An Arc of Solidarity: Remembering Bob Lee (1942-2017)

Bill “Preacher­man” Fes­per­man, Bob Lee, Lamar Bil­ly “Che” Brooks, and Fred Hamp­ton at a Rain­bow Coali­tion ral­ly in Grant Park, 1969.

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 74 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 VISTA (Vol­un­teers in Ser­vice to Amer­i­ca) 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 towards 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 pair 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 an 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.1

  1. For more about Bob Lee’s long his­to­ry of orga­niz­ing poor peo­ple regard­less of race and eth­nic­i­ty see Jako­bi Williams, From the Bul­let to the Bal­lot: The Illi­nois Chap­ter of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty and Racial Coali­tion Pol­i­tics in Chica­go (Chapel Hill: Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Press, 2013); Amy Son­nie and James Tra­cy, Hill­bil­ly Nation­al­ists: Urban Race Rebels and Black Pow­er (Brook­lyn: Melville House, 2011); and Mike Gray’s 1969 doc­u­men­tary, Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion II

Author of the article

is an associate professor of History and African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington. He is the author of From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago.