As long as there has been racism, there has been antiracism. While people of color undoubtedly have taken the lead in antiracist struggles, White allies and accomplices have been there too. Coalition building across racial lines has historically strengthened efforts to combat racism.
A Brief History of Antiracism in the United States
Most scholars who study antiracism start with the abolition movement. Abolitionism began among Black people, both enslaved and free. Yet, as W.E.B DuBois wrote in his landmark piece The Philadelphia Negro. At the beginning of the book, DuBois describes the history of the city where the Liberty Bell resides. According to DuBois, decades after the first African slave came to colonial America’s shores, some white people opposed it:
Certain German settlers who came soon after Penn, and who may or may not have been active members of the Society of Friends, protested sturdily against slavery in 1688, but the Quakers found the matter too “weighty.” Five years later the radical seceders under Kieth made the existence of slavery a part of their attack on the society.
Prior to the Civil War abolitionism culminated into a movement that called for not only the emancipation of slaves but also the end of racial discrimination and segregation. During this time, Black abolitionists like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass looked to White members of liberal social organizations as allies in opposition to slavery.
Organized primarily in churches and other religious centers, most White abolitionists opposed slavery as an issue of moral injustice and one of economic infeasibility, as History.com states:
By stressing the moral imperative to end sinful practices and each person’s responsibility to uphold God’s will in society, preachers like Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel Taylor, and Charles G. Finney in what came to be called the Second Great Awakening led massive religious revivals in the 1820s that gave a major impetus to the later emergence of abolitionism as well as to such other reforming crusades as temperance, pacifism, and women’s rights.
Opposition among white people regarding the treatment of people of color did not end with slavery. As racism and discrimination continued after the Civil War, White allies always made an effort to organize against it.
Antiracism in the Jim Crow Era
The Jim Crow Era spanned the years between the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. During this time, several organizations arose to protest the legalized segregation and discrimination against Black people. Opponents of racism and discrimination during this era had varying opinions and white people tended to align with the vision they agreed with.
In 1895 Booker T. Washington what historians refer to as the Atlanta Compromise. During this speech, Washington laid the case for civil rights for African Americans. According to this perspective, Black people should work hard and eschew protests in exchange for technical education in agriculture and industry. Washington’s message appealed to several white people like oil tycoon Henry Huttleson Rogers, who in turn provided funds to establish schools for Black children throughout the South.
Washington’s message did not serve as the only strategy for Black liberation suggested at the time. W.E.B. DuBois believed Washington’s approach was accommodationist and thus would not prevent White supremacy. DuBois argued that in addition to a well-educated core of Black leaders, Black people needed to be politically engaged, including fighting for a civil rights agenda.
In 1905 DuBois formed The Niagra Movement along with other Black leaders to oppose segregation and the restriction of civil rights. Initially, the movement included about 30 Black men who desired to offer an alternative to Washington’s rhetoric, as Richard Wormser writes:
The Niagara Movement renounced Booker T. Washington’s policy of accommodation and conciliation, and his refusal to speak out on behalf of black rights. The group issued a manifesto that demanded the rights of black people to vote, to not be segregated in public transportation or discriminated against elsewhere, and to enjoy all those liberties white citizens enjoyed.
The Niagara Movement joined with White allies in 1909 to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). William English Walling, Mary White Ovington, and other White antiracists called for a conference with DuBois and his peers in response to that year’s race riots in Springfield, Illinois. Since the founding of the NAACP, interracial coalitions have been a significant part of antiracism in the United States.
The Importance of Coalition Building
Antiracism has always been a multiracial effort from slavery to the present day. While a number of organizations center on one race or have mostly same-race members, other organizations are intentional about interracial coalitions. One such example is the Rainbow Coalition.
The Rainbow Coalition
Fred Hampton, one of the Black Panther Party’s original leaders, envisioned The Rainbow Coalition as a way to broker peace across racial lines. Citing a universal class struggle, the group emerged as a merging of the Black Panther Party with the Young Patriots, a group of White Appalachians, and the Young Lords, an organization for Puerto Rican youth.
During the late 1960s the group had made significant strides in ending gang violence and racial antagonism in Chicago through the support of a poor people’s movement, as Kairos reports:
The Original Rainbow Coalition, formed in Chicago in the late 1960’s, was the alliance between the Chicago Black Panther Party, Puerto Rican Young Lords, and Poor White Young Patriots Organization. It was one of the moments in the history of this country where poor people came together across racial lines to build power, support each other, and fight for their shared interests.
While most characterizations of the Black Panther Party suggest it was a separatist movement, Hampton’s efforts revealed the capacity to “form coalitions that transcended race under a rubric of class struggle against the US capitalist system” as historian Aaron Arnold states. According to Arnold, while many assume Black Panthers would not engage with a confederate flag bearing white people, their reality of their efforts prove otherwise:
The Panthers trained the Young Patriots and other poor southern white migrants how to set up and maintain community service programs that benefited their community and thus a coalition between the groups was established setting the stage for the creation of the original Rainbow Coalition.
The Rainbow Coalition serves as an example of the possibility of finding common ground across racial lines. Beyond that, the coalition also demonstrated that exploitation within a capitalist society contributed to the oppression of all people. This particular effort was thwarted, however, by the assassination of Fred Hampton. Nevertheless, this coalition represents just one of many historical examples of antiracism and how people of color work together with white people to combat it.
Why Coalition Building Matters Today
The example of the Rainbow Coalition in particular highlights that it’s not impossible to come together despite racial and cultural differences. Coalitions must always recognize the commonality of suffering between members of various social groups. Beyond that, they must ensure working together includes a political and social education in addition to a commitment to resolving differences. Coalitions aren’t necessarily a panacea to antiracism, but they are certainly a way to improve chances of success for lasting changes against discrimination and racism.