman, a shrewd politician, all in one,” wrote James Doherty, who covered him for the Chicago Tribune, in a 1951 assessment. [source]) 

Race Riot

Thompson was presiding over Chicago during a terrible race riot in 1919, considered the worst spasm of racial violence in the city’s history. White mobs attacking African Americans were epidemic in American cities small and large at that same time, in what was dubbed “Red Summer” in America, stemming in part from rising tensions after WWI, an economic slump and competition for jobs, fear of socialism’s influence on civil rights, and racial bigotry.

From an AP/WTTW piece on the anniversary of the Chicago riot:

Researchers believe that in a span of 10 months, more than 250 African Americans were killed in at least 25 riots across the U.S. by white mobs that never faced punishment. Historian John Hope Franklin called it “the greatest period of interracial strife the nation has ever witnessed.”

The bloodshed was the product of a collision of social forces: Black men were returning from World War I expecting the same rights they had fought and bled for in Europe, and African Americans were moving north to escape the brutal Jim Crow laws of the South. Whites saw blacks as competition for jobs, homes and political power.

This awful event had repercussions in Chicago that lasted decades. Read more in this absolutely vivid, eye-opening oral history in Chicago Magazine by Robert Loerzel

For nearly a week in the summer of 1919, Chicago descended into “a certain madness,” in the words of the city’s leading black newspaper, the Chicago Defender. White mobs assaulted virtually any black person they could find on the streets, and blacks engaged in deadly acts of retaliation and self-defense. By the time the violence subsided, 38 men — 23 of them black and 15 white — had been killed and more than 500 people were injured. “Chicago is disgraced and dishonored,” the Chicago Daily Tribune declared. “Its head is bloodied and bowed, bloodied by crime and bowed in shame. Its reputation is besmirched. It will take a long time to remove the stain.”

Jolting Chicago during the early years of the Great Migration, the riot cast a shadow over race relations in the city for decades. A hundred years later, it remains the worst outbreak of racially motivated violence in Chicago’s history — and one of the deadliest nationally.

an African American man assaulted with stones during the Chicago Race Riot, public domain image
An African American man assaulted with stones during the Chicago Race Riot

The aftermath of the attacks and riots, and subsequent outcry led the Illinois governor to create a bi-racial “Chicago Commission on Race Relations” to find solutions to racial tension. This was seen at the time as a step forward that led to many well-intentioned fixes, but that ultimately did not really mend deep-rooted tension.

“I am proud of this city, but not always proud,” commission member George Cleveland Hall, a 55-year-old black surgeon at Provident Hospital, said at one meeting. “I am not proud when I remember that the homes of 27 Negroes have been bombed and no steps have been taken to apprehend the criminals. I am not proud when I remember that not a single civic organization has taken a definite stand in protest against these outrages. The Negro is silent, but he is thinking. He cannot be expected to remain patient forever under these continued attacks.”

The commission released its findings in 1922. The 672-page report, titled The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot, detailed how blacks faced discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives. It urged reforms at all levels of Chicago society, from City Hall, police stations, and courthouses to real estate offices, churches, and newsrooms — reforms intended to ensure that people were treated the same, regardless of skin color. The report condemned segregation as illegal and “impracticable,” warning that it would only “accentuate” racial tensions.

It all sounded well and good, but as Ida B. Wells later wrote in the autobiography she was working on at the time of her death in 1931, “many recommendations were made, but few, if any, have been carried out. Chicago has thus been left with a heritage of race prejudice which seems to increase rather than decrease.” [Chicago Magazine]

Ida B. Wells name is now famous enough to have schools named after her (and also the name of a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) public housing project), and yet still seems an overlooked figure in early civil rights history, who risked her life many times to tell and print the truth. In 1919, she was a pioneering young Chicago journalist who was one of the few reporters to interview victims, and played an important role in getting that story out, as well as bravely telling the true and brutal stories of lynching in the South.

1919 Riots: Further Viewing and Reading

  • Pioneering silent film director Oscar Micheaux, considered “the father of Black Cinema,” made a film called Within Our Gates which was created as an answer to, or clapback at, DW Griffith’s technically brilliant but racist epic Birth of a Nation. The film centered around these 1919 race riots that took place only months before the film was completed, a rather remarkable feat for the time.  

