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The Black Panther Party (BPP) seized the attention of America in the frenetic days of the late 1960s when a series of assassinations, discontent with the Vietnam War, and impatience with lingering racial discrimination roiled the United States, particularly its cities. The BPP inspired dread among the American body politic while receiving support from many urban black youths. The images of angry and armed young black radicals in the streets of U.S. cities seemed a stunning reversal and repudiation of the accommodationist and assimilationist black goals associated with Martin Luther King’s movement, as well as an unprecedented defiance of the civil power.
Although many have written about the BPP in memoirs and polemics, Survival Pending Revolution contributes to a new generation of objective, analytical BPP studies that are sorely needed. Alkebulan displays the entire movement’s history: its lofty and even idealistic goals and its in-your-face rhetoric, its strategies, tactics, and the internal divisions and ego clashes, drawing upon public records as well as the memories of both leaders and foot soldiers, to attempt a description that both understands the inner workings of the BPP and its role in the greater society.
|Publisher:||University of Alabama Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
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Survival Pending Revolution
The History of the Black Panther Party
By Paul Alkebulan
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
THE HEIRS OF MALCOLM
It is the wisdom, the strength, and the love for humanity that was Malcolm that was the motivating force in the founding of the Black Panther Party. — Black Panther, May 1969
Malcolm X was the ideological patron saint of the Black Panther Party. It was Malcolm who articulated the party members' doubts about the political affiliations and integrationist orthodoxy of the civil rights establishment. It was Malcolm who provided them with new definitions for politics, race, and self-esteem that were capable of transforming ordinary people into committed activists. It was Malcolm who journeyed to Africa to rekindle lost ties with a new generation of political leaders. Last, it was Malcolm who persuaded some young blacks to believe they should pick up the gun and defend themselves from what they viewed as state oppression.
Malcolm symbolized the individual's capacity for spiritual and mental rejuvenation through self-discipline and active involvement in the civil rights movement. This was especially true because he had overcome drug use and a prison record. His example inspired those from similar backgrounds. Panthers knew that Malcolm's story was in many respects their story as well.
Malcolm X influenced the BPP through four primary beliefs: (1) that African Americans could use arms to achieve political aims; (2) that individuals could achieve spiritual and mental rejuvenation through participation in the movement; (3) that blacks should be open to alliances with other ethnic groups but only on a basis of mutual self-respect; and (4) that the civil rights movement was part of an international struggle against racism and Western capitalism.
This last belief was very complex. On the one hand, it could be utilized to draw spiritual strength for the domestic civil rights movement. This would be in keeping with DuBois' belief that African Americans had a double consciousness. They were American and "Negro." Blacks were not only distinctly American but paradoxically also separate and unique. DuBois argued that blacks wanted to integrate without losing their cultural uniqueness. On the other hand, it could also be used to define American blacks as a domestic colony that could be justified in calling for political independence from the United States.
Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) had endured a childhood of poverty after the death of his father and subsequent mental breakdown of his mother. Malcolm gravitated to the streets of Boston and New York and became a smalltime hustler before being convicted for burglary in 1946. He underwent a spiritual conversion in prison and joined Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam (NOI) in 1948.
Malcolm became a Muslim minister after his release. His hard work propelled him to the status of a trusted aide to Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm was expelled from the organization in March 1964 for questioning Elijah Muhammad's personal ethics. He also chafed under the NOI's noninvolvement policy in the civil rights struggle. Malcolm believed that the Muslims should defend civil rights workers in the South.
He founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) after his expulsion from the NOI. Malcolm claimed that Black Nationalism was his political philosophy, which he defined as blacks controlling the politics and economy of their community to improve material and spiritual conditions. He attributed the social ills of blacks to white racism, a lack of control by blacks over their own affairs, and the allegedly misguided politics of an "integrationist minded" black elite.
Malcolm believed school and housing integration were unrealistic goals for average blacks because whites could successfully resist these attempts by simply moving away. Consequently, blacks would be the majority in most of the communities where they lived. Integration was a chimera if you accepted Malcolm's argument. Self-help was the only option. In other words it was necessary for blacks to be responsible for their own social and political destiny.
Malcolm argued that the nationalist philosophy would "wake up" blacks to their plight and that, once aroused, they would defend themselves against those who sought to abuse them. Malcolm urged his followers to analyze the national liberation struggles in Africa and Asia where independence was obtained through armed struggle. He sought the support of the Organization of African Unity for the American civil rights struggle. Malcolm also attempted to persuade the United Nations to investigate domestic abuse of African Americans.
