From the Publisher
“Collectively, the essays raise important questions about the Panthers that demonstrate the organization’s complexity, and should stimulate an energetic scholarly discussion and reevaluation of the Panthers’ historical significance. . . . Highly Recommended.” - M. Cachun, Choice
“These diverse and insightful essays, drawn from many untapped sources, collectively highlight the importance of local studies in complicating historians’ understandings of the BPP, which, as the authors point out, must be a key element in creating a historically rich narrative about this era.” - Beth Slutsky, Journal of American Ethnic History
“Recent scholarship is well represented, resulting in a collection of essays that treat their subject in a scholarly, yet sensitive manner. . . . Lazerow, Williams, and the contributing authors are to be commended for producing a collection of essays that compels scholars to reexamine the Black Panthers and their true impact on U. S. and African American history.” - Oscar Williams, Journal of African American History
"Taken as a whole, the essays offer a critical evaluation of the BPP and do not hesitate to challenge the shibboleths and assumptions that heretofore have dominated scholarship on the Panthers. . . . [A]n important contribution. . . ." - Gregg L. Michel, Journal of American History
"In Search of the Black Panther Party makes a valuable contribution to the field of Panther historiography." - Paul Alkebulan, The Historian
“[In Search of the Black Panther Party] avoids a weakness common to collected conference papers, as each of the chapters refers to the other essays and flows clearly into the next piece. Although the general outline of the birth, rise, and collapse of the Panthers is common knowledge, this volume shows the complexity and debatable heritage of the group.” - Thomas J. Noer, Histoire sociale/Social History
“Jama Lazerow and Yohuru Williams have assembled a superb, timely, and significant anthology that historicizes one of the most controversial groups of the 1960s. Wide-ranging in scope, provocative, and deeply insightful, In Search of the Black Panther Party is a major contribution to the burgeoning literature on the Black Panthers and the wider Black Power era.”—Peniel E. Joseph, author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America
“Researchers have uncovered more useful information on the Panthers in the past ten years than in the preceding thirty. This wide-ranging collection contains some of the finest examples of today’s exciting new scholarship. It tops the list of required reading for those seeking to make up for lost time.”—William L. Van Deburg, author of New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965–1975
Thomas J. Noer
“[In Search of the Black Panther Party] avoids a weakness common to collected conference papers, as each of the chapters refers to the other essays and flows clearly into the next piece. Although the general outline of the birth, rise, and collapse of the Panthers is common knowledge, this volume shows the complexity and debatable heritage of the group.”
“Collectively, the essays raise important questions about the Panthers that demonstrate the organization’s complexity, and should stimulate an energetic scholarly discussion and reevaluation of the Panthers’ historical significance. . . . Highly Recommended.”
“Recent scholarship is well represented, resulting in a collection of essays that treat their subject in a scholarly, yet sensitive manner. . . . Lazerow, Williams, and the contributing authors are to be commended for producing a collection of essays that compels scholars to reexamine the Black Panthers and their true impact on U. S. and African American history.”
“These diverse and insightful essays, drawn from many untapped sources, collectively highlight the importance of local studies in complicating historians’ understandings of the BPP, which, as the authors point out, must be a key element in creating a historically rich narrative about this era.”
"In Search of the Black Panther Party makes a valuable contribution to the field of Panther historiography."
Gregg L. Michel
"Taken as a whole, the essays offer a critical evaluation of the BPP and do not hesitate to challenge the shibboleths and assumptions that heretofore have dominated scholarship on the Panthers. . . . [A]n important contribution. . . ."
