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Liberated Territory UNTOLD LOCAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY
Duke University Press Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Bringing the Black Panther Party Back In
It is by now a truism that historical scholarship-not least, about America -has been "remade" since the 1960s. If complaints persist about overspecialization, there is little dispute that the historian's lens has widened vastly over the last generation to take in a great diversity of people, subjects, sources, methods, concepts, and perspectives. Though not the first such historiographical attempt, this "new history" has fashioned itself as a "history from the bottom up," privileging the experiences of "ordinary people" who sometimes did extraordinary things as individuals and in social movements. Women, people of color, working people generally-and, perhaps more important, the concepts of gender, race, and class-have been at the literature's core, in increasingly complex arrangements. Virtually untouched in this "remaking" is the armed revolutionary organization, the Black Panther Party (BPP), which existed from 1966 to 1982.
When viewed especially in its late 1960s and early 1970s incarnation, the BPP was not simply an organization, but a movement-in the range of people the Panthers attracted and absorbed, in the individuals and even entire groups who identified with the Panther style and ideology, and in the way entire communities became swept up in Panther causes and programs. The Panthers established chapters or branches in most major American cities and several abroad, with numbers of members and supporters running into the thousands. Critically, they also provided an organizational model for Latinos, Asians, poor whites, and even the elderly, gaining the sobriquet by the climax of the 1960s as the "vanguard of the revolution." By early 1970, some polls showed them with the support of nearly two-thirds of the African American community in major urban centers. All this hardly escaped the FBI, whose director, J. Edgar Hoover, repeatedly referred to the Panthers after 1968 as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country"; it followed, therefore, that the Panthers bore the brunt of FBI counterintelligence operations directed at African Americans in this period (233 of 295). Whether one views their ignominious decline in the 1970s as a product of such state repression, internal dissolution, or some combination thereof, for a time at least the Panthers had more support among black Americans than any other avowedly revolutionary (and black-led) organization in American history. All told, in numbers, reach, ideology, program, and social and political impact, they represented a moment of world-historic importance.
In their heyday, the Panthers attracted the attention of the Left and the Right, black and white, young and old, male and female, community activist and government official-in the florid language of Richardson Preyer, the chairman of the House Committee on Internal Security (formerly the House Committee on Un-American Activities or HUAC), they "fascinated the left, inflamed the police, terrified much of America." But, none were more taken with the Panthers than the media. They were "good copy ... and there is no lack of 'news' about them," wrote the journalist Robert Scheer in October 1968, warning presciently, however, that "for all this exposure, the Panthers are treated as nothing more than a bizarre happening in violence." According to Scheer, that treatment was intentional, as "the television networks offer up their version of the Panther movement in order to convince us that it is simply an exercise in mindless freak theater-entertaining, provocative, insignificant-and that the Panthers' confrontation with society is a momentary spectacle, isolated from history." But, "the Panthers do have a history," he insisted, recommending to readers of the radical magazine Ramparts some excerpts from what became a classic of the Panther memoir genre, Seize the Time by Bobby Seale, the co-founder and chairman of the party. Yet, more than forty years later, that history is just beginning to be written by professional historians.
At first blush, this historiographical lacuna is surprising. After all, the 1960s have become a veritable cottage industry, not just in the form of memoirs, film, music, art, and literature, but in the social sciences and, increasingly, historical studies. Meanwhile, African American history is among the most vibrant subfields in American history generally, with work on the civil rights era (1930s-1970s) especially rich and finely textured. Yet, while the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a short-lived Detroit-based black power organization of the late 1960s, receives lavish and detailed treatment in the Encyclopedia of the American Left, the BPP entry is cursory and one-dimensional. More recently, in Robin D. G. Kelley's provocative and deservedly praised Freedom Dreams, chapter 3, which deals with the 1960s and 1970s, focuses not on the Panthers but on the much smaller and geographically circumscribed Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). And so it goes, in surveys, monographs, and journal literature.
