The pages of history overflow with tales of white American heroes. Rehashed again and again is the story of courageous white men who stand up to the establishment to make change. It is only recently that the stories of heroic African-Americans have been told.
Since Black heroes have been largely left out of the history books, most of us can name only a handful, such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and some members of the Black Panthers Party like Fred Hampton, Huey Newton and Kathleen Cleaver.
Fortunately, times have changed — or at least the lies our teachers told us are falling apart. With this shift comes a moment to tell the stories of the activists who came before us. One of the most progressive, impactful and groundbreaking revolutionary organizations this country has ever seen was the Young Lords Party (YLP), but their battle for health care reform in the South Bronx is still too little known.
Born in the late ’60s, The Young Lords Party and its army of activists and social justice warriors were the direct descendants of the civil rights movement. After World War II, the United States saw an influx of families from Puerto Rico searching for better economic opportunities. Unfortunately, no one told these dreamers that the life of prosperity was mostly afforded to those who were white, male and able to leverage their relationships for progress.
With their American dreams already replaced with brown realities, a new generation of Puerto Rican families settled in the states. When the ’60s and ’70s arrived, the children of these transplants were well into their teen years and ready to leave their mark on the world. They came of age at the height of the civil rights movement and saw themselves as an extension of that movement.
Inspired by the Black Panther Party, the first chapter of the Young Lords was started in Chicago with the mission to achieve self-determination and the liberation of Puerto Rican people and all underrepresented people. At the height of their popularity, they worked closely with Hampton and the Chicago Black Panthers to address police brutality and income inequality.
The New York City chapter was founded by college students who, like the members of Chicago, were inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X and the Panthers. After organizing on the campus of SUNY Old Westbury, a contingent of these budding activist traveled to Chicago, where they received the approval of then-president Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez to start a chapter in New York.
The New York City chapter conducted a survey to determine the most pressing issues in their communities. They expected to hear complaints about the lack of jobs or even police brutality and, while those were definitely top priority issues, the two topics that came up most often were sanitation and quality of health.
Low-wage Black and Puerto Rican adults and children in East Harlem, Chelsea projects and the South Bronx were living in homes covered in lead paint and infested with pests and rodents. The streets were piled with garbage that the sanitation department failed to pick up. The conditions were deplorable and the combination of toxins created a health crisis. This was all compounded by the fact that the only major hospital serving the South Bronx and East Harlem, Lincoln Hospital, also was failing at its central mission.
The Latino Education Network Service that documents the history of the Young Lords describes the need for the hospital takeover “Lincoln Hospital was the only major health institution that served the large South Bronx community of Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. The hospital, which was run by the Albert Einstein Medical College, was more preoccupied with the testing of new medical equipment, training of medical students and continued payment of the city government for running the health center than with helping patients. The community faced large instances of lead poison, tuberculosis, pneumonia and asthma. Patients were not getting the care they needed and were kept completely misinformed or not informed at all by doctors.”
The hospital was one of the worst in the state. Along with the poor service, doctors would complain about rats entering the emergency room, and there were rumors of people entering for emergency service and leaving with lead poisoning.
Something needed to be done and the YLP was ready to shake things up. The first step of that shake-up was a list of demands. The Young Lords collaborated with the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement (HRUM) to create a 10-point health program that demanded community members be employed by the hospital, “door to door preventative health services” and free public health care for all people treated in the hospital.
Along with the plan, they also sent in hundreds of complaints from the community about the hospital to the city government. Despite the community-driven pressure and the hospital’s reputation as the “Butcher Shop,” their 10-point plan and complaints were ignored by the hospital and state officials. It was after this slap in the face that the Lords decided to “liberate” the hospital. On July 14, 1970, just 12 days from their one-year anniversary, the group of the activists, with the help of supportive staffers, took control of Lincoln Hospital.
During their 24-hour hold on the facility, the group made up of Puerto Rican, Dominican, and African-Americans held political-education sessions in the basement, provided free testing for lead poisoning and tuberculosis for community members and held a press conference to outline the demands they had for the hospital leadership and, then, New York Mayor John Lindsay.
While the police and some higher-level administrators at the hospital were furious with the takeover, community members, nurses and doctors were happy to have an intervention and supported the call for more resources and care. After tense negotiations and media attention on the hospital’s many issues, Lindsay was forced to promise the Lords that he would build a new facility. That promise became a reality in 1976.
The price for this victory was not small, The Young Lords may have gotten Lindsay to commit to a hospital, but it put them directly in the crosshairs of the New York Police Department, as well as the FBI, as a group of radicals willing to directly take on state officials.
The FBI, through its Counter Intelligence Program known as CointelPro, was a major force in destroying the cohesion of groups like the Young Lords and the Black Panthers. While we can’t quantify how much of a role they played in the Lords’ downfall, it is fair to say that they were intricately involved in sowing dissent and confusion throughout the movements of the ’60s and ’70s.
There are plenty of lessons to take from his moment of history, but most importantly, it’s the opportunity to appreciate the legacy of true American heroes. The Young Lords Party didn’t have a million-dollar budget, a hashtag trending on Twitter or a bomb social media campaign. All they had was passion, a love for the community and Latino and Black pride. With absolutely every pocket of the establishment against them, they were willing to speak up, fight and transform their communities.
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