The Black Panthers: Revolutionaries, Not Thugs

Given academia’s almost total failure to treat the theme of exploitation and injustice, one could be forgiven for despairing of ever encountering penetrating political commentary in American universities. Happily, however, there are occasional exceptions to this dismal and habitual avoidance, such as Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr’s Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, which rescues memory of that radical organization from demonization and romanticization both.

black_DVFor those who value honesty and analytical rigor over impotent polemics, this book is a treasure. Here, for once, intellectual life is not about other intellectuals, but about real life, in this case ordinary people attempting to overcome extraordinary oppression by taking up arms and dedicating themselves to revolutionary struggle. The printed word counts, but only insofar as it contributes to liberation from empire, both at home and abroad. The posturing and pontification so characteristic of thought-for-thought’s-sake arguments are blessedly absent from these pages.

The book chronicles the early life of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale growing up in Oakland, and how they came together to form the Panthers around the issue of armed self-defense against police violence, which stance resonated so strongly with angry young blacks that the party quickly became national, with thousands of members and a newspaper that reached a circulation of 150,000 at its peak, in addition to multi-racial support from a vast anti-war movement, and important international solidarity from Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, China, Algeria, students in Europe, guerrilla movements in the Middle East, and the African National Congress in South Africa.

Armed self-defense drew enthusiastic support, especially from young urban blacks tired of being manhandled by police. Black armed resistance meant that police could no longer practice brutal ghetto containment policies with impunity. Furthermore, by framing armed self-defense as part of a global anti-imperialist struggle, the Panthers gained backing from other political organizations both black and non-black. These allies gave the Panthers the capacity to mount first-rate legal defenses against the many criminal charges they confronted, and they won many of their cases in court.

Although remembered more for their clashes with police, the Panthers also instituted an astonishing range of community service programs that LBJ’s “Great Society” had no intention of organizing, such as the Free Breakfast For Children Program; liberation schools; free health clinics; the Free Food Distribution Program; the Free Clothing Program; child development centers; the Free Shoe Program; the Free Busing to Prison Program; the Sickle Cell Anemia Research Foundation; free housing cooperatives; the Free Pest Control Program; the Free Plumbing and Maintenance Program; renter’s assistance; legal aid; the Seniors Escorts Program; and the Free Ambulance Program. These efforts, alongside the Panthers’ immense courage in standing up to police brutality, helped the party become the most influential black political organization in the United States by December 1968.

Although black power is typically described as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, it actually pre-dates civil rights efforts. In North Carolina, Robert Williams (“Negroes With Guns”) armed his local chapter of the NAACP and engaged in pitched battles with the KKK in the early 1960s, rejecting the option of non-violent moral witness. Later, the Panthers rejected the facile rhetoric of black inclusion, pointing out that American blacks were not an overlooked minority, but a deliberately subjugated internal colony of U.S. empire.

Moreover, Huey Newton’s analysis of how to deal with U.S. race relations diverged sharply from both that of the establishment and the civil rights movement. The Moynihan Report, issued in 1965 by the U.S. Department of Labor, blamed the social castration of the black man on the presumed pathology of black matriarchal culture. The civil rights movement said unearned suffering was redemptive and urged blacks to turn the other cheek. But Newton asserted a new revolutionary masculinity that blamed oppressive social structures for emasculating black men, and urged men and women alike to retrieve their full humanity by standing up against the oppressive system and destroying it, not by turning the other cheek, which was simply a recipe for a sore face.

However, Newton’s message was not simply directed at his fellow blacks. From the start the Panthers rejected black separatism, while maintaining a principled commitment to black liberation that precluded indulging the kind of meaningless multiculturalism that dominates the contemporary Democratic Party. They clearly understood their need for multi-racial allies, especially progressive whites, and they forged alliances with the latter in opposition to conscription and the Vietnam war. But they broke with patronizing whites, such as they found in the Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party, while deepening the ideological insight of their more open-minded white allies, pointing out that their opposition to the war was as much a declaration of independence from empire as the Vietnamese resistance was.