Texts without Context The Marginalization of the Panthers
Unsurprisingly, then, college textbooks-typically revised every few years to reflect the latest scholarship-are generally unenlightening, often misleading, sometimes plain wrong on the subject of the BPP, regardless of focus. The National Experience, a venerable and still popular traditional text, at the crucial moment of 1993 (see below), contains no description of the Black Panther Party at all. However, the authors use "In Defense of Self Defense," a famous essay by Huey Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panthers, as an inset primary document next to an excerpt from Martin Luther King's book, Where Do We Go from Here? The headings read, "The Case for Violence," and "The Case against Violence," respectively. That is, the Panthers are equated with violence. Thus, one of the most widely used of all texts, The American Promise, which claims to offer "both the structure of a political narrative and the insights gained from examining social and cultural experience," offers only this about the Panthers, in the context of black power advocates insisting that "Black people should and must fight back": "After police killed an unarmed teenager in San Francisco in 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale organized the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966 and armed its members for self-defense against police brutality."
In the "political history" text, The American Nation, by Columbia University's John Garraty, the paragraph in which the Panthers appear is in his discussion of the "new racial turmoil" of the 1960s. Here, "extremists formed the Black Panther party and collected weapons to resist police. 'Shoot, don't loot,' the radical H. Rap Brown advised all who would listen" -the latter sentence being somewhat of a non sequitur, as Brown was never of any institutional significance to the Panthers, with only a titular position in the organization for a few months in 1968. Readers are informed as well that the Panthers demanded compensation for past injustices, and that they ran for president their minister of information, Eldridge Cleaver, identified as "a convict on parole" who was nevertheless "an articulate and intelligent man" who had written the much-praised book Soul on Ice.
Nation of Nations, a "narrative" text, devotes its paragraph-and-a-half on the Panthers to, once again, militancy and violence, this time seeming to confuse two incidents from the party's early history, running together two of Newton's infamous run-ins with the police. The apparent conflation, which an average student would almost certainly assume, allows the authors to concisely note Newton's celebrated three years in jail for manslaughter of a police officer in October 1967 and his legendary and colorful challenge to a San Francisco cop eight months earlier, "O.K., you big fat racist pig, draw your gun." Even at its height, though, "the group never counted more than 2000 members nationwide," and "most African Americans remained committed to the goals that defined the civil rights movement: nonviolence, not armed confrontation; integration, not segregation." Unintentionally-and quite unfortunately, given the Panthers' consistent opposition to ghetto "rioting"-the marginal text clue next to the paragraph introducing the BPP ("Black Panthers") sits above a picture of a National Guardsman with the flames of the Watts riot of 1965 in the background. Just below the picture is the subheading, "Violence in the Streets." Following similar themes, another "narrative" text, George Tindall's America, describes the Panthers as "a self-professed group of urban revolutionaries" who "terrified the public, but eventually fragmented in spasms of violence."
Created Equal, a text stressing as two of its four major themes "diversity" and "class and systems of power," dispatches the Panthers in two sentences deep in a paragraph about violence during the "shift from civil rights to black power." Here, the BPP formed in response to police brutality, engaged in several shootouts, and was "eventually decimated by an FBI campaign against them." Liberty, Equality, and Power: A History of the American People is a text that is supposed to do just about everything: "[capture] the drama and excitement of America's past," "[integrate] social and cultural history into a political story," and "[synthesize] the finest older historical scholarship with the best of the new to create a narrative that is balanced, lively, and accessible." Here, the Panthers receive a sentence-and-a-half in a section co-authored by an expert in twentieth-century foreign affairs and a specialist in American legal history. The BPP is teamed with SNCC's Stokely Carmichael, for a time the prime minister of the party, as opponents of "gradualism and nonviolent methods"; the example offered is a "Black Panther manifesto [which] ... called for community 'self-defense' groups as protection against police harassment, the release from jail of all African American prisoners ..., and guaranteed employment for all citizens." The last phrase, of course, would come as something of a surprise to an avid reader of American history texts, given that the Panthers have appeared thus far merely as a military phenomenon. At the very end of the one sentence the group receives in American People: Creating a Nation and a Society, yet another text that claims to balance political and social history, there is this suggestion of a more nuanced view: "The Black Panthers, radical activists who organized first in Oakland, California, and then in other cities, formed a militant organization that vowed to eradicate not only racial discrimination but capitalism as well." Indeed, the social history-oriented Who Built America? notes in its half-paragraph on the Panthers that they saw themselves as "the vanguard of the socialist revolution they forecast for the United States." The text adds that "by 1969 [the Panthers'] inflammatory rhetoric ... drew heavy media attention, and it [the authors leave unclear whether "it" refers to the Panthers' inflammatory rhetoric or to the media attention] provoked several shootouts with the police and the FBI, who now targeted the Panthers as dangerous revolutionaries." Meanwhile, Out of Many: A History of the American People, which professes uniqueness in its community focus, points out that while armed self-defense was the Panthers' strategy, "in several communities, [they] also ran breakfast programs for schoolchildren, established medical clinics, and conducted educational classes."