Brad Hunt, Vice President for Research and Academic Programs at the Newberry, helped devise and coordinate the programming with the partner organizations. He said he never tired of the “a-ha!” moments, when audiences could see how inequality has been created and reinforced over the decades. “I think we’ve already changed the conversation in the city,” Hunt said.

He believes the larger impact of the series will be how it brought people together around something once so divisive. And it was important, he said, to draw parallels between 1919 and current events, such as the protests and reform demands that followed the fatal police shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014.

“We don’t talk about the riots enough—and we need to…because it’s not hard to draw a line from Eugene Williams to Laquan McDonald,” Hunt said.

Eugene Williams was an African-American teenager who drowned in Lake Michigan on July 27, 1919, after being stoned by a white man. He was attacked after floating over an invisible color line separating supposed white and black sections of a beach near 29th Street.

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

While World War II raged on, back in Chicago one of the earliest vestiges of the Civil Rights Movement was formed, one that would influence more famous touchstone moments to come in the ’50s and ’60s.

In 1942, this new organization aimed to focus on nonviolent direct action. Its founders had been influenced by the protest tactics of India’s Mahatma Gandhi. Many will be surprised to learn that it was a group of Chicagoans who were first staging sit-ins, ahead of the famously important ones to come in the South some years later, but indeed this new organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), staged sit-ins and other protests against discriminatory Chicago restaurants and recreational centers. In the late 1940s activists of the United Packinghouse Workers union also targeted segregated eateries. By the early 1960s, most public accommodations in the city were open to African Americans. [Source

Black and white activists from the Christian pacifist movement, including James Farmer and George Houser, created the Chicago Committee of Racial Equality, the first chapter of CORE, in 1942. The interracial group advocated nonviolent direct action to address racial discrimination. Not a mass membership organization, CORE depended on a small group of disciplined activists to conduct their campaigns to desegregate public accommodations, workplaces, and housing. Pioneering the use of sit-ins and other civil disobedience for civil rights causes, the Chicago chapter reached a high point when the organization desegregated White City Roller Rink in 1946. After a failed employment campaign at a department store the following year, the chapter became inactive during the 1950s until its disaffiliation. [The Encyclopedia of Chicago]

CORE Magazine cover from the 1970s; Hokgwai/Creative Commons
CORE Magazine cover from the 1970s; Hokgwai/Creative Commons

From a Chicago Tribune story:

One day in May 1942, a group of young Chicagoans — black and white — opened a key chapter in civil rights history by refusing to take no for an answer when told that Jack Spratt Coffee House on East 47th Street didn’t serve African-Americans. At the time, the world took little notice. “If we were lucky, there might be a small paragraph on a back page of the Chicago Tribune saying, in effect, that a few nuts and crackpots sat in a restaurant until they were served, or thrown out, or the place closed — whichever came first,” James Farmer recalled in his 1985 memoir, “Lay Bare the Heart.”

Farmer was an organizer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation with a hunch that the organization’s pacifist commitment to turning a cheek in the face of violence could be a weapon with which to combat segregation. The U.S. said it was fighting World War II to save democracy abroad, even as African-Americans were denied equal rights at home by Southern laws and Northern customs.

To test his idea, Farmer and 27 others, many of whom lived around the University of Chicago campus, went to the nearby restaurant, known to be unfriendly to African-Americans. As expected, whites were served, and blacks were not. All rejected the management’s proposal that they dine in the basement. The police refused to remove Farmer and his friends, saying they hadn’t broken any Illinois laws. Jack Spratt afterward quietly dropped its anti-black policies.

Eighteen years later a group of college students struggling to desegregate a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., sought advice from the Congress of Racial Equality, which was born during the civil rights campaign on 47th Street. In the South in 1960, police and whites were hardly the nonpartisan bystanders their Chicago counterparts had been. Food was dumped on protesters, who were also beaten and arrested.

It should be added here that from the late ’60s onward, the modern incarnation of CORE, under the direction of Roy Innes (who passed away in 2017), was criticized in progressive circles for taking a much more conservative turn, including working for initiatives that seemed at odds with environmentalism, for climate change denial, and a series of controversial invitees to Martin Luther King Day festivities that included Republican strategist Karl Rove.

