In a rare moment of stranger-than-fiction levity during jury selection in the 1970 conspiracy trial of Black Panther Party leaders Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, defense attorney Charles Garry asked a prospective juror, “Can you take the judge’s instruction that my defendants here, Ms. Huggins and Mr. Seale, are innocent until proven guilty?”
The prospective juror replied, “I can.”
“So you know they are members of the Black Panther Party?”
“Yes, I do.”
“So what do you think of that? Do you think you can be a fair and impartial juror?”
“Well, I guess they are no different from any other motorcycle gang.”
As the courtroom erupted in laughter, the frustrated judge shouted, “Just get him out of here!”
This story, retold by Seale in Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers, a remarkable new oral history of the Black Panthers co-authored with unofficial Panthers photographer Stephen Shames, underscores fundamental misconceptions about the Black Panthers that persist to this day. Although guns, not motorcycles, stand front and center in the generally negative perceptions that linger in the minds of many Americans about who the Panthers were and what they stood for, the notion of the Panthers as a “gang” probably hits closer to home. What’s more, the question of whether two black defendants who advocate overt resistance to white supremacy look innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of white Americans is hardly a simple one in a country where young black men are habitually shot in the streets by white policemen for much lesser affronts.
A little more than 50 years ago, in October 1966, Merritt Community College students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale launched the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California with a 10-point platform and program for revolution [http://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/BPP_Ten_Point_Program.pdf]. Though the Panthers grew into a national party over the next five years, and their program expanded to encompass a host of profoundly impactful and demonstrably successful community “survival” programs, Newton and Seale began with a simple modus operandi: confronting police harassment and violence in Oakland’s black community by “patrolling” the police with rifles and law books. Newton, a law student himself, embarked on this project with a precise understanding of California state law regarding a “safe distance” for observing police, open carry of loaded firearms, and the right to refuse unlawful search and seizure. Newton and Seale carried law books for publicly reading those rights aloud to chasten police and embolden onlookers when confrontations occurred in Oakland’s black neighborhoods.
The police patrols didn’t last long. Following armed encounters with the police over Betty Shabazz’s visit to Oakland and the police murder of a 22-year-old North Richmond man named Denzil Dowell, in April 1967, a state assemblyman from a predominantly white Oakland suburb introduced legislation to outlaw open carry of loaded firearms in California. (Though it seems unimaginable today, the NRA voiced no objections to the bill.) The Black Panther Party sent Newton, Seale, and a handful of other party members to the state capitol in Sacramento to protest the law. As the result of some bad directions after they got inside the building, the armed Panther delegation ended up not in the observers’ gallery, as intended, but on the assembly floor. Their expulsion from the Capitol and subsequent arrest, and the passage of the Mulford Act effectively ended the police patrols. While maintaining their rhetorical advocacy of armed self-defense, the Panthers began to pivot to other projects and strategies. But the publicity from the Sacramento protest brought international exposure to the Black Panthers, swelled membership rolls, and launched the party as a national concern.
A half-century after the founding of the Black Panther Party, the publication of two new Panther oral histories and a second edition of Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin’s American Book Award-winning Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party marks the anniversary. These three books, remarkably complementary in their content and approaches, along with a 2016 PBS documentary called The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, offer the chance for a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the Black Panthers and what they can teach us about organized resistance as white supremacy begins throwing off its hood once again in the United States.
Black Against Empire
Three years after its initial publication, Black Against Empire remains, arguably, the definitive history of the Black Panthers. Drawn mostly from archival and documentary sources rather than oral history, Black Against Empire presents a cogent assessment of the tenuous balance the Panthers struck between lighting a path that African-Americans and non-black radical-left allies could follow toward armed resistance and revolution, and developing practical survival programs to meet the specific needs of people in black communities that LBJ’s War on Poverty wasn’t reaching. Though the systemic repression of the Black Panthers is rightly understood as a joint pet project of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, the Panthers emerged in 1966 as a direct response to the abject failure of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to provide any relief or uplift to the “brothers on the block” in Oakland.
