A Brief History of the Young Lords

Young Lords members march with a sign that reads, "The Party of the Young Lords serves and protects your people.". Iris Morales, ¡Palante, Siempre Palante!, 1996. Film.

The Young Lords was a Puerto Rican political and social action organization that began on the streets of Chicago and New York City in the late 1960s. The organization disbanded by the mid-1970s, but their radical grassroots campaigns had long-lasting impacts.

Historical Context

In 1917, the U.S. Congress passed the Jones-Shafroth Act, which granted U.S. citizenship to citizens of Puerto Rico. That same year, Congress also passed the Selective Service Act of 1917, which required all male U.S. citizens between the ages of 21 and 30 to register and potentially be selected for military service.

As a result of their newfound citizenship and the extension of the Selective Service Act, approximately 18,000 Puerto Rican men fought for the U.S. in World War I. 

At the same time, the U.S. government encouraged and recruited Puerto Rican men to migrate to the U.S. mainland to work in factories and shipyards. Puerto Rican communities in urban areas like Brooklyn and in Harlem grew, and continued to grow after World War I and during World War II. By the late 1960s, 9.3 million Puerto Ricans lived in New York City. Many other Puerto Ricans migrated to Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Origins and Early Social Activism   

As Puerto Rican communities grew, dwindling economic resources like proper housing, education, employment, and healthcare became increasingly problematic. Despite their involvement in the wartime labor force and participation in the front lines of both world wars, Puerto Ricans faced racism, lower social status, and limited employment opportunities.

In the 1960s, young Puerto Rican social activists gathered in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Chicago to form the Young Lord Organization. They were influenced by the Black Panther Party's rejection of a "white-only'' society, and they focused on practical activism such as cleaning up neighborhood garbage, testing for disease, and providing social services.

The Chicago organizers provided a charter to their peers in New York, and the New York Young Lords was formed in 1969.

In 1969, the Young Lords were described as a ‘’street gang with a social and political conscience.’’ As an organization, the Young Lords were considered militant, but they opposed violence. Their tactics often made news: one action, called the “Garbage Offensive,” involved lighting garbage on fire to protest the lack of garbage pickup in Puerto Rican neighborhoods. On another occasion, in 1970, they barricaded the Bronx's decrepit Lincoln Hospital, collaborating with likeminded doctors and nurses to provide proper medical treatment to community members. The extreme takeover action ultimately led to the reformation and expansion of Lincoln Hospital's health care and emergency services.

Birth of a Political Party

As membership grew in New York City, so did their strength as a political party. In the early 1970s, the New York group wanted to disconnect with a perceived "street gang" held by the Chicago branch, so they broke ties and opened offices in East Harlem, the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side. 

After the split, the New York City Young Lords evolved into a political action party, becoming known as the Young Lords Party.

They developed multiple social programs and established branches across the Northeast. The Young Lords Party developed a political structure that resembled a complex hierarchy of parties, within the organization aligned with top-down goals. They used an established set of unified goals and principles that guided multiple organizations within the party called the 13 Point Program.

The 13 Point Program

The Young Lords Party's 13 Point Program established an ideological foundation that guided all organizations and people within the party. The points represented a mission statement and a declaration of purpose:

  1. We want self-determination for Puerto Ricans--Liberation of the Island and inside the United States.
  2. We want self-determination for all Latinos.
  3. We want liberation of all third world people.
  1. We are revolutionary nationalists and oppose racism.
  2. We want community control of our institutions and land.
  3. We want a true education of our Creole culture and Spanish language.
  4. We oppose capitalists and alliances with traitors.
  5. We oppose the Amerikkkan military.
  6. We want freedom for all political prisoners.
  7. We want equality for women. Machismo must be revolutionary... not oppressive.
  8. We believe armed self-defense and armed struggle are the only means to liberation.
  9. We fight anti-communism with international unity.
  10. We want a socialist society.

With the 13 Points as a manifesto, sub-groups within the Young Lords Party formed. These groups shared a broad mission, but they had distinct goals, acted separately, and often used different tactics and methods. 

For example, the Women's Union sought to aid women in their social struggle for gender equality. The Puerto Rican Student Union focused on recruiting and educating high school and college students. The Committee for the Defense of the Community focused on social change, establishing nutrition programs for community members and taking on big issues like access to health care.

 

Controversy and Decline

As the Young Lords Party grew and expanded their operations, one branch of the organization became known as the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization. The PPRWO was explicitly anti-capitalist, pro-union, and pro-communist. As a result of these stances, the PPRWO came under scrutiny by the U.S. government and was infiltrated by the FBI.

The extremism of certain factions of the party led to increased member infighting. The Young Lords Party's membership declined, and the organization was essentially disbanded by 1976. 

Legacy

The Young Lords Party had a brief existence, but its impact has been long-lasting. Some of the radical organization's grassroots social action campaigns resulted in concrete legislation, and many former members went on to careers in media, politics, and public service. 

Young Lords Key Takeaways

  • The Young Lords Organization was an activist group (and, later, a political party) aimed at improving social conditions for Puerto Ricans in the United States.
  • Grassroots social campaigns like the Garbage Offensive and the takeover of a Bronx hospital were controversial and sometimes extreme, but they made an impact. Many of the Young Lords' activist campaigns resulted in concrete reforms. 
  • The Young Lords Party began to decline in the 1970s as increasingly extremist factions broke off from the group and faced scrutiny from the U.S. government. The organization had essentially disbanded by 1976.

Sources

  • “13 Point Program and Platform of the Young Lords Party.”Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities , Viet Nam Generation, Inc., 1993, www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Manifestos/Young_Lords_platform.html.
  • Enck-Wanzer, Darrel. The Young Lords: a Reader. New York University Press, 2010.
  • Lee, Jennifer. “The Young Lords' Legacy of Puerto Rican Activism.” The New York Times, 24 Aug. 2009, cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/the-young-lords-legacy-of-puerto-rican-activism/.
  • “New York Young Lords History.” Palante, Latino Education Network Service, palante.org/AboutYoungLords.htm.
  • “¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York - Press Release.” Bronx Museum, July 2015, www.bronxmuseum.org/exhibitions/presente-the-young-lords-in-new-york.