"The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man. Unless he understands this, he does not grasp the essential meaning of his life." - Huey P. Newton

Panther liberation fire still burns

by Lester Holloway
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SURVIVORS OF AMERICA’S war against black leaders regrouped last week as they marked the Black Panthers 40th anniversary.

The reunion was missing some important names – Fred Hampton, Huey P Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Lil’ Bobby Hutton – the heads of a once-powerful organisation that was decapitated by the state.

With their trademark berets, rifles and revolutionary zeal, the Panthers embodied the black power movement and liberation struggle.

What scared Washington the most, their armed self-defence militancy or their social programmes to fed and clothed poor African-Americans, is open to question.

Whichever it was, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover launched COINTELPRO, a covert counter-intelligence operation followed by wave after wave of arrests and shoot-outs.


The end of the 1960s cops had shot over 20 Panthers dead, including Hampton and Hutton. Others like Newton and Cleaver ended up in exile after being charged with killings themselves.

A long line of tragedies saw the Panthers eventually fold in the mid-80s, long after they had ceased to be a major player.

The days when Cleaver ran for US president, when they fed 10,000 hungry mouths every day with a Breakfast for Children programme, and when armies of uniformed men patrolled neighbourhoods to deter police brutality seem long gone.

Militaristic images now seem frozen in time, overshadowing their extensive social programme that delivered healthcare and education to thousands, and a radical ten-point plan for justice and freedom.

200 or so veterans of the war who gathered in Oakland, California, last week surveyed their legacy and perhaps pondered what could have been if their ideological mission had not been disrupted by the might of government.


Some, like David Hilliard, entered academia to teach a younger generation the ideals and faults of the Black Panthers.
Hilliard was one of the original Panther founders and its chief of staff. He became leader when Newton was arrested in 1968.

He is also lucky to be alive after being ambushed by Oakland police in the same incident that saw Hutton shot ten times despite surrendering with his hands in the air.

The killing occurred just two days after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr.

Hilliard told said that the Black Panthers had lost the propaganda war. ‘Without a doubt victors write the history and we don’t control media. We were a political movement with clinics and educational programmes.

‘It was the government strategy to criminalise our movement and to discredit us. Even the militancy was just self-defence responding to Americas violence.


‘The reunion is not just about celebrating of the existence of the movement. I’m more interested in how we translate that historical phenomenon into something contemporary.

‘Like how do we develop programmes for ex-offenders, housing, education and jobs. I’m about a living organisation, not just nostalgia.’

One of the Panthers great achievements was fusing the political philosophies of Karl Marx, Chairman Mao and William Du Bois with practical and well-organised community outreach social action.

They ran door-to-door tests for Sickle Cell anaemia in an age when the state hardly recognised the condition, delivering groceries to thousands of homes, and persuading local gangs to clean up their act.

Many of the original Panther leadership were students of Malcolm X who broke away because they believed bearing guns was necessary to carry out their programme without interference.

The Panthers burst onto the national consciousness with a regimented march on California’s state capital Sacramento while carrying loaded weapons.

Patrols by armed Panther units achieved instant success with a sudden reduction in police brutality in black neighbourhoods.

But the image that so terrified white America also presented a ready-made excuse for the state to use arms against the Panthers.

Minister Hilary Mohammad, leader of the UK’s Nation of Islam, said: ‘We knew that it would give the government justification to shoot and kill them.

‘The US were threatened by the coming together of black men to protect their community and the emergence of strong black leadership.

‘Forty years ago our organisations were under attack, but what is happening today? The minister Louis Farrakhan is till banned today in Britain. What is this indicative of?’


By 1969, just three years after its birth, America’s war against the Panthers began to divide the organisation.

Not long after Hoover denounced the group as “greatest threat to the internal security of the country”, Hampton was shot in his bed during a police raid.

Fellow Panther Mark Clark was also shot dead. Over ninety bullets were fired in the operation with just one coming from Clark.

After Newton was imprisoned for manslaughter, a conviction later overturned, a dispute flared about whether to allow white people in.

Stokley Carmichael represented one strand of belief encapsulated by a speech when he said: ‘we are to proceed toward true liberation we must cut ourselves off from white people… [otherwise] we will find ourselves entwined in the tentacles of the white power complex that controls this country.’

But others, influenced by Mao’s Red Book which was compulsory reading, saw the Panthers as part of a wider class war.


At the height of their power, the group has 45 chapters and 5,000 dedicated members while their newspaper had a circulation of 100,000.

But as they entered the early 70s the movement faced more strife with dozens of members indicted for murder, many of them trumped-up charges, and Hilliard prosecuted for threatening President Richard Nixon.

An FBI campaign of forged letters widened internal splits between Cleaver and an exiled Newton in Algeria.

Bobby Seale’s bid to become mayor of Oakland, when he came second with 40% of the vote, was one of the last highs before factional fighting and resignations took hold.

The Black Power concept, that empowered and emboldened a whole generation of black people survived, but a structure that allowed young African-Americans to stand up to oppression did not.


Today the New Black Panther Party, led by Malik Zulu Shabazz, carries forward some of the legacy although Hilliard thinks the NBPP have been sold the “militaristic” Panther image but lack the underlining socio-political bedrock.

Hughie Rose, leader of the UK branch of the NBPP, disagrees. ‘We are now standing on the shoulders of these original Panthers.’

He said: ‘A lot of conditions that existed then still exist today, bad housing for our people, bad healthcare, overt and covert racism, and the rise of white supremacists around the world.