Black Against Empire makes clear what undermined the party and threw it into chaos, corruption, and contraction by the mid-’70s. First and foremost were the concerted efforts of the FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), at Nixon and Hoover’s direction, to destroy every one of the Panthers’ efforts. Though initiated in response to the police patrols, at the time COINTELPRO began deploying 245 of its 290 actions against black insurgency to destroy the Black Panthers and prevent Newton’s ascent as a “Black Messiah,” the Panthers had already begun shifting their emphasis to survival programs, beginning with Breakfast for Schoolchildren.
As Bloom and Martin recount, COINTELPRO deployed several modes of attack against the Panthers: infiltrating the party with agents provocateur (or turning existing members with promises of reduced sentences or dropped charges); harassing Panthers’ families; assassinating key figures in the party, such as charismatic Chicago chapter chairman Fred Hampton; spreading disinformation about the party in the press; burning crates of cereal and other foodstuffs to prevent the Panthers from feeding them to hungry kids before school; exhausting party resources with bail bonds and legal fees by trumping up charges against party members; inciting shootouts with “no-knock” frontal assaults on local Panther offices; and seeding blood feuds among the Panther leadership that destroyed the party from within. In a brilliant elegy to the Obama presidency published in the new issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes how his father, William Paul Coates, one-time Acting Captain of the Baltimore Panthers, was pegged as an informant in a COINTELPRO-penned fake letter to Huey P. Newton found in his declassified FBI file. “The Panthers were eventually consumed by an internecine war instigated by the FBI,” Coates writes, “one in which being labeled a police informant was a death sentence.”
Bloom and Martin also identify lesser-known impediments to the Panthers’ efforts. As the first national organization to advocate mass resistance to the Vietnam War draft, the Panthers’ openness to alliances and coordination with left-radical white organizations brought them to the forefront of the antiwar movement and garnered both radical and liberal white support. These alliances included not just coordination with SDS, the Yippies, and other radical white youth organizations (as well as Latino groups like the Young Lords), but wealthy white liberals like Leonard Bernstein, who hosted a fundraiser for New York-based Black Panther defendants in 1970.
The end of the draft in January 1973 and the de-escalation of U.S. troop involvement in the war greatly diminished the appeal of radical movements and rhetoric in mainstream America, as did increased black employment via affirmative action, and the U.S.’s improved diplomatic relations with the Chinese, Algerians, and other revolutionary foreign governments. In particular, the end of the draft (though far from signaling the end of the war, or the liberation of the Vietnamese, with whom the Black Panthers made common cause as part of the international struggle against imperialism) decimated white interest in the Black Panthers’ revolutionary vanguard. As Bloom and Martin explain, “The Black Panthers had difficulty maintaining support for politics involving armed confrontation with the state.”
The 2016 edition features a new preface that re-examines the Black Panther Party in a modern context, and the concurrent advancements in “racial progress” and “racial retrenchment” since the Panthers’ heyday. The preface also considers the exponential growth in black incarceration and the black-white wealth gap, and the emergence of new resistance movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, that “have coupled confrontational tactics with community organizing” in response to widely seen video documentation of police killings of unarmed African-Americans. “Whites have fought mightily to maintain their racial advantages,” Bloom and Martin write. “Political leaders—from Richard Nixon in the Panther era to Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Donald Trump today—have used racial division as a source of power.”
Bloom and Martin caution against regarding the Black Panther Party’s program as an all-purpose blueprint for modern-day antiracist resistance, any more than combating defunct de jure segregation with Birmingham-style SCLC tactics would make sense in a country that offers putative legal protection for blacks’ civil rights. “Neither can antiracist activists today dismantle the new Jim Crow by emulating the specific practices of the Black Panther Party,” the authors write in the new preface. “Armed resistance to police brutality would be broadly construed as terrorist activity.” Instead, the authors recommend careful study of the tactics of both the Panther and Civil Rights movements and adapting them in new ways to expose the current culture of brutality. Further, they advocate developing “insurgent practices that not only make business as usual impossible but do so in a way that is difficult to repress.”
