Prison Radio
Mumia Abu-Jamal

The Black Panther Party, the Reign of Youth.  For many people, while the name Black Panther Party may be familiar, few facts beyond it are. There may be some hazy familiarity with the black and white posters of two young armed black men, clothed in leather jackets and black berets, or the image of a man sitting like a black warrior chief, a rifle in one hand, a spear in the other.

For a generation of black men and women, Those posters were taped to the walls of their homes, and more importantly, on the walls of the offices in which they worked. Offices of the Black Panther Party in over 40 states across America.  For them, the Black Panther Party was a central theme in their lives.

For in those few short years, they learned lifelong lessons of service to their people and how the real world works. They were, more often than not, teenagers between the ages of of 15 and 19, and many were high school dropouts who were drawn to the gritty reality of a life lived in the revolution, then the illusory world of school, which often was perceived as a place of indoctrination rather than education.

For most of us, the Civil Rights Movement is far more familiar, for it projects a vision of America that is far more palatable than that of the Black Liberation Movement, which was seen as the unwelcome stepchild of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, many people came out of the Civil Rights Movement, and disillusioned by the anemic rate of change, were attracted to the revolutionary energy of the Black Liberation Movement.

The Black Panther Party was a part of that movement. Formerly organized by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale on September 11th, 1966 in Oakland, California, Newton and Seale were 24 and 29 years old, respectively. Seale was an Oakland anti poverty worker. Newton was a student at Oakland’s Merritt Junior College.

Kathleen Neal Cleaver, who served on the party’s central committee, was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, and also a college student. During this same period, two young men in Chicago, Illinois, Fred Hampton and Bobby Rush, were members of the NAACP Youth Wing, but felt themselves attracted to the dynamism and militancy of the BPP.

They would found the Illinois chapter of the organization.  What was the party? It was, in fact, several different groups over its long life. Many scholars have opined that the group was nationalist, revolutionary nationalist, revolutionary internationalist,  intercommunalist, and electoral. That is to say, it went through these many phases of development as a response to internal and external influences and pressures.

Gender dynamics in the party.  Most who have commented on the gender dynamics in the BPP comment not from knowledge, but from conjecture. For while it is uncontroverted  that the Black Liberation Movement, and also the Civil Rights Movement, by the way, was deeply sexist in orientation, It’s easy to assume that the BPP followed suit on this question, in point of fact, by its rhetoric, its rules, and to a lesser extent, its internal practice.

It was far less sexist than its competitors and opponents in both movements, and indeed, in the most advanced sectors of the white radical anti war and student movement as well.  Party chairman Bobby Seale noted that in the year following the organization’s founding, or 1967, women constituted 60 percent of the membership.

This is not to suggest, by any stretch of the imagination, that the party was somehow free of sexism. It was not, but it consciously, politically, and by internal regulation and practice struggled to address and resolve such questions at a time when their political competitors were quite retrograde on this and related issues. 

As much as we now seem to valorize the civil rights era, we ignore the simple fact that leadership was mostly male. And moreover, was itself based on the infrastructure of the black church, which is itself profoundly sexist and conservative in its orientation.  When one is asked about women in the civil rights movement, it is a fair guess that two names will undoubtedly emerge.

The late Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks comes to mind. It should not surprise us that Coretta, an able, educated woman, is best known as the spouse and later widow of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mrs. Parks is known, if at all, as the woman who was sick and tired of going to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Interestingly, most mainstream reportage of Mrs. Parks excludes her long membership and activism. In civil rights organizations like the NAACP, and by so doing, elides her agency as a central figure, who wasn’t a bystander of history. But a maker of it in the party, as I discuss in chapter seven of We Want Freedom, a life in the Black Panther Party, women were central to the work, organizing, maintenance and leadership of the party for a time.

A young woman, Elaine Brown, was the undisputed leader of the party for several years and ran the group with political savvy intelligence.  That fact does not comport with the popular notions of the party, particularly as projected by the corporate media, the life of a Panther. In a way that is increasingly difficult to relate, that is, to present day youth, the daily life of a Panther was unremitting work, work, work.

And given the nominal socialist orientation of party membership, this was work given freely by young men and women who deeply internalized the principle of working for the people. What that meant, in concrete terms, was leadership staffing offices, members giving daily service at the breakfast programs, where Panthers fed hundreds of kids every school day.

In the mornings, members staffing free health clinics or gathering the resources needed to keep such programs running. For many Panthers, it meant spending 10 plus hours a day selling the Black Panther, the party’s weekly paper, which provided funds to both the local and national offices. It meant often going to trouble spots to rap with gang members and leaders.

Or, To protect blacks threatened by racist violence from white neighbors. It also meant, inevitably, conflicts with the state, arrests, beatings, and sometimes death. This was, for most people, a labor of love provided by people who saw no other alternative.  In a time when presidents, presidential candidates, and civil rights leaders, I speak here of John F.

Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., were publicly assassinated, revolution was as near as the next morning sunrise. So, despite the internal disarray, despite police intimidation, despite the looming threat of nuclear war, despite fear, bone aching tiredness, hunger, all of these things, Hope propelled thousands of young people forward, the hope of revolution, the hope of black liberation, the hope of freedom and independence for millions of black people.

Today, many people who are now in various fields of endeavor, from city council to the congress, from the ghetto street corner to the halls of academia, trace their awakening. To the Black Panther Party. They continue to do what they do today because of the lives they lived and the lessons they learned generations ago, the party ends.

The party lasted formally from 1966 to 1982  when it ceased operations in Oakland, California, where many party members converged to help in the party’s electoral phase to support seals. Unsuccessful 1973 Mero campaign.  In order to run in staff, such a campaign members came from all across the country.

Some closing local offices seal would resign from the party a year later. It was difficult to come back to local chapters and branches after such closings and some chapters never reopened. While it is undoubted that hostile external forces contributed to the party’s demise internal. And even personality conflicts also did considerable damage.

The party’s infamous split circa 1971 can now be traced in retrospect to ego conflicts between minister of defense Huey P. Newton and minister of information Eldridge Cleaver. While that conflict was expressed in ideological and political terms, the FBI successfully manipulated these conflicts. Through brown mail or false letters sent to people to influence their perceptions and behaviors.

Yet the fact that the party existed at all in the face of vociferous and sometimes violent government opposition and repression, and at times thrived, is a testament to the will of black young people who wanted to create change in the lives of their people. Now that we remember them, today is a measure of their work.