The Original Rainbow Coalition: An Example of Universal Identity Politics

Are identity politics and class-based struggle necessarily at odds? My answer is a resounding no.


Detail from "Comunidad Si, It Takes a Vision," a mural collaboratively created by six muralists inside Chicago's Harold Washington Library. Credit: Creative Commons/Terence Faircloth.

In joining the multifaceted debate of “Identity Politics, Class Politics, and Spiritual Politics” associated with Tikkun’s Fall 2013 print issue, I’d like to draw readers’ attention back to one moment in U.S. history when identity politics and class-based struggle were dynamically entwined: the moment when the original Rainbow Coalition came into being.

This factor is an important one that contradicts Eli Zaretsky’s position that the civil rights movement by 1965 was a “class” focused movement. Quite the opposite. The 1966 call for Black Power by Stokley Carmichael and Willie Ricks in Lowndes County, Alabama, was a direct response to the failure of the Civil Rights Movement to achieve significant victories against economic inequalities: working-class youth and subsequent organizations began to argue that the gains of the Civil Rights Movement had failed to include the impoverished.

The original Rainbow Coalition, which was set up by the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party in response to this oversight, offers an inspiring example of how identity politics can result in cross-class and interracial solidarity rather than fragmentation of the Left. Because many members of the Rainbow Coalition were also youth organizers and leaders of Martin Luther King’s Chicago Freedom Movement, the civil rights leader would eventually adopt a class-based ideology. It is for this reason that the Rainbow Coalition’s idealism and identity politics resonated with all the groups that merged to form the collective. The broad appeal of the Rainbow Coalition’s rhetoric and idealism went on to be exploited by numerous political candidates from the Democratic Party, blinding activists on the left into supporting a party that has failed continuously to live up to its stated ideals.

The Rise of the Original Rainbow Coalition

After the Democratic Convention protests and demonstrations in Chicago in 1968, the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party united the various forms of dissent into one political body called the Rainbow Coalition. The original Rainbow Coalition embodied the intersectionality of the critical issues of race, class, gender, anti-war, student, labor, and sexuality. It fused these various forms of identity politics into one group with one ideal form of identity—an identity that transcends differences and focuses on commonalities. The most common unifier was poverty. Parallel to today’s Occupy Wall Street movement, the Rainbow Coalition in 1968 used similar ideological methods to unite the movement against what each activist organization identified as a root cause of their dilemmas—capitalism. The Illinois Panthers brought together various elements of the black community (religious, community, and civil rights/black power), confederate flag wearing Appalachian white migrants (Young Patriots), Puerto Ricans (Young Lords), poor white ethnic groups including Jews (Rising Up Angry, JOIN Community Union, and the Intercommunal Survival Committee), students (Black Student Unions on various campuses, and Students for a Democratic Society), and the women’s movement led by female members of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party who left other black organizations because the chapter was the only male-dominated group to take the woman question seriously. This accomplishment is profound considering that Chicago was the most racially residentially segregated city in the United States with much racial tension that played out via several urban rebellions in the 1960s.

In his article “In Defense of Identity Politics” in the Fall 2013 issue of Tikkun, Paul Von Blum writes, “Without identity politics, the rebellious 1960s would have faded into historical insignificance.” Responding in the same print issue of Tikkun, Eli Zaretsky disagrees by writing:

The consciousness of the great movements of the 1960s was not one of identity politics, but just the opposite: it was a consciousness based on the shattering of social identity and the reaching out at the deepest possible levels to achieve solidarity with people utterly unlike oneself. This was not only characteristic of the civil rights movement, whose message was universalist and social democratic, but also of the student movements of the period.

I, however, do not see Blum’s or Zaretsky’s positions as being at odds. Rather I believe that both points are not only present but reciprocal during the period. The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party’s Rainbow Coalition provides the best example of this fusion of their arguments.

The Co-optation of the Rainbow Coalition’s Ideals

Gutierrez and Washington

The election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago was a major victory for the Rainbow Coalition. Here Washington (right) tries on the hat of then-Alderman Luis Gutierrez. Credit: Creative Commons.