Pilsen and Little Village Neighborhoods

WTTW has an engaging interactive history of this historically industrial lower west side neighborhood that is now rich in Latino culture, after having seen many incarnations over the years. Focusing on the so-called “urban renewal” of the area, Pilsen, and the nearby Little Village area, are interesting examples of neighborhoods that became strengthened around identity, developing a sense of community. 

The coming “Rainbow Coalition” actually had some precedence in the mini grassroots coalitions that formed protectively around issues of urban displacement in this part of Chicago. 

It began with the construction of the Stevenson Expressway in the mid-1950s. That project displaced many lower-income Chicagoans from the Near West Side, including several Mexican families. They moved just south to the area surrounding Hull House. There, they joined an ongoing grassroots movement of black, Latino, and Italian-American residents hoping to leverage urban renewal policies to secure safer, more dignified affordable housing units in their existing neighborhoods. They had already secured “blighted” status for the area surrounding Harrison and Halsted, unlocking government-backed loans and other funding streams and triggering eminent domain laws that could force the removal of residents. They were in discussions with city officials and drafting plans for a new, mixed-use affordable housing project on the site. The Chicago Land Clearance Commission began appraising and purchasing lots, and residents began moving out.

This kicked off a wave of migration as Mexican families were displaced, and ended up going south to Pilsen. As the neighborhood became more and more predominantly Latino in the ’60s, activist groups formed to transform the feel of the area:

And they began challenging more established institutions. In 1969, several emerging Latino leaders in Pilsen began criticizing Howell House, a local settlement house that opened in 1905, for failing to meet the needs of the changing community. In 1970, they succeeded in renaming the building Casa Aztlán, in reference to the Chicano power movement, which was gaining strength across the country. Soon after, the church-based funders pulled out and Mexican and Mexican-American activists took over the building wholesale. The Brown Berets, an organization allied with the Black Panther Party, took the lead, turning it into a completely independent hub of community and political organizing. They ran it with an all-volunteer staff and provided affordable housing for artists and activists, a free clinic for local residents, and a meeting space for throngs of young radicals.

Sadly, the Casa Aztlán building recently was re-developed and the original murals that were an iconic part of the building were lost, though the developer offered a wall dedicated to new murals.

 Original Casa Aztlan mural. (Creative Commons)
Original Casa Aztlán mural.

“The First Rainbow Coalition”

A highly unlikely alliance formed in Chicago in the tumultuous 1960s: Latinos of the Young Lords organization, members of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, and the working-class young southern whites of the Young Patriots, a union that shocked some allies and scared police and the FBI, who feared the coalition would upend the social order. One key member of the coalition, Black Panther Fred Hampton, quickly demonstrated his leadership skills by securing a nonaggression pact among Chicago’s most powerful street gangs and by organizing rallies, blood drives, a health clinic, and free breakfast programs.

He was only 21 years old when he was killed–along with fellow panther Mark Clark–during a predawn raid at his Chicago apartment by Chicago police on December 4, 1969.

“The Rainbow Coalition presented a possibility,” says historian Lilia Fernandez. “It gave us a vision for what could be in terms of interracial politics among the urban poor.” 

The activists at the center of this new coalition included: the Young Patriots’ Hy Thurman, who was born in Tennessee to a family of sharecroppers and moved to Chicago seeking new opportunities but instead finding mostly poverty when he ended up in the Uptown area local upper-class whites derisively called “Hillbilly Harlem”; Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez, a founding member of the Latinx street gang Young Lords he later relaunched as a human rights organization, who resided in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood; Robert “Bob” E. Lee III was a member of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and was instrumental in building the Rainbow Coalition, alongside Hampton. Lee was born in Houston, Texas, and learned community organizing from his activist father, the civil rights leaders that frequented his mother’s nightclub, and the Longshoreman Union organizers that lived across from his family home. 

Further Reading and Viewing

In addition to of course the film The First Rainbow Coalition, which covers this in great detail, you can learn more about the people in this little-known but groundbreaking movement, through these tools:

First Rainbow Coalition Discussion Guide, written by Renee Gasch and overseen by filmmaker Ray Santisteban.

Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times, book by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy

The Murder of Fred Hampton, documentary by Mike Gray and Howard Alk (Facets Video, or streaming on Amazon Prime)

Judas and the Black Messiah: Fictionalized film with 2021 release about Hampton, the Black Panthers, and Hampton’s murder.