A People and a Nation, whose goal is to "fully" integrate social history into "the traditional fabric of party politics, congressional legislation, wars, economic patterns, and local and state government," does seek to combine many of these themes into one short paragraph. Here, the BPP was a blend of "black separatism and revolutionary communism," seeking to destroy both capitalism and "the military arm of [their] oppressors" (the police), with members carrying guns and talking about "killing 'pigs,'" though also establishing community programs. But other texts are similarly "nuanced" in sometimes profoundly misleading ways. For example, America's History notes that as the Panthers became national their initial "militant self-defense" posture was supplemented with "community organizing projects, including interracial efforts." Incongruously, the authors then add, "but [the Panthers'] affinity for Third World revolutionary movements and armed struggle became their most publicized attribute"-as if the latter and the former were incompatible.
Students, even some college professors, are not in the habit of reading lots of textbooks. If they read all those reviewed here, however, they would emerge with a composite, sometimes confusing picture of an extreme and apparently quite small group that advocated armed "self-defense" and black nationalism (and, perhaps, socialism and racial separatism); developed a range of community programs for reasons that are not entirely clear; and drew significant enough media and government attention to lead ultimately to repressive state violence, at least partly brought on by their own actions. Always, the Panthers are discussed as part of the black power movement and associated in the public imagination with militancy and violence, especially the urban "riots" of the late 1960s. Their placement in the American story, therefore, conveniently puts the Panthers always at the margins.
Sources Surveys of the 1960s
It is difficult to ascertain just what or whom textbook writers are relying on to write a few sentences about the Black Panther Party. Of the texts reviewed here, only one makes direct reference in its bibliography to materials on the Panthers per se. There are several overviews that use the same sources, however. Perhaps the most ubiquitous is Allen Matusow's now classic work, The Unraveling of America, a volume on the 1960s in the New American Nation Series. In a generally unflattering portrait-damning leading Panthers with faint praise about their "audacity" and "talk," and condemning them for engaging in a "revolutionary charade"-Matusow dispenses with their historical significance by making them a product of white guilt: "a handful of blacks with a mimeograph machine" who "existed mainly in the demented minds of white leftists."
Another apparent source is Todd Gitlin's memoir/history, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, in which the Panthers belong to the latter moment the activist-turned-academic calls "the Late Sixties" in a final section titled "Forcing the Revolution." Cast as a godsend for "the white Left"-along with the author, the book's focus-the Panthers appear in league with those whose only common ground is their association with violence: "Lyndon Johnson and Richard J. Daley and James Earl Ray, Ronald Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover and Sirhan Sirhan, 'Eve of Destruction' and Bonnie and Clyde, Green Berets and Black Panthers and the N.Y.P.D...." Thus, in his only sustained treatment of the BPP, under the label of "The Bogey of Race," Gitlin notes, "They called themselves a party, but the Panthers were closer to an outlaw political gang...." Mostly, the narrative mocks both the Panthers and their white supporters: "in the person of the Panthers ... the anarchist impulse could be fused with the Third World mystique, the aura of violence, and the thrust for revolutionary efficiency"; "'PE' [political education] as the Panthers understood it was a close reading of Mao's On Liberalism and other such samples of philosophical baby talk"; "ghettoites and Ph.D.'s in Leninist study groups and 'free universities' were huddling under two wings of the same zeitgeist." In both Matusow and Gitlin, the Panthers constitute Exhibit A in the case for the decline of the hopes of the early 1960s into the nihilism of despair that putatively characterized the late 1960s, what some have called the "declension model" of the era's descent from the "good sixties" to the "bad sixties."
Excerpted from Liberated Territory Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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