Read an Excerpt
In Search of the Black Panther Party NEW PERSPECTIVES ON A REVOLUTIONARY MOVEMENT
Duke University Press Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Black Panther Party and the Long Civil Rights Era ROBERT O. SELF
Scholarship on the Black Panther Party is enjoying something of a renaissance. The last decade has seen the publication of two collections of essays about the Party. New books dealing in whole or in part with the Panthers have recently appeared. And a host of dissertations, along with manuscripts in progress, have joined the suddenly rich debate over the meaning and legacy of one of the nation's most conspicuous and controversial political organizations. Alongside this scholarly attention, journalists and former activists, writing from the Left, Right, and positions in between, have advanced their own assessments. Indeed, no single organization stands more prominently than the Panthers at the axis of divergent efforts to claim a usable history of the second half of the 1960s. Many contemporary commentators argue that the Panthers embodied the wrong turn taken by activists after 1965 toward a violence, bravado, and radicalism incapable of redeeming the nation. Others, including many Party memoirists, counter that the Panthers symbolized the joining of Black Power and the antiwar movement in a critique of American imperialism and capitalismwhose suppression by the FBI and local police represented a cynical conspiracy of American officialdom in the late sixties and early seventies.
Historians have engaged these sixties-legacy debates in substantive ways, but there is more to assessing the history of the Panthers than locating its valence in contemporary culture wars. Positioning the group to carry the weight of national angst over the fallout of the 1960s forecloses a deeper understanding of black radicalism as an American political tradition and the Panthers' place within the twentieth-century history of that radicalism. As Nikhil Pal Singh has recently reminded us, when Martin Luther King Jr. self-consciously stepped out of the political tradition of liberal "strivers" in the late 1960s to embrace "traditions of black dissidence," he did not move into uncharted territory. He strode into a political space from which black radicals had long inveighed against American racism's dual grounding in ideologies of colonialism and the structures of international capitalism. King and the Panthers were neither ideologically nor temperamentally equivalent, but the dissident positions that each took in the late sixties linked them to a shared black radical tradition that developed in what Singh calls the "long civil rights era," the extended period of struggle over the place of black Americans in national life between the 1930s and the 1970s.
That formulation signals an immense historiographical project: revising the canonized liberal civil rights narrative handed down primarily by sixties-era journalists and validated by the first wave of civil rights historiography. The liberal narrative draws its authority from the power of telegenic events and personalities. It advances an understanding of racism as a primarily psychological and individual phenomenon, and it cultivates a mythology of liberal consensus on racial equality. That familiar narrative begins in 1954 and 1955 with the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery bus boycott. It extends through a series of events and places that became iconographic, all of which are located in the South: Greensboro, Birmingham, Washington, Selma, and a handful of other southern cities where movement events captured national television and print media coverage. The movement took aim at the legal architecture of Jim Crow (and its abrogation of civil rights)-a system of racial segregation and subordination erected during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. To press its case, the movement endorsed nonviolent civil disobedience, a philosophy and tactic largely imported into the United States from Mahatma Gandhi's India by Bayard Rustin and A. J. Muste and transformed into a massive popular insurgency by King.
According to the narrative, by judiciously combining nonviolent civil resistance with the Christian fellowship and self-discipline taught by the southern African American church, King and a handful of activists forged a coalition composed of black Americans and white northern liberals, whose political home was the Democratic Party. Propelled by a national mood of liberal optimism, further fueled by John F. Kennedy's election in 1960, that coalition dismantled Jim Crow-a process culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. However, when this triumphant civil rights movement "moved north" between 1965 and 1967, it foundered on the shores of urban rebellions and Black Nationalism. Black rioters in Watts in 1965 and in Detroit and Newark in 1967 accomplished what no southern sheriff or Klan rally could: the rending of the movement itself. Furthermore, Black Power ideology and black militants in the North fueled a white "backlash" and forced sympathetic white liberals to abandon the cause. Narratives of the movement at this point fall back upon a series of familiar oppositions to draw out lessons: South and North, non-violence and violence, King and Malcolm X / Black Panthers. The South is "the movement." The North is the foil. The South is paradigmatic. The North an aberration.
