A Great Political Organizer Worth Knowing Bob Lee

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

Note: I was lucky to have known Bob Lee. He mentored me like he mentored many. From me it was from afar as we only met a couple of times. He was friends with a close colleague of mine, filmmaker Mike Gray who got to know him when he was in Chicago and when he made his movie about the Murder of Fred Hampton. Bob Lee worked closely with the legendary Fred Hampton, the article below describes Hampton as the speechmaker and person who talked to the media, and Lee as the behind the scenes organizer who brought together the Panthers with Latino and white groups. It was that coalition that Hampton held together that frightened the power structure in Chicago and Washington, DC and led to the government murdering him.

Lee also suffered from a neurological illness that brought him to understand the medical value of marijuana, an issue I have worked on since 1979. Lee taught me about the basics of organizing, saying — “Go out your door, turn right and talk to your neighbor. Find out what they need and get it for them or do it for them. It could mean mowing their lawn or getting a second hand TV.. Develop a relationship and educate them politically. When it came to election day, get out their vote.” I was on a list, I don’t know how large it was, but I would get regular mailings from Lee. They included copies of news articles about racism, police violence, economic injustice and Lee wrote notes in the margins. It was an ongoing political education that I much appreciated. KZ

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

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.

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.

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  • DHFabian

    This directly addresses the two issues that, today, so deeply split apart those who are not on the right wing — race and class. Today, the issue isn’t that the poor are “underserved,” but that they are marginalized, dehumanized, families torn apart, too often driven into the prison labor system on any pretext. It has virtually been open season on our homeless for years. The poor don’t have access to the public microphone, have been driven out of the public square, and have been disappeared from the media.

    Tremendous progress was made in the 1960s and 1970s, on both race and class. The goal of the 1980s “Reagan Revolution” was to reverse that progress, establishing hard right domination over the country. Much work went into pitting middle class against poor, and pitting the poor against each other by race. Divide, subdivide, conquer.

    I’ve seen nothing in years to indicate that middle class America is even aware of any of this. America today is like a pressure cooker. A little steam was released a few times, such as with Occupy. Rather than direct that steam into building a cohesive People’s movement, it was quickly capped off, and the pressure keeps building. There’s no way to determine what will happen if it explodes.