The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution
Unlike Black Against Empire, photographer Bryan Brian Shih and historian Yohuru Williams’ The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution draws primarily on oral history to tell the story of the Black Panthers, combined with Brian Shih’s striking contemporary black & white photographs of the Panthers interviewed for the book. It also complements Shames and Seale’s photo-and-interview-driven Power to the People, not just by presenting new photographs rather than images from the party’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, but by focusing on the recollections of the little-known local rank and file rather than national party leaders.
Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution also offers incisive scholarly essays on key elements of the Panthers’ legacy, such as historian Rhonda Y. Williams’ exploration of the pivotal roles played in the party by women. This essay discusses, in particular, the achievements of Kathleen Cleaver, Ericka Huggins, and one-time Black Panther newspaper editor and eventual chairwoman Elaine Brown, who kept the party alive in its waning years in Oakland during Huey Newton’s well-documented personal dissolution. Although the Panthers became remarkably progressive for a male-initiated radical organization in their time, they didn’t take the battle against patriarchy as far as one might hope. As Brown quips in the Vanguard of the Revolution documentary, “Did we overcome [sexism]? Of course we didn’t. We didn’t get these brothers from revolutionary heaven.”
Other essays in the book include Columbia social scientist Alondra Nelson’s reflections on the Black Panthers’ health activism (particularly in raising awareness of and initiating testing for sickle-cell anemia, a major health issue in the black community largely unaddressed at the time), and Black Power Beyond Borders author Nico Slate’s look at how the global fame of the Black Panthers spawned Panther parties in England, India, Israel, New Zealand, and elsewhere.
Most of all, Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution describes a diverse and multi-layered national organization focused intently on its survival programs, targeted to hit the pain points of the many communities it served. The book also reveals a rank and file that energized the party, worked tirelessly to advance its mission, and continued to do remarkable things individually after the party’s demise. The ingenuity and commitment of the local chapters repeatedly steps to the fore. Such little-discussed chapters as Winston-Salem, North Carolina’s—the first to provide, among other initiatives, free ambulance services to unserved or underserved poor neighborhoods both black and white—emerge as especially innovative and effective.
Co-author Yohuru Williams writes:
Equipped with little more than rotary phones, neighborhood maps, and knuckles for door knocking, rank-and-file Panthers organized throughout the country, tailoring their messages and services to the unique needs of their own communities. Selling the party newspaper was required of every Panther, and those revenues were crucial to keeping the party going, but for many members, the programs were the real lifeblood of the party. By providing free breakfasts for schoolchildren, free health clinics, eviction intervention, buses to prisons, and even a free ambulance program in one chapter and a model school in another, the Panthers constructed mutually supportive community networks that fortified the party’s growth and membership and even protected some Panther offices during police raids.
Power to the People and Vanguard of the Revolution
Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers, published in November by Abrams Books, assembles an astonishing collection of black & white photographs captured between 1967 and 1973 by co-author Stephen Shames. Described by Shames as “a photography book with a bit of oral history from the people who were there” (although it actually packs a lot of oral history from the people who were there), Power to the People assembles a narrative of the party’s history from Shames’s photographs and the contemporary recollections of Seale, Huggins, Kathleen Cleaver, Khalid Raheem, Emory Douglas, and other Panther leaders, as well as previously published material from Newton, Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver, and others now dead.
The book works wonderfully in conjunction with Stanley Nelson’s feature-length documentary, Vanguard of the Revolution, which also draws largely on Shames’s vast photo archives, and features interviews with many of the same party leaders (although notably not Seale or Chief of Staff David Hilliard). Through both Shames’s photographs and archival video footage from the era, the visual intensity of the Panthers as armed resisters to state authority, intimately engaged community organizers, and physical symbols of Black Power’s increasingly unified front, comes through unambiguously in the documentary.