The ’68 Convention and the Chicago 7 or 8 (or 10)

First of all, which is it — were there 7 on trial, 8 or 10? 

Social activist and counterculture icon Jerry Rubin may explain it best, as heard in the film Chicago 10“Anyone who calls us the Chicago Seven is a racist. Because you’re discrediting Bobby Seale. You can call us the Chicago Eight, but really we’re the Chicago Ten, because our two lawyers went down with us.” These activists–Abbie Hoffman (probably the most famous of the group, a “Yippie” and leading proponent of the Flower Power movement), Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner–were anti-war protestors who were charged with inciting a riot and conspiracy for their part in demonstrations that led to violent clashes with Chicago police outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Black Panther Seale was the eighth man charged but had his trial severed during the proceedings (and, infamously, Seale was literally bound and gagged during the trial on orders from the judge), which reduced the number of defendants from eight to seven. For historical context, they were the first people tried under the first federal anti-riot law. Five were convicted for inciting riots, all were acquitted of conspiracy, and then the other convictions were later reversed by the US Court of Appeals. 

Among the many reasons this trial, and the legacy of these activists, is so important is because it was a case where the ultimate victory for political activists — their acquittal — came about because it was shown that the judge, Judge Hoffman, was politically biased against them, and the eight men played this up brilliantly.

During the trial, yippies Hoffman and Rubin sometimes used unusual tactics to draw attention to their arguments. In one instance, they showed up to court wearing judicial robes to protest Judge Julius Hoffman’s decision to revoke Dellinger’s bail. When the judge demanded they remove their robes, they took them off and stomped on them. Underneath, they were wearing Chicago police uniforms. Another time, Hoffman unfurled a National Liberation Front (aka “Viet Cong”) flag on the defense table, and engaged in a tug-of-war over it with a court marshal who tried to remove it.

Sharman says the media tended to emphasize moments like these because they were so unusual. However, he thinks it’s important to understand these incidents in the context of the judge’s behavior toward the defendants.

“Even on the first day, Tom Hayden gave a fist salute to the jury and he was given a contempt of court citation,” he says. “It was like nothing could be done without the judge sort of stamping on them, so that sort of encouraged them to do it, I think.” By the end of the trial, the judge had charged all of the Chicago Eight as well as defense attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass with contempt of court. [Source]

Further Viewing

There have been multiple movies about this group and this trial, both fictionalized and documentary (including an upcoming Aaron Sorkin work), from Medium Cool and Punishment Park to the TV docudrama Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, but we’ll go with the PBS documentary Chicago 10, which is available on DVD.

The Second “Rainbow Coalition”

Just a brief note about how there was later a more famous use of the “Rainbow Coalition” brand, founded by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Some members of the first Rainbow Coalition weren’t too thrilled when Jackson borrowed (or took) the name for his own grassroots, progressive organization aimed at expanding the Democratic party to include a new, more diverse base of younger voters, of African Americans, Latinos, women, labor union members, LGBTQ, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, students, peace activists, and environmentalists. Jackson’s new Rainbow Coalition had its ups and downs but undeniably had an affect on 1980s electoral politics, coming to prominence when Jackson ran as a presidential candidate. Some writers, like The Nation‘s Steve Cobble, think he was both an influencer and a sort of prophet for what the Democratic Party would become:

The Jackson presidential campaigns of the 1980s opened the door to Barack Obama’s victory. Obama himself once told Jackson that after watching him debate in 1984, he knew it was possible for a black candidate to win.

The future President had once been a community organizer himself in Chicago.

1995 Heatwave Aftermath, Community Connections, and Climate Change Activism

As seen in the film Cooked, a confluence of terrible neglect, dangerous weather, and racism ultimately led to the tragedy of the 1995 heat wave that struck Chicago, in which an extremely high humidity and a layer of heat-retaining pollution drove the heat index up to more than 126 degrees. An unfathomable number of people died that week, 739 residents altogether — most of them elderly people of color.  The film covers what happened, and why — the fallout from the disaster forced the city to learn some hard lessons.

While the city was shaken to its core enough to improve its emergency preparedness for the next natural disaster, on a macro level there began an increasing acknowledgment of the rise of an ongoing climate change crisis, while on a micro level, the need for community support and more accessible emergency services for those who need it the most.

