Black Panther Robert E. Lee III died on Tuesday, March 21, 2017 at the age of 74. He is an important part of social movement history and American history. The lessons of his life live on, and we are called to take up his unfinished work today. Known as Bobby Lee, he was a VISTA volunteer on Chicago’s north side in 1968 working with poor black, Latinx and white urban youths when he was invited to a middle-income white church to talk about police brutality. A Texas native born December 16, 1942, Lee was accustomed to cross-class white unity around racism, so he was surprised to find the middle-income whites attacking poor whites who talked about their own experiences with police violence.

Those poor whites were part of the Young Patriots Organization (YPO), a new organization of poor whites in the Uptown neighborhood.1Jakobi 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), 128, 132–33. Police records date the meeting of YP and BPP to Feb 1969, but Lee connected at this gathering and others in the fall of 1968. Although it was Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton who coined the term ‘Rainbow Coalition’ as a code word for cross-race class struggle, it was Lee who found and pursued the relationships with poor whites, saying “Fred Hampton introduced class struggle” in ways that “set up the ideology in which I was able to apply.”2Ibid., 128. Hampton made Lee field secretary for the Uptown area, but the cross-racial partnership was not an easy one. Lee made his pitch to an YPO meeting of poor white Uptown families,

We are going to have to deal with the concept of poverty, man. We are going to erase the color thang, see…There’s welfare up here…There’s police brutality up here, there’s rats and roaches. There’s poverty up here. That’s the first thing we can unite on…Once you realize man, that your house is funky with rats and roaches, the same way a black dude’s house is…Once you realize that your brothers have been brutalized by the cops the same way the Westside and Southside (are). Once you realize that you are getting an inadequate education in these high school and junior high schools over here, the same way the Southside and the Westside (are). Once you realize that you are paying taxes, taxes for them to come in and beat your children, you’re paying them to run you off the corner and you’re paying them to kill you, deal from there. The same thing is happening on the Southside and the Westside, and if you can realize that concept of poverty…a revolution can begin.3Cited in Williams, From the Bullet to the Ballot, 134, from the documentary American Revolution II, 45:46-55:05

Through Lee’s persistence and patience he was able to break through the anxious skepticism of Uptown whites by dedicating weeks to sharing meals and discussing strategy and tactics with YPO leaders and Uptown families. A turning point was Lee’s near arrest after a church meeting when North Carolina migrant and YPO field secretary Bill “Preacherman” Fesperman emptied the church to surround the police car and demand Lee’s release, including those who moments before had hesitated to enter a relationship with the Party. Police violence continued to be a point of convergence that made the Rainbow Coalition possible.4Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power : Community Organizing in Radical Times (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House, 2011), 75–82.

In the fall of 1968 and into 1969 the Illinois chapter of the BPP made connections with politically-minded youth organizations across Chicago, including the Young Lords, a socially conscious organization of poor Puerto Ricans, and the poor white YPO. Together they formed the Rainbow Coalition as a partnership of autonomous organizations committed to class struggle.

Lee returned to Texas in 1970 where he served the community as a social worker in the former Harris County Hospital District, including many years caring for HIV patients at Thomas Street Health Center. He converted to Islam and was known as Robert Alwalee.5Cindy George, “Bob Lee, Brother of El Franco Lee, Dead at 74,” Houston Chronicle, March 22, 2017, http://m.chron.com/news/houston-deaths/article/Bob-Lee-brother-of-El-Franco-Lee-dead-at-74-11020755.php?cmpid=twitter-desktop.

Former Young Patriot Hy Thurman worked with Lee in the original Rainbow Coalition and the two of them had reconnected in recent years. Thurman shared news of Lee’s hospitalization and death with the Kairos Center. Thurman is part of a network reigniting chapters of the Young Patriots in Alabama. Lee made significant contributions to a strategic understanding of organizing across lines of division and the importance of organizations like the Black Panther Party, Young Patriots and Young Lords as developers of leaders for a movement to abolish racism and poverty and establish human rights. He is an important part of movement history and American history. He is survived by his wife Faiza and an extensive family and community network.

To learn more about Bobby Lee, see Jakobi William’s From the Bullet to the Ballot and Amy Sonnie and James Tracy’s Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power.

Notes   [ + ]