While he was in prison, Huey Newton explained the role of white allies in building a global revolution: “I personally think that there are many young white revolutionaries who are sincere in attempting to realign themselves with mankind and to make a reality out of the high moral standards that their fathers and forefathers only expressed. In pressing for new heroes the young white revolutionaries found their heroes in the black colony at home and in the colonies throughout the world. The young white revolutionaries raised the cry for the troops to withdraw from Vietnam, hands off Latin America, withdraw from the Dominican Republic and also to withdraw from the black community or the black colony. So you have a situation in which the young white revolutionaries are attempting to identify with the oppressed people of the colonies and against the exploiter.” Newton contended that because middle-class white revolutionaries had no direct experience of class exploitation or racial injustice, their oppression was “somewhat abstract.” But he insisted they had an important role to play in the global revolutionary struggle.

And white allies took up the struggle. As the FBI unleashed COINTELPRO against the Panthers, a program of political murder designed to destroy the party, Panther offices throughout the country were benevolently occupied by white allies, some of them attorneys, who held 24-7 vigils to prevent the Gestapo-style raids, some bringing their bedrolls and sleeping in Panther offices night after night. Allan Brotsky, a lawyer, explained the tactic: “We feel this will be a deterrent to lawless raids by the police on Panther headquarters.”

Had the Panthers really been “just criminals,” they obviously never would have been the target of such state violence, nor would they have been able to mobilize such organizations as the NAACP and the Urban League to protest it on their behalf, which they did. Ralph Abernathy actually joined hands with the Panthers, saying that the “racist justice” that drove MLK into the streets in the South “is now driving us to the streets of the North — New York, New Haven, Chicago, signaling the beginning of the end of the Mitchell-Nixon-Agnew-Thurmond era.” He denounced the jailing of David Hilliard and Emory Douglas, declaring “Southern-style justice has come to New Haven … this is nothing more than legal lynching.” And following the Fred Hampton and Mark Clark assassinations, the director of the Chicago Urban League offered a broadly felt sentiment in the black community: “Whatever the Panthers believe in, they shouldn’t be shot down like dogs in the street.” Even Congressman Edward Koch of New York offered support, saying at an antiwar rally: “I don’t agree with the goals or methods of the Black Panthers, but civil liberties transcend the issue of the Panthers’ goals.”

As the authors peel away layers of myth about the Panthers, one realizes that they were not simply a group of thugs hiding behind a free breakfast program for kids in order to fulfill their penchant for violent crime, as so many people who ought to know better continue to believe to this day. On the contrary, theirs was a genuinely revolutionary organization that achieved considerable popular support, especially among young blacks, based on its accurate perception that the U.S. was an empire whose superficial democratic features in no way altered its subjugating essence. When they claimed common cause with anti-imperial struggles in Vietnam and with draft resisters in the U.S., they set themselves apart from other black rebels of the underclass.

Although the image of the Panthers as a drug-infested, violence-prone organization is widespread, the Party in fact banned the use of drugs, alcohol, or marijuana while conducting Party activities or bearing arms, while insisting that weapons be used only against “the enemy,” not against other black groups. William Brent, who allegedly pulled an $80 hold-up in a Panther distribution truck, was purged from the Party.

Furthermore, the Party’s health care programs included efforts to fight drug addiction. Often directed by former drug addicts who worked with the Panthers, the efforts focused on treatment and rehabilitation. And, as the authors point out, whatever attraction drugs or undisciplined gun-play might have held for party members, political survival was incompatible with drug-beclouded minds and impulsive violence:

“The Panthers could not raise funds, garner legal aid, mobilize political support, or even sell newspapers to many of their allies if they were perceived as criminals, separatists, or aggressive and undisciplined incompetents. The survival of the Party depended on its political coherence and organizational discipline.”

Which is not to say the Panthers were without flaw or contradiction. For example, in spite of its widely celebrated masculine public image, women pretty much ran the party. The community programs of feeding and caring for people were and are largely seen as “women’s work,” and in the Party as in the rest of society women did in fact do most of this work. Sexism was also obvious in the perceived duty of revolutionary women to bear children of revolutionary men, regardless of any other consideration. And Panther communal living arrangements reflected patriarchal bias: women were responsible for housework, birth control, and abortions in “open” relationships with men, as they were for pregnancy and child care.

But the fact that so many women took up the Panther challenge of decolonizing the U.S. empire shows that the Panther mission did not speak only for men, just as it did not speak only for blacks. In fact, it is a vision for all of us, and remains to be achieved forty years later.

Michael K. Smith is the author of The Madness of King George from Common Courage Press. He co-blogs with Frank Scott at Read other articles by Michael.