The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in Oakland, California, in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. It was perhaps the most visible of the Black Power groups in the late 60s and early 70s, not least because of its confrontational politics, its rejection of nonviolence, and its headline-catching, gun-toting militancy. Important on the national scene and highly visible on college campuses, the Panthers also worked at building grassroots support for local black political and economic power. Although there have been many books about the Black Panthers, none has looked at the organization and its work at the local level. This book examines the work and actions of seven local initiatives in Baltimore, Winston-Salem, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. These local organizations are revealed as committed to programs of community activism that focused on problems of social, political, and economic justice.
About the Author
Judson L. Jeffries is Professor of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University and Director of the African American and African Studies Community Extension Center. He is editor of Black Power in the Belly of the Beast. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.
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A Local History of the Black Panther Party
By Judson L. Jeffries
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2007 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
Revising Panther History in Baltimore
Judson L. Jeffries
In 1860, the state of Maryland accounted for nearly one-fifth of the free Blacks in the United States, and twenty-six thousand of them resided in Baltimore. "Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, race relations were relatively fluid, with a fair amount of intermingling between blacks and whites in public gathering places." The African American community grew steadily over the next several decades — so much so that many whites began to feel threatened by this proliferation. Consequently, by the early 1900s segregation was more pronounced in Maryland than in any other border state. By 1922 the city had established a zoning commission that effectively confined rowhouses, and by extension Baltimore's poorer residents, to poorer neighborhoods. Segregation was prominent, but there seemed to be peculiar variations of it. For example, in the 1930s, when legendary jazzman Chick Webb performed at the Hippodrome Theater, his mother and wife stood on stage to see him perform, yet Blacks were not allowed in the audience. The city's most popular spot for stage plays in the early 1950s, Fords' Theater in West Baltimore, required Blacks to sit in the second balcony, although Blacks could perform on stage. The Lyric at 128 West Mount Royal Avenue, Baltimore's main concert venue, did not allow Blacks to perform there, yet oddly had no seating restrictions for Black patrons.
As the number of Black residents in Baltimore increased, so did whites' determination to keep Blacks marginalized. Between World War II and 1960, the Black population of Baltimore increased from 194,000 to 326,000 as waves of southern Blacks were drawn by the industrial opportunities associated with the war. While the number of Black residents increased, Blacks' influence remained negligible to a large extent. Schemes by whites to keep Blacks politically, economically, and socially subjugated were largely successful. An early study commissioned by the Baltimore Urban League commented on the powerlessness of Blacks in the political process:
If ever the Negro population of Baltimore became aware of its political power, the ... governmental, economic and racial set-up of the community would undergo a profound change. The political seers have long been aware of the presence of this sleeping giant and have handled him successfully from time to time.
To those familiar with the city, it is not difficult to understand how the Urban League arrived at the conclusion it did. Baltimore is strangely unique; in many ways it is both a northern city and a southern city. Its winters can be as brutal as any city in the northeast corridor and its summers are often as humid and muggy as any in the Deep South. This peculiar characteristic of being a northern and southern city has no doubt impacted the role of civil rights there. Baltimore maintained legalized segregation until the passage of the 1964 Public Accommodations Act and was at times extremely resistant to changes in the power structure. Opponents of segregation often claimed that wholesale racism prevented integration in Baltimore, a typical southern argument. Curiously, Baltimore exhibited little in the way of a highly dramatic response to this oppression, perhaps because its political leadership and the general attitude of whites were arguably less hostile than those of a typical southern city. Like northern cities, though, Baltimore experienced an influx of Black immigrants who fled southern poverty and Jim Crow, seeking jobs and a better place to raise their children. Such interesting dynamics yielded a different local movement than that witnessed in the South generally, and the impact of these dynamics would prove to be far-reaching. For example, in 1970, Blacks constituted 46 percent of Baltimore's population, yet they were not able to convert these numbers into policy outcomes that redistributed services and goods more equitably to the Black community. In fact, it was not until 1987 that Black Baltimoreans were able to elect one of their own to the mayor's office, despite the early efforts of the Register-and-Vote campaign initiated by the Black Minister's Network that by 1957 was registering Black voters at the rate of one thousand per month. Cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Philadelphia were able to vote Blacks into themayor's office long before Baltimore, even though Blacks did not constitute a majority in any of those cities. In truth, the lack of empowerment of Baltimore's Blacks was in part self-induced. For a time Baltimore's Black community was sharply divided between middle-class westside Blacks and lower-class eastside Blacks, a fissure that had been widening since the end of World War II. This socioeconomic division was accompanied by deep political differences. In the early 1960s, a number of middle-class Blacks were conservative, especially with regard to civil rights protests. One reverend commented that "middle-class black folk were just as conservative as middle-class white folks when it came to civil rights." Some middle-class Blacks on the west side were not so quick to challenge the status quo that had been, from an economic standpoint, relatively good to them.
