In Memoriam: Bobby Lee, Black Panther

Portrait of Bobby Lee by Cleve Hattersey.

Portrait of Bobby Lee by Cleve Hattersey.

“Peace and love my white panther Young Patriot brother” is how Bobby Lee would greet me every time we would talk. I would respond with ”Peace and love, my Black Panther brother,” because neither of us considered himself a former Panther or Patriot. Bobby kept his identity as a Black Panther up to the end of his life. Bobby lived what he preached. He wanted peace, love and equality for all people.

I first met Bobby Lee in 1968 at a citizens’ council in Chicago`s middle class Lincoln Park community. The council would invite different organizations in to learn of their activities and needs. On that night they had scheduled the Young Patriots and the Black Panthers. We told the audience that Uptown was in need of funding to fight poverty and racism and to help feed the hungry. We were met with hostility, called a dangerous gang, cut short and not allowed to finish our program.  But Bobby Lee would not have this attitude from the council and, as he never missed an opportunity to organize and educate, he explained that the Young Patriots were only trying to take care of their neighborhood people the same as they were trying to take care of theirs. The only difference between them and the Young Patriots and Black Panthers was that they had money to enjoy freedom, but all people are oppressed by the government, even the middle class in the end.  Bobby believed that the only difference between the poor white man and the poor black man was the color of their skin: they are both oppressed. This was the beginning of the original Rainbow Coalition.

Bobby moved into Uptown for two weeks, living with southern whites, eating at their table, listening to their music, drinking in their bars and talking about his favorite white hero, John Brown. While living in Uptown he was threatened and detained in a Chicago Police car, only to be rescued by angry Southerners who demanded his immediate release. After that, he said “I knew then that these were my brothers and sisters and they could be trusted.”

Bobby communicated to Fred Hampton and Bobby Rush, leaders of the Chicago Black Panthers, the great need for a coalition for class struggle across racial boundaries. The organization which grew out of this was the original Rainbow Coalition. Bobby Lee did not realize how far-reaching effects of the RC would be: it was partly responsible for electing Harold Washington as the first Black Mayor of Chicago; Black Panther Bobby Rush was elected to Congress and serves there today, and Barack Obama used at least some of Rainbow Coalition politics to help his rise to the Presidency.

The Rainbow Coalition and affiliated organizations were eventually destroyed by the Chicago Police and the FBI. Many organizations, including the Black Panthers, Young Lords and the Young Patriots, lost members due to the well-known conspiracy by the Chicago Police and the FBI called COINTELPRO. The most notorious of these attacks was the murder of the head of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton, by law enforcement.

I had the great honor – although it was sometimes painful – of being with Bobby, his wife Faiza and his family during his last days. When he heard that I was coming to see him he demanded that I stay at his house “so we can stay up late at night reminiscing our past and conspiring the future of the revolution.”  And I was quick to agree to his wishes. He has been my friend, role model and mentor for 48 years.

When I first visited him in the hospital, he smiled a big smile, gave me a big hug and repeated his favorite greeting: Peace and love my white panther Young Patriot brother. He introduced me to everyone who entered his room and gave each member of the hospital staff a Rainbow Coalition button, explaining how important the Coalition was in the past and how much it is needed again today.  His sickness did not deter him from organizing. By the time I arrived, he had successfully organized the hospital staff to donate baby clothes to a local charity.

Bobby Lee gave up to his final days. He had heard that Bobby McGinnis, co-founder of the Young Patriots and the Rainbow Coalition, was suffering from cancer and needed a vehicle to get to his chemo and doctor appointments. He did not hesitate in asking me to take his vehicle to “Brother Bobby”. His wife and I got the necessary repairs done and I drove it to Tennessee.

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Bobby was soon moved back home in hospice care. The cancer had spread to many areas of his body. Chemo and hospitalization would be ineffective.

My friend had a love for all living creatures. Outside his window were several bird baths and feeders. Each day he would feed his birds and see that they had clean water to bath in and drink. He knew all their species. He was particularly fond of a parrot that showed up one day and would return each day after for food.

Bobby’s talents were used not only for birds, but also for the people of the fifth ward in Houston where he lived. If a resident needed shoes or clothing, he would find them and deliver them to him. He was quick to cook a meal for someone that was hungry. He was the lawnmower man for his neighborhood. If his neighbors were sick or too old to care for their yard, Bobby would show up unannounced and tend to the landscaping. While staying at his house, I saw that many neighbors would drop off bags of food and clothing for the homeless and needy. Two neighborhood men would show up at an elderly couple’s home and rob them of their social security money. When Bobby heard of these incidents, he picked up his shotgun and tracked down the two robbers. They were convicted of the crimes and later wrote letters of apology to Lee when they discovered it was he who had first confronted them.

Bobby was also an artist and his house is a work of art. Every wall in his house is covered with wonderful art showcasing civil rights organizers and activists. One wall has thirty-one masks, one for each of the thirty-one Black Panthers killed while serving the people. Other walls have pictures of members of the Young Lords, Young Patriots and other fallen comrades.

For many years Bobby organized in Houston’s fifth ward. He was known as the Mayor of the Fifth Ward because of his activism and support for his brother, EL Franco, who was successfully elected to the senate and later served several terms as County Commissioner, bringing much-needed social programs to the impoverished neighborhood. A free teen health clinic is just one example. EL Franco Lee passed away last year of a heart attack.

It has been said that when an old person dies, a library is burned to the ground. This is especially true of Bobby Lee and his knowledge of the civil rights movement and organizing the poor and working class. I will never forget my friend, mentor and brother. After his death, Faiza and I joked that Bobby is in heaven organizing the angels.

I have had other mentors in my years as an organizer and I am enormously grateful to them. But because of our camaraderie in the struggle, Bobby Lee is very special. My favorite quote from Bobby: “If you want to see a change in the neighborhood you have to be that change.” Bobby had a way of soul-connecting with every poor and working class person he met.

Peace and Love.  All is Well.

Robert E Lee Jr, III. 1942-2017. Black Panther, Rainbow Coalition co-founder, socialist, revolutionary partisan.

The White Panther and the Black Panther Story

By The Black Panther Man, Bobby Lee

Every day in Africa, the Zebra and the Gazelle wake up. They know they must run faster than the White Panther that hunts in the day and the Black Panther that hunts in the night or they will be killed. Every morning, the White Panther wakes up. It knows that it must outrun the slowest Zebra or Gazelle or it will starve to death. Every night the “Black Panther” rises up. It too knows that it must outrun the slowest Zebra or Gazelle or his family will starve also.

It does not matter whether you are a White Panther or a Black Panther or a Zebra or a Gazelle: When the sun rises and when the sun sets, you better be strong and running.

Original Rainbow Coalition resources.

Bobby Lee appears in the important film American Revolution II (1969), view here.

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This article originally appeared on Counterpunch.org.