Why did some lower-income neighborhoods make it through with less tragedy? That issue is examined in this In These Times piece on Eric Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago:

Much attention has been given in the last year or so to the impact of one’s neighborhood on quality of life. From segregation to education to hyper-policing, we are probably more aware than ever that place matters. But Heat Wave, published over a decade ago, stretches this insight even further, showing that more than almost anything else, the neighborhood you lived in in the summer of 1995 determined your chances of survival, in ways that went far beyond income or race.

Perhaps the most well-known section of Klinenberg’s book contrasts North Lawndale and South Lawndale (better known as Little Village, mentioned above), adjacent neighborhoods on the city’s West Side. North Lawndale, a deeply impoverished, nearly entirely black community, faced one of the city’s highest death rates during the heat wave. Little Village—a heavily Mexican immigrant area with more than its share of poverty, but also a bustling commercial district and dense network of civic organizations—had one of the lowest.

Klinenberg refers to this, and the fact that Latino neighborhoods across the city had extremely low death rates, lower even than whites in neighborhoods with higher average incomes, as the “Latino health paradox”—but three black areas on the South Side also had among the lowest rates in the city. At its best, Heat Wave cuts through the oversimplification that black or low-income neighborhoods must always be dysfunctional. Instead, what matters is the existence of a healthy neighborhood social life, enabled by neighborhood businesses, well-supported civic organizations and freedom from a debilitating fear of crime.

More and more cities are realizing that climate change-related planning and community organizing go hand in hand. 

While Chicago eventually presented a genuinely forward-thinking “Climate Action Plan” in 2008, which included plans for more trees and rooftop gardens, residents further away from downtown, sometimes, change can be a long and gradual thing. Just recently, Chicago’s new mayor (and first African American woman and first LGBTQ mayor) Lori Lightfoot announced a summit meant to address some of the ills that are part of the story seen in Cooked. Whether this anti-poverty summit succeeds is yet to be determined, but it reflects a connection to the legacy of those who saw what happened during the Chicago heatwave and wanted to change the very structures that led to the mass tragedy. 

As Klinenberg wrote in a piece for Wired magazine, “People are realizing that when the floods come or the heat wave settles, neighbors are the true first responders. Next up, we’ll be able to focus on an even more urgent problem: reducing our greenhouse gas emissions before there’s no way to adapt.”

Just as an aside, the aforementioned Pilsen area is now home to what Chicago has dubbed the “Greenest Street in America,” which includes a streetscape project employing “a new roadway material named photocatalytic cement, also known as “smog-eating” cement, a compound which cleans the surface of the roadway and removes nitrogen oxide (NOx) gases from the surrounding air through a catalytic reaction driven by UV light,” as well as Chicago’s first permanent wind and solar-powered pedestrian lights, LED pedestrian light poles, efficient stormwater management systems, and high albedo pavement surfaces to reduce the urban heat island effect. [Source: RentCafe]

Further Reading

The Guardian: “‘Heat islands’: racist housing policies in US linked to deadly heatwave exposure

Legacy of Activism

Eddie Bocanegra is one of the interventionists featured in the documentary The Interrupters [stream on FRONTLINE]. Bocanegra spent 14 years in prison for murder and now works with the Chicago violence prevention organization CeaseFire, which runs the “interrupter” program. “I’ll be honest,” Bocanegra told NPR’s Neal Conan. “During the filming, I was very ashamed revisiting some of these places and then taking somebody with me.”  But while taking outsiders to the scenes of his former crimes was humbling for Bocanegra, he says it also served as a fresh reminder of the positive changes he’s trying to make in his old neighborhood. 

The Interrupters addresses an issue plaguing Chicago in recent years: urban violence. The documentary intimately follows activists of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, “violence interrupters,” former gang members who visit their old Chicago neighborhoods to try to stop youth violence. For those who committed acts of violence themselves in these neighborhoods, like Bocanegra, returning to “interrupt” was often a humbling (and sometimes life-threatening) experience, but they pushed through it because of how much they believed in this program.

While it does not show a world in which a high rate of gun violence has been resolved in Chicago, an issue far too complex for one group and one solution to resolve, the film does show what a few determined passionate and empathetic people can do when they are creative, inspired and fed up. 

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.