These conservative elements notwithstanding, Baltimore has a long and storied history of Black grassroots political activism that has gone largely unnoticed by many historians and students of politics. This history dates back to as early as the late 1800s when the African American community mobilized around labor disputes with immigrants who were competing for jobs. Also at that time Rev. Dr. Harvey Johnson of Union Baptist Church and some of his closest Baptist colleagues were focused on the erosion of Reconstruction Era progress and what they could do about it. The result was the founding of the Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty of the United States of America (MUBL). The MUBL pledged "to use all legal means within our power to procure and maintain our rights as citizens of this our common country." Others like John Locks, Dr. H. J. Brown, George Lane, and Councilmen Harry S. Cummings (elected in 1890) and Warner T. McGuinn worked tirelessly to bring about better educational and housing opportunities for Blacks. Fast-forward to the early 1930s, when religious leaders and secular luminaries organized the "Buy Where You Can Work" boycotts and protests. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the second-oldest chapter in the country, played an especially prominent role in this enterprise, earning itself a reputation as one of the most powerful branches in the country. The "Buy Where You Can Work" campaign encouraged a boycott of all white-owned stores that would not employ Black people even though most of their patrons were Black. In the end, the boycott brought about significant changes in the hiring practices of white-owned businesses in Black neighborhoods, ranging from small mom-and-pop stores to national chains such as A&P.
The 1940s saw more of the same kind of activism. Civil rights leaders and labor activists saw World War II as an opportunity to bring about political and social change. In 1942, Dr. J. E. T. Camper, a well-respected NAACP official, led a march in Annapolis to pressure the state to enforce equal opportunity in employment and housing. That same year, more than five hundred people attended a rally at the YMCA on Druid Hill Avenue to protest discrimination in defense industries. Also during this time the less confrontational Urban League worked effectively behind the scenes to open up job opportunities and training programs to African Americans. In the early 1950s, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) made its presence felt by leading a number of sit-ins at downtown Baltimore restaurants. These sorts of activities laid the foundation for the rambunctious student protests of the mid-1950s and early 1960s. In fact, by 1960, the local Civil Rights Movement took on a new and more decisive approach to racial equality.
As early as 1955 (years before the Greensboro sit-in), Black students at Morgan State College began protesting and demonstrating in large numbers, targeting stores in the Northwood shopping plaza in northeast Baltimore. Four years later, students from Morgan State College teamed with white students from Johns Hopkins University and other area colleges to form the Civic Interest Group (CIG). The CIG simultaneously protested Arundel Ice Cream while they demonstrated at the Rooftop dining room at the Hecht-May Company department store in Northwood shopping plaza. Starting in March of 1959, students converged on Arundel Ice Cream, picketing and conducting sit-ins to pressure the store's owner to end its practice of racial discrimination against Blacks. The Afro-American (Baltimore's Black newspaper) reported that more than four hundred students participated in the demonstration. Five days after the sit-in began, the restaurant's manager announced to the students that they had "as much right to be served here as anyone else. Whenever you come here, you will be treated like any other customer." Because of CIG's successes by the early 1960s, it had become a well-known entity and by 1963 this student movement had forced the then suburban Northwood Movie Theater to integrate, but only after 1,500 people picketed the theater and scores of Morgan State's student body had been arrested.
