In efforts to highlight a largely unknown yet pivotal moment in the fight for civil rights, Ray Santisteban uncovers the unity, determination, and unwavering leadership of the coalition and the effort of officials to squash it in his film THE FIRST RAINBOW COALITION. Trinity Casimir from GOOD DOCS sat down with Santisteban to better understand this history, much of which remains relevant today.
“We just wanted to get this film out there, we wanted people to know that this existed, and that the Coalition is an example to people of what could be.”
Ray Santisteban’s The First Rainbow Coalition chronicles the revolutionary creation of a multi-racial alliance in Chicago during the 1960s and 70s. Emerging from a segregated and impoverished city, community organizers from the Black Panther Party, the Young Patriots (Southern Whites who had migrated to Chicago), and the Young Lords (a former Latino street gang), mobilized to create one of the most effective political action groups in the 20th century.
“The city of Chicago was essentially designed for segregation. With the creation of the 'L' train, the creation of large scale public housing in black communities. They made these things to divide communities, not to bring communities together,” said Santisteban. “I think that’s the significance of it….If this coalition happened today, it would still be a groundbreaking coalition.”
The radical nature of the First Rainbow Coalition was its greatest asset in bringing about change because of the substantial threat it posed to the status quo. As the public watched self-empowered people unify to secure housing, food, and demand justice for themselves, the credibility of the current administration, namely Mayor Richard J. Daley, was called into question.
Daley’s authority as mayor implied that he and his administration alone could deliver on campaign promises of jobs, healthcare, and housing. However, the marginalized communities – poor whites, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans – knew the truth. Daley continued to perpetuate inequality and division in order to cater to the wealthier white class.
“Daley, of course, had what they call ‘plantation politics…’ essentially it was a divided city politically, and the mayor used that division to keep things in place.” said Santisteban. “Keeping things the way they were meant that he would stay in power. And that was his goal.”
The phrase “plantation politics” harkens back to the Jim Crow South and the legacy of slavery in the former Confederacy – a somewhat counterintuitive term to use when referring to the political climate of Chicago. However, the film’s depiction of segregation is one of many parallels drawn between the urban North and rural South, demonstrating the mechanisms that promote white supremacy were not exclusive to one region, nor one moment in time.
“The film is a mirror to society, and these issues are circular, these issues are still with us,” said Santisteban. “The racism, the entrenched police brutality... until these are confronted we’re going to keep waking up to these horrific news headlines every day because it’s institutionalized.”
Confronting our history can often be difficult, especially when it is systematically erased or hidden as prominent voices are subdued by violence. The research that went into the film spanned over a decade, as Santisteban and his team stitched together the fragments of the movement after it had been dismantled through state-sanctioned brutality.
“This history was hidden in some ways because folks were dealing with the trauma, the post traumatic stress, of having been in these movements where people were getting killed around them, and being harassed and being surveilled,” said Santisteban.
To this day there is no book on the First Rainbow Coalition. Activists are scarce in video footage, and many relocated shortly after the murder of Fred Hampton. The process of contacting them took months and, in some cases, years.
The difficulty of piecing together this history is the best evidence, however, that it was a film worth making and a story that needed to be told.
“I like telling the stories of underrepresented communities,” said Santisteban. “I just have a connection to those stories, I believe they’re important. There aren’t enough of them being told.”
The story of The First Rainbow Coalition complicates many narratives prevalent in our current understanding of history. In the wake of political turmoil and injustice, we find ourselves in the strenuous process of unlearning and relearning our history, and the untold stories of strength and empowerment are key to our re-education.
“What better way to be part of providing solutions to the problems we face as a society than through a story?” said Santisteban.
The First Rainbow Coalition exemplifies lessons that still ring true. Having a critical perspective on authority, understanding unity, intersectionality, and building community, are all fundamental to overcoming oppression, regardless of time or place. Leaders like Bobby Lee, Cha Cha Jimenez, and Hy Thurman embodied that. “There's a positivity and the belief in the power and potential for change, and it’s not coming out of anger” said Santisteban. “If you’re going to be an activist in the longer term, you need a center to your activism...It comes from a place of strength.” The First Rainbow Coalition ultimately serves not only to broaden our historical narrative, but to provide younger activists, leaders, and community members with insight towards what could be.
Trinity Casimir is a rising sophomore at NYU studying Anthropology and Public Health. Her passion for documentary film stems from an interest in ethnography and the use of storytelling and film to advocate for, and empower, diverse communities.