In some respects, the Black Panthers might be considered a direct inheritor to the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized in the wake of the Greensboro and Nashville sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in 1960. Like SNCC, the Black Panthers were a youth movement, with an average age of 19 among the party’s membership during its height as a national organization. The Panthers also made a conscious decision not to adopt the established hierarchy of an existing organization (in SNCC’s case, the ministers of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference) as their own. And although the Black Panthers were an African-American membership organization by definition, the party never—despite nearly universal misapprehensions to the contrary—embraced black separatism.
In fact, the Panthers aggressively forged alliances with like-minded whites. As Seale recalls, “We were in coalition with fifteen or twenty different white left radical-to-liberal organizations that want to work with the Black Panther Party. These are the best friends we’ve got… We were just the opposite of the Nation of Islam [and] revenge black nationalist organizations. This is what the power structure hated.” The mere existence of the Shames photo archive—a treasure trove of wonderfully intimate images of the Panther leadership and rank and file, as well as the communities they served—all taken by a white photographer, exposes the idea of the Panthers as a separatist organization as a COINTELPRO-cultivated white lie.
In their respective heydays, SNCC and the Panthers diverged on the issue of armed resistance. The question of whether to take up arms in self-defense against white supremacists, adopt “Black Power” as a rallying cry, and regard the United States as a colonizing “mother country” rather than a flawed democracy that needed to be pressured for more inclusiveness, tore SNCC apart with the rise of Stokely Carmichael through the ranks of SNCC’s leadership in 1965-66. Carmichael’s push for Black Power shattered the fragile consensus of SNCC’s moderate John Lewis wing, which gravitated toward SCLC, and the more militant James Forman wing that argued for more aggressive tactics. Although the Panthers eventually split over questions of emphasis—immediate armed revolution (Cleaver) vs. community survival programs pending revolution (Newton, Seale, and Hilliard)—Black Power and armed self-defense defined the organization from the outset.
Vanguard of the Revolution also makes abundantly clear that the immediate, and most obvious difference between SNCC and the Panthers was visual. Between SNCC’s demonstrably Southern, rural uniform of denim overalls, and the Black Panthers’ emphatically urban black berets, dark sunglasses, and leather jackets, the contrast couldn’t be any starker. The Panthers’ message was urban, too. As Jamal Joseph of the New York City chapter notes in the documentary, “Taking on housing, welfare, and health—these were things people outside the South could relate to.”
What comes through most powerfully in Seale and Shames’s book, Power to the People, is Seale’s cohesive vision, as a self-described “community control economist,” for serving a community with agility and responsiveness, and priming it for self-assertion and electoral engagement and influence. Even with a reading list like Seale’s—Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Kwame Nkrumah’s I Speak of Freedom, Robert F. Williams’ Negroes With Guns, Malcolm X Speaks—no one simply intuits that the black community needs breakfast for schoolchildren, bus rides to visit relatives in prison, check-cashing escorts for seniors, free sickle-cell anemia testing, legal referral services, landlord interventions, or community schools. Even with a dynamic organizing mind like Seale’s or a radical visionary one like Newton’s, you couldn’t identify the most pressing needs of a community that suffers beyond the reach of a porous social safety net by telling people what they need. You’d get there by reaching out, listening, and hearing, and by having the resourcefulness, ingenuity, and genuine commitment to shape your organization to meet the needs that the community tells you they have. The rank and file listen, the organization adapts, and the community survives.
If anything, with our drones and militarized police, the notion of community service initiatives as a precursor to armed revolution seems even more impractical and dangerous today than it did in 1967. But the absolute necessity of agile and responsive, block-by-block programs, focused on a community’s specific, articulated and demonstrated needs, remains abundantly clear, to do what the state can’t or won’t, and to serve as a springboard for more focused and incremental political action. In fact, 50 years after their inception, Panther-style survival programs will become more critical than ever in 2017 and beyond, as the incoming administration shreds the social safety net, turns back the clock on America’s second reconstruction, and returns the country to the former “greatness” that made the rise of the Black Panther Party essential to community survival.