Despite these successes, whites continued to resist changes in the city's power structure. The limited success of these civil rights demonstrations raised both expectations and growing dissatisfaction, and many less patient activists demanded more and faster change; they in turn reduced their commitment to nonviolent change and adopted a more militant stance.
Consequently in 1968, when insurgents across the country took to the streets en masse in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin L. King Jr., Baltimore too exploded. Six persons were killed, more than seven hundred others were injured, and numerous businesses were destroyed over a six-day period, with damages totaling more than $14 million. Many of the burned-out stores and businesses were white-owned. Some were places that had refused to serve Blacks in the past. A day after Baltimore erupted, Governor Spiro Agnew declared martial law and sent in 5,500 National Guardsmen to assist 1,200 city police. Nearly six thousand arrests were made before order was restored.
Several days later, Governor Agnew summoned leaders of the moderate Black community (who were exhausted from walking the streets trying to calm the insurgents) to the state capitol. Instead of thanking them, as many of the leaders had expected, the governor berated them as cowards who were secretly allied with the criminals and who shared responsibility for what had occurred. Many of those in attendance walked out, and Agnew refused to allow those who remained to explain themselves. According to one of the attendees, city and state officials sat before this group of Black leaders "like a white jury sitting in judgement on the slave folk." Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro issued a public statement condemning Agnew's remarks. African Americans and white liberals despised the speech, but some working-class whites throughout Maryland and indeed the country hailed it. Possessing an obvious penchant for hyperbole, the Baltimore Labor Herald went so far as to call Agnew's comments "one of the outstanding speeches of the century."
Agnew had grown increasingly impatient with Black dissidents ever since a ruckus had broken out in Cambridge, Maryland, the previous summer. That July, violence erupted after H. Rap Brown of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) delivered an incendiary speech that renounced nonviolence in favor of Black power. When Agnew was given a copy of Brown's speech months later, he was appalled by the rhetoric and even more dismayed that Maryland's moderate Black leadership did not share his sentiments. Without any evidence, Agnew believed that Stokely Carmichael was the prime instigator behind the 1968 Baltimore uprising and he accused Baltimore's Black leaders of lacking the courage to condemn him and his destructive agenda. Blaming the upheaval on "outside agitators," Agnew ignored the festering social, economic, and political ills behind the violence. His handling of this situation was indicative of the way the white establishment had historically dealt with Baltimore's Black political leadership in particular and Black concerns in general.
Moreover, by 1968 Agnew was fed up with Black protesters. Case in point: When 450 Black students from historically Black Bowie State College marched on the statehouse to see the governor, demanding improved dormitories and classrooms, Agnew refused to see them and called for the state police. More than two hundred students were arrested. To make matters worse, Agnew ordered the troops to proceed immediately to Bowie State, where they arrived at seven in the evening to shut down the college, giving the remaining students five minutes to vacate their dormitories and leave the campus.
Despite the presence of the NAACP, CORE, and the Urban League, for the most part Black leaders were not taken seriously and Black socioeconomic conditions lagged significantly behind those of whites. For example, while the poverty rate for whites in Baltimore was about 10 percent in 1960, it was roughly three times that for Blacks. In 1960, 5,218 families with nearly 18,000 children were on welfare. Ten years later, 26,666 families with 77,000 children — five times as many — were on the dole. During the 1960s Baltimore was a city in disrepair. Sergeant Roger Nolan, a veteran of the Baltimore Police Department since 1967, explained that when he returned to Baltimore in 1964 after serving four years in the Marine Corps, he saw a city that had been "taken over by heroine ... unemployment in the Black community was high, and it was the first time that I saw abandoned buildings and homes all over the place."
