The First Rainbow Coalition

South Texas filmmaker spotlights gritty struggle for equality in new PBS documentary

South Texas filmmaker spotlights struggle for equality in new PBS film

The First Rainbow Coalition PBS documentary
Black Panther Bobby Lee speaks at a community meeting in The First Rainbow Coalition. Photo by Paul Sequiera/Courtesy of PBS

This week, PBS stations across the U.S. will air The First Rainbow Coalition, an hour-length documentary on the young activists who came together to crack down on the tyranny, oppression, and corruption in Chicago during the late 1960s.

The film chronicles the different groups — African-American militants the Black Panthers; Confederate flag-wearing, white lefties the Young Patriots; Puerto-Rican civil-rights fighters the Young Lords — who put aside their differences and joined forces for a greater good. The unification spooked the political figures and law enforcement who kept finding ways — from creating bureaucratic setbacks to assassinating charismatic Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in his home — to kill the movement before it spread.

The First Rainbow Coalition is directed by San Antonio-based filmmaker Ray Santisteban, who spent 14 years working on the project. Among the several people interviewed about their experiences during that turbulent time is Bobby Lee, the Houston-bred Black Panther who co-founded the Rainbow Coalition with Hampton and others.

Before he passed away in 2017 at the age of 74, Lee, a social worker known as "the Mayor of Fifth Ward," talked about how he was one of the chief people responsible for rounding up other groups and getting them to join this one collective. One black-and-white clip Santisteban found shows Lee and other Panthers going into a tony Houston neighborhood and speaking with a room full of white people, trying to convince them that they need their assistance. ("Do you want us to take the berets off or what?" he asked at one point.)

During a recent screening by the Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP), Santisteban discussed how he culled the material for the doc. "A lot of the stories weren't written, so I had to go travel to hear the stories," he said in a post-screening panel. "I was always searching for the unusual. I knew what the big archives already had. It was like, okay, I don't want that — I mean, I'm gonna use it. I'm looking for the other stuff."

Santisteban said he had to go deep-diving when it came to finding out more about the Latinx people who were part of the movement. "A lot of the footage is not in archives because the Latino market is not a big market for archives. So, they don't have the material, because no one is buying it. So, I started buying any kinds of films about Latinos on eBay. So, I have a whole storage unit filled with them ... Some of the key material in here came from my own archive." 

The filmmaker also said he hopes that not only will this movie spark a discussion, but will get more people to start searching for another activist groups who fought the power during this time.

"I've been working on films like this since I was in college, almost 30 years ago," said Santisteban. "It was an ongoing effort, and I'm hoping that maybe some young person — or maybe an older — will take this and then keep dissecting it, keep arguing about it, you know. The history's always in flux and it always changes and it always resets and, I think, this is the beginning of that discussion, hopefully."


The First Rainbow Coalition will appear on KLRU at 9 pm on Monday, January 27.