Teaser #2: The Black Panther Party

00:00:00
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00:11:51

May 8th, 2020

11 mins 51 secs

Your Host

About this Episode

Hi, my name is Lelyn R. Masters, and I am a Revolutionary.

There is no way to understand the 20th century without a careful reading of the history of the Black Panther Party.

I want to start by apologizing for how incomplete this telling of the BPP’s history is going to be. The BPP was many things to many people, and they were lied about many times. Black Against Empire is as good a history of the BPP as there is.
In 1962 Bobby Seale age 26 met Huey Newton age 20 at a rally opposing the US blockade of Cuba. Throughout the early sixties, both men were active politically in the Revolutionary Action Movement and in study groups on the campus of the University of California, Berkely. They read among other things Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. duBois, Booker T. Washington and James Baldwin (Bloom 22). In February of 1965 Malcolm X was assassinated, and later that year Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act. These events punctuated the first half of the sixties. The early sixties saw the Freedom Summer where activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and volunteers from around the country did voter registration in the south: in the latter half of the sixties activists would work for economic uplift and an end to the Vietnam war. In the first half of the sixties the efforts of several generations of Black activists culminated in a formal equality before the law; in the latter half of the sixties groups like the Panthers pushed for actual equality.
Civil disobedience, such as sit-ins could desegregate lunch counters, but it couldn’t address economic inequality, police brutality and unjust war. The mid-decade point saw an intense collective consideration of what had been gained and what needed to be gained to achieve Black power, and the Panthers were just one of dozens of groups around the country engaged in this collective intellectual challenge. The Panthers earned their fame early on by patrolling Black neighborhoods in Oakland and Berkeley with loaded guns and legal knowledge. Huey Newton studied law at Merritt College where he got an associates degree in 1966. They could roll up on police conducting traffic stops and observe without interfering with weapons that were in “cruiser ready” condition, loaded but not with a shell in the chamber. Interestingly, for the first six months of these patrols they didn’t fire a single shot. Their main weapon was a knowledge of the law. These patrols successfully intimidated the police and kept them from killing, brutalizing and framing Black people. After many dramatic and largely successful confrontations between the Panthers and the police, California passed into law the Mulford Act in 1967 to outlaw the public carrying of loaded firearms. So, just as the BPP was achieving a national profile their main tactic was taken away from them. In the early hours of October 27th of 1967 an altercation took place between Huey Newton and a notoriously racist cop led to the cop dying and Huey receiving a shotgun wound to the abdomen. He was arrested and jailed, and was only released in 1970. In the meanwhile, the Panthers took a different direction. They still trained with firearms, but they spent much of their time on political education, social programs like an early morning breakfast program for children and on anti-Vietnam war activism.

The Panthers were constantly targeted by the police and the FBI, so the “Free Huey!” style campaign became a permanent part of their activities. Around this time the BPP started publishing its newspaper and set up a women’s department and continued with study groups. This is when Barbara Arthur, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver all joined the Party. Sixties activist circles were generally a misogynist milieu, necessarily so as they were drawn from the wider society, but the Panthers struggles with gender oppression from the beginning, publishing regular, and very frank, pieces on the topic of women’s liberation, and consistently lifting women such as Cleaver, Fredericka Newton, Charlotte Hill O’neal, Elaine Brown, Rosemari Mealy, Assata and Afeni Shakur, Ericka Huggins, Barbara Easly Cox, Chaka Khan, who by the way put out an incredible album last year, and many more. Joshua Bloom, one of the authors of Black Against Empire has said that without women there wouldn’t have been a Black Panther Party (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5037z0XoNU min 9:00), and that seems to be correct. All of these people were committed to social revolution and each deserves their own book report at least.
The BPP were able to focus the rioting unrest of the late sixties, into electoral and social action. They would insist, for instance, that local grocery stores give their excess food to the community or else the Panthers would boycott and picket the stores, arguing that the community gave to the businesses and insisting they give back. “
In Chicago Fred Hampton encouraged the Latinx community to organize in the form of the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the Appalachian White Patriots. They once all marched together with the White Patriots flying the rebel flag. Can you imagine?!
They armed Black people, and this may be why in the late sixties is when the century’s long streak of lynchings came to an end. At the same time, police violence against Black people, and against the Panthers, increased. The Panthers early on did coalition work with antiwar groups and left groups like the Students for a Democratic Society and even later on the Weathermen. The Panthers were there when Abbey Hoffman and his generation rioted after the DNC in 1968 chose Humphreys for the Democratic Party candidate for POTUS over McCarthy and Kennedy who had gotten the vast majority of the votes. On that occasion Eldridge Cleaver gave a speech saying: “We have been driven out of the political arena… We will not dissent from the American Government. We will overthrow it.” (Bloom 209). The Dems betrayal of the movement poisoned the well and led to Nixon being elected in ‘68. He ran on a racist “law and order” platform, and that’s what he did. He enforced a racist order. Not only did he target Black leaders, not just in the Panthers, but he also started the war on Drugs, which we now have first hand witness accounts explicitly acknowledging was a tactic for destroying a Black led revolutionary movement.
The Black Power movement ended the Vietnam War. Stokely Carmichael intervened with SDS to convince college students to start burning their draft cards. We are told a story about the sixties that goes something like this. MLK Jr. destroyed racism with the voting rights act. The schools were desegregated. There was a terrible war in Vietnam that white college students put an end to. All of these things are untrue. Only a very few schools were desegregated, Black people continued to be plundered and the Black Panther Party by explicitly confronting US Empire forced Nixon to end the Vietnam War. I used to think that the repression of the Black Panther Party is what destroyed it, but that also is not true. The repressions increased the membership of the BPP. The Panthers gave guided tours of the apartment where Fred Hampton was murdered by police, so that the public could see for themselves the blood stains and the bullet holes all clearly from bullets entering the apartment and none exiting. These attacks led to broad outpourings of public support.