While this version of history contains a wealth of details that are true, many of its key parameters and assumptions are misleading. Historians since the 1980s have labored in countless archives, recorded thousands of oral histories, and mined hundreds of local case studies to reveal a far more complicated set of stories. These stories do not simply change details in the larger narrative but rather necessitate new paradigms. In their findings historians have shown, for instance, that northern whites were far less supportive of either civil rights or black equality than the traditional narrative holds. White resistance to desegregation was always present; indeed, it was always a fundamental part of the New Deal Democratic coalition. Far from being an innocent bystander in the construction of Jim Crow, or its heroic vanquisher, the federal government through its housing, labor, and welfare policies was a major architect of racial discrimination in the twentieth century. Thus, the federal state itself, not simply a recalcitrant Confederacy, was a target of reform. Moreover, northern segregation was in many places worse than its southern variants, and there were plenty of southern militants and northern moderates in the civil rights movement. And the movement itself, which began in the 1940s in New York City, was a far more complex assemblage than the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as important as those organizations were. Despite a generation of academic scholarship advancing these and other arguments, however, the standard narrative continues to dominate high school and college textbooks and, even more substantially, popular memory and its rhetoric of commemoration.
The effort to shoehorn civil rights into the decade between 1955 and 1965 has clear ideological consequences: it minimizes if not silences the movement's long association with radicalism and the critique of American liberalism. By isolating the movement in its most overtly liberal phase, the traditional narrative explicitly positions the real civil rights movement in between two forms of discredited radicalism: the communist Left and the Popular Front of the 1930s and 1940s and the Black Power militancy and Maoist internationalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. According to this view, the movement's essence can only be found in the brief window between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, when its dual aims were said to be ending Jim Crow and transforming the hearts and minds of whites. It is perhaps true that only the liberal, moderate dimensions of the movement stood any realistic chance of success within U.S. political culture and institutions. But that cannot foreclose a serious consideration of the movement as a whole, the complicated way the movement was interpreted and understood at the grass-roots, and the decisive presence of radical forces pushing from a variety of positions on the Left across the movement's history from the late 1930s through the 1970s. As Robin D. G. Kelley has reminded us, despite the fact that "virtually every radical movement failed," the "alternative visions and dreams" contained within them continue to inspire new generations of activists. Isolating the movement in the decade between Brown and Watts risks reducing a complex history to a morality tale of interracial consensus destroyed by intemperate black militancy. It risks reducing that history to a tired American racial trope.
Histories that contextualize rather than marginalize black radicalism, on the other hand, offer greater analytical purchase on the major economic and political questions that black activists confronted between the New Deal in the mid-1930s and the end of the Great Society in the early 1970s. Histories that contextualize black radicalism reveal it to be liberalism's constant companion, sometimes ally and sometimes challenger, rather than its foil or solvent. For my purposes, such histories illuminate two critical dimensions of the Black Panther Party's place within the long civil rights era. First, the Panthers' anticolonial politics emerged as part of a decades-long response on the progressive political Left to the rise of the welfare-warfare state in the context of economic crises at home and geopolitical crises abroad. That state came into being in the 1930s and expanded in scope and power in the postwar decades. Second, the Panthers inherited traditions of black political consciousness that envisioned cities, the urban, as both the sites and sources of black liberation in the United States. These two contentions do not constitute a comprehensive explanation of the Party's history or ideology by any means. But they are fundamental to any such explanation, and they are essential to establishing a broader horizon of twentieth-century history in which to understand the Panthers. In the following two sections, I take up each of these dimensions.
The U.S. Welfare State and Global Decolonization
The rise after World War II of the welfare-warfare state married the New Deal to the Cold War. Each half of the marriage represented a modified Keynesianism through which the federal government subsidized an unprecedented expansion of the nation's white middle class. New Deal Keynesianism was a product of the economic crisis of the 1930s and the continuing crises within crucial sectors of the American economy in the postwar period, especially housing. Cold War Keynesianism was a product of the global war of 1939-1945; the withdrawal of Great Britain and France from their imperial holdings in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia; and, most crucially, the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over the political and economic future of Europe between 1947 and the early 1960s. Together, the New Deal and the Cold War produced the largest, most active and interventionist federal state in American history, and in so doing radically remade American cities on the one hand and the nation's political culture on the other. These historical developments represent the critical background to the rise of the Black Panther Party.