A survey conducted in 1965 found several disturbing patterns concerning the poor and working class in Baltimore. The survey found that the poor belonged to families in which undereducation was a generational pattern, as members dropped out soon after completing elementary school. They felt more oppressed by and suspicious of civilian authorities than helped by them, and they felt underserved in terms of schools, fire protection, sanitation, recreation, health care, and police protection. The point about police protection is especially noteworthy, because from March 1969 to March 1970, violent crime in Baltimore rose 7.3 percent, a development that was not lost on the rest of the country. The Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration ranked Baltimore highest in the nation in violent crime. In 1970, three-fourths of the crimes perpetrated in the state of Maryland took place in Baltimore.
Dr. King's assassination, the inferior status to which Baltimore's Black leadership had been consigned by the white elite, and the deteriorating quality of life for the city's Black residents signaled the decline of the traditional Civil Rights Movement and ushered in an era of greater urgency. Out of this era sprang groups such as the Republic of New Africa, the Soul School, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Baltimore Defense Committee, and of course the Baltimore Black Panthers.
Panthers in Baltimore
Warren Hart, a man considerably older than the typical Panther recruit, founded the Baltimore branch of the Black Panther Party in the fall of 1968, with the branch's first office located in a rowhouse on Eager Street in east Baltimore. Less than a year after Hart opened the office, he was accused of operating the Baltimore branch as a social club. The branch was experiencing financial troubles, money was disappearing from the group's coffers, and records were sloppily kept. Eddie Conway recalls being concerned about how the office was being run and reporting this to national headquarters. Conway said,
the office was not being run in a professional manner. People were entering and roaming about the office without any supervision ... people were having parties, playing loud music ... all of this was taking place on Hart's watch. When I informed national headquarters about these issues, Donald Cox, Henry Mitchell, and a white lawyer named Arthur Turco came to inspect the office in the summer of 1969.
Cox, Mitchell (officer of the day of the Harlem Branch), and Turco showed up unexpectedly on the Fourth of July. Mitch, as Mitchell was affectionately called, recalls the day Cox informed him that he was to accompany Cox and Arthur Turco to Baltimore. Mitch had been helping set up the Brooklyn office when he got a call and was told to return to the Harlem office. Mitch "didn't know what to think," but he kept quiet and followed orders. Mitch remembers that no one spoke for what seemed like an hour as the three drove to Baltimore; he began wondering if he had done something wrong. Halfway there, "DC [Cox] told me that we were going to Baltimore to make sure the office was running properly and that people were doing what they were supposed to be doing."
Excerpted from Comrades by Judson L. Jeffries. Copyright © 2007 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Painting a More Complete Portrait of the Black Panther Party Judson L. Jeffries and Ryan Nissim-Sabat
1. Revising Panther History in Baltimore Judson L. Jeffries
2. Picking Up Where Robert F. Williams Left Off: The Winston-Salem Branch of the Black Panther Party Benjamin R. Friedman
3. Panthers Set Up Shop in Cleveland Ryan Nissim-Sabat
4. Nap Town Awakens to Find a Menacing Panther; OK, Maybe Not So Menacing Judson L. Jeffries and Tiyi M. Morris
5. Picking Up the Hammer: The Milwaukee Branch of the Black Panther Party Andrew Witt
6. "Brotherly Love Can Kill You": The Philadelphia Branch of the Black Panther Party Omari L. Dyson, Kevin L. Brooks, and Judson L. Jeffries
7. To Live and Die in L.A. Judson L. Jeffries and Malcolm Foley
Conclusion: A Way of Remembering the Black Panther Party in the Post
List of Contributors
What People are Saying About This
While most studies of the Black Panthers have concentrated on the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago, with some attention to New York City, Dr. Jeffries and his fellow scholars have provided valuable documentation and interpretation of the Panthers' activities in several other citiesactivities little known outside those communities and not that well known even within them. They have also added considerably to our understanding of the unfortunate racist paranoia that, inspired by deliberate FBI misinformation, so infected our law enforcement agencies during the 1960s and afterward. The volume is an important contribution to our understanding of this unique group and its role within the larger Civil Rights Movement of those years.
The public at large is indebted to Judson L. Jeffries and his contributors. Comrades is a treasure trove of hidden American history. A comprehensive excavation of the buried truth of the War against the Panthersthe war that America lost with itself. Open your eyes and read this book.