The Rainbow Coalition would eventually run candidates for political office. Its most successful candidate was Harold Washington, who was elected as Chicago’s first African American mayor in 1983 and he created what he called his “Rainbow Cabinet.” This cabinet was made up of founders and tenets of the Rainbow Coalition—people who for generations had been marginalized by city government. It included women, African Americans, Latinos, poor white ethnics, and the disabled. Later Jesse Jackson, who had no connection to the original Rainbow Coalition was inspired by Washington’s victory and thus appropriated and trademarked the coalition’s name and ran for president, which is why the term “Rainbow Coalition” is mostly associated with him. By trademarking the term, Jackson attempted to take ownership of a grassroots political movement that belonged to the people. Political consultant David Axelrod would later join the Washington reelection team that worked closely with Rainbow Coalition founders and organizers. Axelrod appropriated and enhanced Rainbow Coalition methods and rhetoric and applied them to media strategy, which he used to build his very successful political consulting career.

Axelrod’s niche is using the idealism of the Rainbow Coalition’s identity politics to persuade predominately white electorates to vote for black candidates. He helped to run the campaigns of many of the black candidates who ran for mayor, state senate, governor, or U.S. Senate between 1987-2008 and won. For example, he was involved in Dennis Archer’s ascension to mayor of Detroit, Michael White’s mayoral victory in Cleveland, Anthony Williams’s mayoral victory in Washington, D.C., Lee Brown’s mayoral victory in Houston, and John Street’s mayoral victory in Philadelphia. Axelrod was also behind Deval Patrick’s clinching of the governorship in Massachusetts and Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate victory in Illinois.

Obama was actually introduced to the ideals of Rainbow Coalition politics by David Axelrod after Obama’s only political defeat at the hands of the original Rainbow Coalition founder and former Illinois Black Panther, U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush from Illinois. Obama challenged the incumbent Rush by using a Black Nationalist agenda and approach. Rush used the Rainbow Coalition, which transcends race by locating commonalities, and defeated Obama by more than a 2-1 margin.

Rainbow PUSH

Jesse Jackson had no connection to the original Rainbow Coalition, but he later "appropriated and trademarked the coalition’s name," Williams writes. Here, Jackson takes part in an anti-foreclosures demonstration in San Francisco organized by his nonprofit group, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Credit: Creative Commons/Steve Rhodes.

Unfortunately, however, among all these politicians only Harold Washington was married to the ideals and goals of the Rainbow Coalition. Jackson, Axelrod, and Obama were influenced by Washington’s use of the idealism of the original Rainbow Coalition’s identity politics, which proved to be an effective weapon for winning elections. Obama the candidate was right when he used the campaign slogan: “Change can’t happen without you.” The onus is on us to create hope and change, “an America we can believe in,” and “an America built to last.” We on the left must reclaim our ideal political identity, redefine the terms of our political agenda, hold those elected accountable, and make every attempt to elect to office those who are married to our ideal identity politics and not beholden to finance capital and other capitalist special interests.

Those who voted for President Obama represented the essence of the original Rainbow Coalition—people who united as a political force regardless of race, class, age, sex, religion, fraternal, political, or any other affiliations—which is the idealism of the group’s identity politics. But in the end, Obama the president exploited the ideals of the original Rainbow Coalition’s identity politics as a means to a political end rather than the foundations for revolutionary change/reform that the original Rainbow Coalition sought. The original Rainbow Coalition was a grassroots movement that helped people to build bridges in spite of their differences. It helped common people to actually see their commonalities and humanity. Today, we live in one of the most polarized periods in our nation’s history. One way that we may be able to reduce this gap is to shed the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle that has helped to mislead, shape, and control activists on both sides of the spectrum.

The Rainbow Coalition was a strong grassroots movement that clarified the issues, chose its own leaders, and united with as many people as possible. Only a grassroots approach will enable us to begin to dismantle the cloak over our eyes masquerading as leftist or progressive policy and politics. A few minor gains for some at the expense of all spits in the face of the ideals of identity politics popularized by the original Rainbow Coalition. I very much look forward to continuing this conversation in Tikkun about strategies, methods, and organizing for the reclamation of the universal identity politics that we all so passionately long for in the protracted and continuous struggle against social and economic injustice.


3 thoughts on “The Original Rainbow Coalition: An Example of Universal Identity Politics

  1. I have friends in need of legal help. Does this office offer this kind of assistance?

  2. Hi Theresa, Tikkun does not play that role. Maybe try reaching out to the National Lawyers Guild?