Malcolm was assassinated in February 1965, and several members of the Nation of Islam were later convicted of the crime. His death was viewed as a great tragedy by many young blacks. They had accepted the Muslim minister as a new type of leader who wanted to broaden the horizons of the civil rights movement by linking it with independence struggles in Africa and Asia. Malcolm and these activists reasoned that linking civil rights with national independence struggles would radically transform the domestic character of the civil rights movement into a revolutionary international human rights struggle.
The American civil rights movement was clearly part of the worldwide struggle for democracy, modernization, and national liberation in the mid-twentieth century. The civil rights movement was able to forge sometimes-tenuous political alliances across racial and ideological barriers. Within the black community the alliance meant that nationalists and integrationists agreed on the need for fundamental civil and political rights.
The nationalists, however, also articulated a message of political autonomy. Thus, the civil rights movement began to assume a dual character. The dominant integrationist ideology defined the struggle as a movement to secure full citizenship rights through legal agitation and mass mobilization. The smaller but extremely vocal nationalist faction encompassed a broad spectrum of individuals and groups struggling for goals ranging from full autonomy to increased political and economic control over the African American community.
The Black Panther Party was initially a radical nationalist movement calling for political autonomy. A significant part of BPP ideology was based on Malcolm X's vision of transforming domestic civil rights struggles into a revolutionary movement through alliances with third-world governments and national liberation movements. BPP central committee member Landon Williams recalled, "We felt ourselves to be the heirs to Malcolm, and I remember Malcolm saying, 'We demand to be treated as a man and a human being in this society right now, and we will have it by any means necessary.' It still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck to hear it or to say it because I still believe it."
The Use of Arms to Achieve Political Aims
The first aspect of Malcolm's influence was the area of self-defense or the use of arms to achieve political goals. The 1964 Harlem and 1965 Watts riots were armed uprisings against police brutality and the lack of economic opportunity. These urban rebellions convinced the BPP and other militant nationalists that blacks were engaged in a struggle for political independence from the United States. The Panthers moved quickly to call for armed struggle and identification with third-world liberation movements.
Even after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, however, urban rebellions did not produce a revolutionary tidal wave around America. Radical groups did, of course, organize. Nevertheless, the widespread destruction in long-established black communities also had a sobering effect on the majority of more moderate (or realistic) blacks. Their moderation helped to channel political dissent into electoral politics. This option was an opportunity to achieve goals peacefully within the existing political system.
Malcolm never gave a definitive answer as to whether arms were to be employed strictly in self-defense or as part of a broader strategy to achieve political autonomy. The lack of clarity reflected uncertainty as to whether blacks were an internal American colony (which presumably meant recourse to an armed struggle) or citizens struggling for long-denied legal rights. If blacks were engaged in a legal struggle to obtain constitutional rights, then a resort to arms would be a dubious proposition. The obvious caveat would be in cases of self-defense.
The example of Robert F. Williams would be an instance on how self-defense tactics could have unintended consequences. Williams had been president of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP. Like many Southern communities, Monroe had been subject to racist terror attacks. Williams had formed an NAACP rifle club to defend the black community against violence from the Ku Klux Klan. The club successfully repelled an armed Klan motorcade in October 1957.
In May 1959, Williams was a courtroom observer when two white men were acquitted of assault against black women. An angry Williams stated: "We must be willing to kill if necessary. We cannot take these people who do us injustice to the court and it becomes necessary to punish them ourselves. In the future we are going to have to try and convict these people on the spot. ... We get no justice under the present system. ... If it's necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must be willing to resort to that method."
Williams was suspended from the NA ACP for his statements. His suspension, however, did not change the highly charged atmosphere in North Carolina. Monroe was the scene of intense racial disturbances in July and August 1961. A series of arsons targeted white and black businesses. Freedom Riders demonstrated against segregation. There were also more armed confrontations between blacks and whites.
During one of these incidents a white couple was driving through the black community. Some of the residents thought the car had been seen earlier, carrying a racist banner. The vehicle was surrounded, and the couple was forced to take shelter in Williams's house before being released. Williams was accused of kidnapping, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He fled to Cuba to avoid the charges.
Williams's supporters applauded him for attempting to defend the community from mob violence. They also attacked the kidnapping charges as a trumped-up prosecution to rid North Carolina of a bold and dedicated civil rights activist.
Williams's activities, however, raised several interesting questions. When and how were arms to be employed in self-defense? Who was to do it? What training should they have? What political groundwork was necessary to prepare public opinion? How do you prepare for the government's inevitable negative reaction? Should you assume government agents would try to infiltrate your ranks?
