400 Years Blog #40  – Radicalism is Relative 

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In the context of centuries of brutal oppression, the Black Panther Party (BPP), founded in 1966, does not seem so radical. Since no more than six Black people served as U. S. Representatives at any one time between 1877 and 1969, Black citizens couldn’t rely on conventional politics. White racism was still powerful. In April 1965, crosses were burned in front of 25 Black homes in integrated Detroit neighborhoods. Black communities suffered poverty, desperation, and harsh treatment by police.

When Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, legally bearing arms, began showing up to witness police stops of young black men, many whites were terrified. While American militarism, arms manufacturers, and gun advocates promote weapons as patriotic, Panthers were labeled extremists. The Providence Journal-Bulletin called the BPP an “organization based on racial hostility…a mirror image of the Ku Klux Klan.”  The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover called the Panthers “without question…the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” 

Many young Black Panthers made mistakes. Prof. Peniel E. Joseph and others document the chaotic management, sexism, strong-arming, and cavalier violence that made them easy targets for the FBI.  Nevertheless, historian Yohuru Williams and co-author Brian Shih call the Black Panthers “one of the most misunderstood organizations of the twentieth century.”

Media sources said they peddled “race hatred.” Bobby Seale countered vehemently explaining, “that is the Ku Klux Klan’s game…. We hate the oppression we live in!  We hate cops beating black people over the heads and murdering them. That’s what we hate!” In fact, the BPP was “the only major Black Power organization to openly align itself with whites,” according to Prof. Joseph. Panther Fred Hampton called for a “rainbow coalition” and alliances with diverse organizations. The Party even met with the rightwing confederate Young Patriot Organization, both groups calling for economic justice to fix a broken system.

President Johnson’s Kerner Commission admitted that the broken system contributed to widespread urban riots.  Yet “law and order” campaigns criminalized being black and fostered the prison-industrial complex. As Eldridge Cleaver put it, Black people were the “chief domestic victims of the social order,” colonized by “an oppressive white society.” In retrospect, the BPP, while young and impulsive, now seems a measured response.  As Prof. Williams puts it, it was inspired by the “complex mix of trauma and love.”

  • Lesson #199: To repeat, in the context of centuries of brutal oppression, the Black Panthers do not seem so radical.
  • Lesson #200: After witnessing continuous incidents of harsh police tactics, particularly the shooting of young black men based merely on suspicion, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton decided to shadow police cars and monitor police radios. They arrived at the scene of police confrontations with Black people as witnesses.  Although Seale and Newton were armed, they carried guns legally and stood at a distance as requested by police.
  • Lesson #201: The Providence Journal-Bulletin called the Panthers “a mirror image of the Ku Klux Klan,” eerily similar to how President Trump equated white supremacists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville two years ago by saying that there “were very fine people on both sides.”
  • Lesson #202: The Black Panther Party grew so quickly that there was little screening process for membership. As a result it was harder to maintain norms of behavior or coordinate consistency policy across the nation.
  • Lesson #203: The Black Panther Party joined and organized many diverse coalitions working to support people of color and poor people of all races.
  • Lesson #204: The Black Panther Party ten-point program is sweeping in its scope demanding freedom, employment, education, housing, justice, health care, and an end to reliance on violence through police repression, the criminal justice industry, and war.  See the entire program here.

 

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