Bobby Lee — lifelong community organizer, Black Panther, and along with Fred Hampton, a co-founder of the original Rainbow Coalition — passed away on Tuesday at the age of 74.
Born in Houston, Texas, Lee began his career as an activist and organizer in San Francisco working with children with disabilities as part of the VISTA program, an anti-poverty domestiv version of the Peace Corps.
While there, he was radicalized by his cousin Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther party, who eventually promoted Lee to become a field organizer in Chicago.
It was in Chicago that along with Hampton, Lee played a pivotal role in bringing together Puerto Rican radicals in the Young Lords, as well as a group of poor white activists known as the Young Patriots, to form the groundbreaking Rainbow Coalition.
"The Rainbow Coalition was just a code word for class struggle," Lee told James Lee in a lengthy interview published in AREA Chicago.
"Looking back, was there enough basis for unity? Hell, yeah! When I went to Uptown Chicago, I saw some of the worst slums imaginable. Horrible slums, and poor white people lived there. The uptown neighborhood was a prime recruiting zone for white supremacists. Most of the cats who were in the Patriots also had at least one family member in the Klan, (but we) drove a wedge in that bullshit, that white supremacist bullshit," he said.
Lee, who later converted to Islam and was also known as Robert Alwalee, recalled that it was the patient organizing and service model of the Panthers that made the coalition possible
"It wasn't easy to build an alliance. I advised (the Young Patriots) on how to set up "serve the people" programs—free breakfasts, people's health clinics, all that. I had to run with those cats, break bread with them, hang out at the pool hall. I had to lay down on their couch, in their neighborhood. Then I had to invite them into mine. That was how the Rainbow Coalition was built, real slow."
Lee, who shared his birth name with the white supremacist Confederate General Robert E. Lee, said that this played a role in his activism.
"I got into a lot of fights about my name (growing up), but it served as an advantage for me as an organizer going into southern white communities, I was accepted just by name," he recalled in an interview with the Houston History Collective.
Lee came to prominence through the documentary "American Revolution 2" which documented his and Hampton's work in Chicago. One famous scene records him in his first meeting with the Young Patriots and Young Lords.
"Once you realize that you are paying taxes - taxes - for the cops to whoop your ass. … You're paying them to come in to beat your children. You're paying them to run you off the corners and you're paying them to kill you and deal from there. The same thing is happening on the south side and the west side. And when you can realize that concept of poverty - the concept of poverty - a revolution can begin."
Lee noted that it was precisely the power of that coalition of Black, white, and Latino working class activists which led to the intense government repression that culminated in the FBI assassination of Hampton in 1969.
"It seems to me that a lot of the real intense government repression didn't happen until the Black Panthers started building coalitions. Once the party departed from the "hate whitey" trip and got serious about building real politics, we were a threat—plain and simple. The FBI were always watching us. But the Rainbow Coalition was their worst nightmare," he recalled in an AREA Chicago interview.
After Hampton's murder, Lee returned to Houston where he continued to play a key role in community politics as a social worker and organizer.
"Bob had a knack for just connecting with people. Whatever the need was, people knocked on his door. He gave his last. If they needed a job, he helped them find a job. He would go lacking to help others," his friend Robbie Lee told the Houston Chronicle.
"He never wanted any recognition during life for what he did. He helped so many people behind the scenes with their campaigns. He was truly an activist and a warrior and will be sorely missed."