The Panthers were victims of their own success. Nixon made key capitulations in order to preserve the larger system of white Power. There were four things that led to the BPP’s decline in the early seventies.

Increased membership along with the killing, jailing and exile of its most experienced cadres led to more and more occasions where inexperienced leaders made mistakes. Using the law and guns to protect a community from a tyrannical state is a difficult thing to do even for highly trained people such as Newton and Seale. The rapid growth of the BPP meant that it was difficult to train all the newcomers in best practices or for them to be fully integrated under a coordinated central command. Telling the story of the BPP is a fraught endeavor, and I apologize because the Party meant so many different things to different people in different places. Furthermore, the FBI was able to exploit the relative inexperience of new cadres along with agents provocateurs to instigate conflicts with other Black power groups like US in California. These FBI instigated feuds were often quite bloody and violent. Many Panthers fled the country, among them Memphis’ own Lorenzo Kombao Erwin who spent time in US jail but also in Cuban jail for protesting the government there.

Nixon ended the Vietnam War, and with that the Panthers lost the support of the white antiwar movement. It happened so quickly that Panther leader David Hilliard when he gave a speech saying “We say down with the American fascist society!...We will kill Richard Nixon,” was booed offstage in November 1969, because he hadn’t realized the audience was no longer receptive to the idea of overthrowing the US government.
Nixon opened trade with China, and part of that deal was that Mao would stop supporting the Black Panthers. This was typical of Mao, who abandoned revolutionary groups in Malaysia, Vietnam and so on when those groups had served his geopolitical interests.

Nixon brought massive numbers of Black people into the public sector, so there was much less generalized poverty in the Black community. The Black middle class that was strengthened in this way was much less interested in violently confronting the US government. I think that clearly the school breakfast programs that started at this time in public schools was part of this effort to undercut the BPP.

I want to read the last two paragraphs of this book in their entirety because they are so brilliant. The political clarity on display here is striking. The authors reflect on the current political moment. They focus on the inability of any of today’s so-called revolutionaries to appeal to society as a whole, which tells you that the phenonomenon was a mass democratic movement. The book was published in 2013; I leave it to you to decide how applicable this is 7 years later:

“While minimovements with revolutionary ideologies abound, there is no politically significant revolutionary movement in the United States today because no cadre of revolutionaries has developed ideas and practices that credibly advance the interests of a large segment of the people. Members of revolutionary sects can hawk their newspapers and proselytize on college campuses until they are blue in the face, but they remain politically irrelevant. Islamist insurgencies, with deep political roots abroad, are politically significant, but they lack potential constituencies in the United States. And ironically, at least in the terrorist variant, they tend to reinforce rather than challenge state power domestically because their practices threaten -- rather than build common cause with -- alienated constituencies within the United States.
No revolutionary movement of political significance will gain a foothold int he United States again until a group of revolutionaries develops insurgent practices that seize the political imagination of a large segment of the people and successively draw support from other constituencies, creating a broad insurgent alliance that is difficult to repress or appease. This has not happened in the United States since the heyday of the Black Panther Party and may not happen again for a very long time.” (401).0-p

I’m sure I must have missed something important. I want to encourage everyone to read Black Against Empire. That’s my book report, thank you for your time.

Works

Bloom, Joshua, Waldo E. Martin Jr, and Waldo E. Martin. Black against empire: The history and politics of the Black Panther Party. Univ of California Press, 2016.

Cobb, Charles E. This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Basic Books (AZ), 2014.

Kurlansky, M. "The Year that Rocked the World (London: Jonathan Cape)." (1968).

Malcolm, X. The autobiography of Malcolm X. Ballantine Books, 2015.

Weiner, Tim. Enemies: A History of the FBI. Random House Incorporated, 2012.