‘They wanted to ultimately crush the ideology of the Black power movement but fortunately we’ve been able to re-ignite it again and step back up on that same programme.’

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Black Panthers' legacy at 40

Leslie Fulbright, Chronicle Staff Writer

Former Black Panther Party members plan to reflect on the black power movement, their experiences and their work in the black community when they celebrate the 40th anniversary of the controversial organization's founding Friday through Sunday in Oakland.

The group is known for its involvement in a handful of violent confrontations in the late 1960s, some of which killed both party members and police. Now, surviving former members and associates are working to evoke a more positive image. They point out that an interest in politics, black history and the plight of African Americans led them to form the party in 1966.

"Our legacy is one of social-change activism that was probably one of the most profound grassroots anti-institutionalized racism messages," said Bobby Seale, who together with Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party in Oakland.

"We did things in the community and organized successful programs," Seale said. "It wasn't about guns and hating white folks."

Leaders required party members to volunteer long hours and memorize 36 books on black history and socialism. They served food to hungry children in a 5 a.m. breakfast program in local churches, sold the party's official newspaper, and registered voters. They offered groceries and medical care to the poor, drove people to the hospital in a Panther ambulance and took families by bus to visited incarcerated loved ones.

Several members of the organization -- Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Geronimo Pratt and others -- became infamous when they were arrested on a variety of charges.

At his first trial in connection with the fatal 1967 shooting of a police officer, Newton, who was killed in West Oakland in 1989, was convicted of manslaughter. He was subsequently cleared when juries couldn't reach a verdict in retrials twice.

Cleaver, who served time in prison before joining the party and ran for president in 1968, fled the country after a shootout with Oakland police that killed a young Panther named Bobby Hutton. Cleaver later served five years' probation. He died in 1998. His ex-wife, Kathleen, also a party member, became a law professor.

Murder conspiracy charges against Seale stemming from a 1969 incident in Connecticut were eventually dismissed. And Pratt's conviction in a Santa Monica homicide was overturned in 1997 after he had been incarcerated for 27 years.

Clarence Walker, a professor at UC Davis who specializes in African American history, said activist black organizations in the United States often are seen as militant by the general public because the country has a schizophrenic vision of black people.

"You are either dancing and happy or you are a militant. The Black Panthers represented that phase of black power that believed black people should be armed and defend themselves and turn away from the nonviolent resistance movement," Walker said. "There is this image of them in white America -- as well as some parts of black America -- as a threatening and dangerous thing.

"Then there are a large number of people -- especially in the Bay Area -- who grew up seeing them do good things. There have always been two sides to it."

"We put our theories into practice as teens," said former member Kiilu Nyasha, who lives in San Francisco. "We really felt like we were going to change the world and set about doing it. Our political education classes taught me how ignorant I was, that I only knew European history. The Black Panther program helped me begin to learn."

That makes the continued focus on the group as militaristic even more disturbing, she said. "We were more civil rights than self-defense."

But the image that stuck with many Americans was that of black militants with berets and guns. Stories of Panthers' shootouts with police overwhelmed coverage of their work with the poor, said Seale, who changed the group's name from Black Panther Party for Self-Defense to Black Panther Party because "we got tired of being confused with a paramilitary-type organization."

The party gained international notoriety when Seale and Newton sent armed members to the State Assembly in Sacramento in 1967 to oppose gun restrictions. Several members who walked onto the Senate floor with loaded weapons were arrested for disturbing the peace but not on weapons charges, because they were carrying theirs legally, Seale said.

At its height, about two months after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, the Black Panther Party had 5,000 members in 49 chapters and branches across the country, Seale said. The 1968 confrontation that left Hutton dead, along with other shootouts with Oakland police, caused the negative image, members say. The incidents also brought the federal scrutiny that they say ultimately broke up the party. The FBI infiltrated the Panthers and several other activist groups in its infamous counterintelligence program called Cointelpro, begun in 1967.

"J. Edgar Hoover saw the guns and what we were accomplishing and said the organization was a threat to security, and he told people that we wanted to shoot and kill white people," Seale said. "We were about defending ourselves against white racists."

Seale said that in the 1960s, that primarily meant protecting African Americans from police brutality and the institutionalized racism he says plagued the black community.

"Even though we were doing a lot of things in the community, like running for political office, grassroots organizing, handing out breakfast and offering free preventative medical health care and sickle cell tests, people remain confused to this day," Seale said.

Jamal Joseph, a filmmaker and former member who teaches at Columbia University in New York, said the movement has been criminalized because members believed in the constitutional right to arm themselves.

"We were in a bad position because of class and race, and that is why the party was necessary," he said.

Former Panther Elbert "Big Man" Howard, who met Newton and Seale in 1966 at Merritt College in Oakland, said many people misunderstand the Panthers these days because racism isn't as obvious anymore.

"The local police are observed, so they are not so blatant with their brutality. They let the courts do it now. They lock you up on little or nothing and keep you there forever."

Many of the members hope the reunion will draw young people and inspire them to start social programs or a new activist movement.

"Today's youth have a different mind-set," Howard said. "Social consciousness is the last thing on their agenda."
Panther events

Activities celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Black Panthers' founding in 1966 are set for Friday through Sunday in Oakland. There will be workshops, speeches, films, exhibits, panels and presentations from chapters and branches nationwide. Details available at www.itsabouttimebpp.com. Registration is $50 and includes most activities.

E-mail Leslie Fulbright at lfulbright@sfchronicle.com.