Broadly understood, the mid-century U.S. welfare state combined social insurance programs like old-age pensions and direct payments to poor mothers with equally important public subsidies to specific populations and sectors. The public subsidies included: massive federal mortgage and public housing programs; labor law and its attendant collective bargaining apparatus; the G.I. Bill; highway construction; urban renewal; the War on Poverty and other poverty programs; and a variety of additional programs aimed at the labor, housing, and property markets. Together, these shaped the physical and political terrain of urban America between the 1940s and the 1960s, especially in the massive suburbanization of housing and industry and the accompanying forms of racial segregation that brought into being what historian Arnold Hirsch has called the "second ghetto." Federal policy, in short, was a critical handmaiden to the private market's creation of white suburbs and black urban ghettoes. Simultaneously in the postwar decades, the demands of Cold War containment policy and the nation's militarization of its global standoff with the Soviet Union after 1950 produced an enlarged defense sector. Relying on private contractors and public and private universities for materiel as well as for research and development, the federal government helped to bring into being an unprecedented military-industrial-educational complex. The resulting welfare-warfare state that emerged fundamentally shaped the political economy of the nation throughout the whole course of the modern black rights movement, from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Nikhil Pal Singh asserts that "bracketed by Roosevelt's New Deal and Johnson's Great Society, the long civil rights era was a product of a dual phenomenon: the Keynesian transformation of the liberal capitalist state during the 1930s and the emergence of black social movements that were urban, national, and transnational in scope." Singh's joining of civil rights, the rise of the Keynesian state, and urban and transnational politics in the period between the 1930s and the 1970s is precisely the historiographical combination best suited to understanding modern black radicalism. The emergence of the Keynesian state-in both its social welfare and military-industrial guises-raised a central question: How, in the context of the federal government's assertion of broad new powers to shape the domestic economy and to guarantee a social wage, would national citizenship be defined? Not "citizenship" in a narrow, technical sense but what Alice Kessler-Harris has called "economic citizenship ... the independent status that provides the possibility of full participation in the polity." For African Americans across mid-century America, this notion of citizenship stood at the center of a signal issue: their inclusion in the provisions of the welfare state, constructed in the Jim Crow era, and the necessity that the state itself be leveraged into a vehicle for genuine equity.
As Singh notes, the rise of the Keynesian state interpenetrated with the emergence of the United States as a global superpower. Thus, African Americans were confronted not merely with the existence of the anticolonial struggle in developing nations in Africa and Asia, but with the reality that U.S. policy could decisively shape the timing, nature, and pace of decolonization. That is, black Americans faced simultaneously a struggle to transform the domestic policies of the state and the external reality that the United States could profoundly influence the global color line. To use the "double-V" metaphor of the 1940s, they faced a two-front war. It was not simply that African Americans expressed sympathy for and symbolic affiliation with independence movements ranging from India to Ghana. It was, more consequentially, that internationalism-anti-colonialism coupled with the strong support of the United Nations and cooperation with Communist states-as a political orientation between the late 1940s and the early 1970s provided fertile ground on which black Americans could criticize American exceptionalism and cold war liberalism. In particular, black internationalism challenged the notion that racism and its attendant forms of subordination were merely flaws within the liberal American political order, flaws whose disappearance over time was assured. By linking the color line in the United States with an international color line-what Richard Wright called the "color curtain"-in the context of anticolonial struggle and the emerging Cold War, black internationalists interpreted racial domination in the United States as part of the history of Western imperialism.
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