None of these questions were fully discussed or solved by the nationalist wing of the civil rights movement. At least they were not discussed in public. From December 1963 to February 1965, Malcolm was involved in legal and doctrinal disputes with the NOI, made two overseas trips, gave many speeches throughout the United States, attempted to organize the OAAU, and tried to provide for his family. Not surprisingly, he had little opportunity to provide the public with a practical working demonstration of his platform before he was assassinated.
The ambiguities during Malcolm X's last months did not stop the BPP from claiming what it believed to be his legacy. The party published annual tributes to his life from 1967 through 1971. These epistles discussed international relations, armed struggle, and why blacks should control their community's affairs.
The BPP praised Malcolm for clarifying the Southern and Northern experiences to blacks. They contended that Malcolm showed there was no substantive difference between Northern and Southern racism. The Southern experience was more easily understood because of its blatant racism. The subtler but equally effective tactics of political gerrymandering and community redlining characterized the Northern experience. The Panthers maintained that Malcolm was owed a debt of gratitude for his contribution. They argued that blacks could pay the debt by engaging in a revolutionary struggle for self-determination.
Spiritual and Mental Rejuvenation
The second aspect Malcolm influenced was the idea of renewal through struggle. Many young blacks, in a manner typical of youth, were looking to infuse their lives with purpose. Carrying on in the footsteps of Malcolm was portrayed as a worthy endeavor. These messages were powerful recruiting tools for the Panthers, and they found a willing audience amid the turmoil of the 1960s. Youth throughout the country rallied to the party banner as "freedom fighters." Articles filled the pages of the Black Panther in 1968 that called for blacks to fulfill their "revolutionary duty."
Bobby Seale and Huey Newton also studied Mao Zedong and Frantz Fanon. Mao was recognized as a leader of a national liberation movement and as someone who had stood up to American power in Asia. Fanon was a psychiatrist from the French West Indies and a World War II veteran. He had joined the Algerian National Liberation Front during Algeria's struggle for independence.
Fanon argued that revolutionary violence would rehabilitate the personality of oppressed people as well as liberate their countries. Embracing violence would allow the dispossessed to recover their human dignity through the struggle because they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Newton and Seale accepted Fanon's arguments and incorporated them into Malcolm dictum that blacks should defend themselves against mistreatment and protect their political rights by any means necessary.
The Panthers also believed that African Americans were an internal colony of the United States and were fighting for national liberation. They urged sympathetic whites to assist them by staging a revolution in the larger society. The Panthers believed they were carrying Malcolm's arguments to their logical conclusion by adopting this colonial analogy. The Panthers thus justified their political position in the classic terms of a national liberation struggle.
Newton and Seale agreed with Malcolm and Fanon's assertion that the underclass was capable of being redeemed through revolutionary action. This was significant because the party's founders were convinced their young organization should be based on this social group. Newton and Seale argued that these men were the most fearless members of the community because of their frequent encounters with the police.
Other activists disagreed with this formulation, however. Writer Earl Ofari argued that the BPP leadership failed to recognize that the majority of blacks were workers. Ofari maintained that any successful social movement (revolutionary or not) should start with workers and their concerns, that is, jobs, education for their children, dignity, and quality of life. The party's leadership consciously made the black underclass the focus of their organizing efforts. Ofari did not believe the underclass was capable of generating "enough internal discipline and cohesion to organize a structure capable of providing leadership for the black community."
Ofari noted that the problem with the underclass was that one could never be sure of the group's loyalty. Like the black elite they were capable of being "revolutionary" one day and working in some government-funded community program the next day. Their "ideological" positions tended to be based on immediate advantage or emotionalism.
Ofari believed this decision could inhibit the intellectual and political growth of the BPP because the underclass would prove to be incapable of successfully building the long-term intergroup alliances that would ground them firmly in the most productive part of the African American community. As it would turn out, redemption for individual members of the underclass would be more probable than redemption for a whole social class.
The first issue of the BPP newspaper maintained that whites had instilled fear into blacks to keep them from organizing to achieve their legal rights. The police were described as an occupying army in the black community that enforced the larger society's illegitimate rule. The BPP believed the only way to remove the black communities' fear was to confront the police with arms.
There was, however, a contradiction between the party's means and ends. None of the BPP's original ten-point program and platform was revolutionary in the sense that it demanded a change of government.
Excerpted from Survival Pending Revolution by Paul Alkebulan. Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations xvii
The Heirs of Malcolm 8
Survival Pending Revolution 27
Regional Development of the Black Panther Party 46
Enemies of the People 77
Women and the Black Panther Party 98
Decline and Fall 117
Bibliographic Essay 157
Selected Bibliography 167