The roots of the Black Panther Party

Your book Living for the City covers the political economy, demographics, and culture of Oakland, California, in the 1960s to explain the rise of the Black Panthers. Can you talk about the southern migration to Oakland and the other features that shaped the creation of the Panthers?

My book is called Living for the City, but it could almost be called Why Oakland? because I was living in Oakland in the 1990s, which I knew was the home of the Black Panther Party, but what I saw was a whole portion of the history that I’d never seen written down. Oakland was a profoundly Southern place. In the late 1990s, I attended a conference in Houston and spent time in “The Nickel,” which is an historic Black district. I was amazed that the accent there was almost identical to the accent I was hearing in Oakland, which made me curious. Everything I’d read about the Panthers in the past was that they were a quintessential Black urban formation that defined itself against the South and against nonviolent civil disobedience. But the reality of what I was seeing on the ground was that Oakland was a southern place and it was literally a place of transplantation from East

Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. I found out that the migration was very recent, that it was overwhelmingly World War II migrants, and that the culture of the rural South, particularly Louisiana, was really important to the formation of the Panthers.

You explore in your book and public talks the relationship between the popularized imagery of the Panthers carrying guns and their southern roots, but you also explain that this image of gun-carrying, black leather clad, young Black men and women was not necessarily generalized throughout the organization or even throughout the life of the Oakland Panthers, and for many this wasn’t the dominant impression of or attraction for many inside the community.

When I was researching this in the early 2000s, there wasn’t very much published on the Panthers, so I was writing about the home of the Panthers that really dominated the Party nationally. The culture and particularities of Oakland influenced what the Panthers became nationally. I found that when the Panthers spread to the East Coast they looked different, New York being the best example, since it’s a megacity with a huge and diverse population, including among Black people, and it also has a much older and more established middle class. There’s a disjuncture that happens when a party forms in a particular place and spreads elsewhere to larger cities. Certainly, COINTELPRO, the FBI, and law enforcement’s attempts to disrupt the Party are very, very important, but I don’t think it’s only about that. I also think it’s about geographic variations and differences in the Black communities. 

Whenever you start to talk about establishing a national framework of a movement that starts in a particular place you often see these tensions, different political economies and different histories of these communities. The gun laws, for example, are so different. New York looks at Oakland as very foreign, and to this day friends of mine who advocate Black power, friends of our generation, they make fun of the Panthers because in New York they thought that  the Panthers were crazy marching around with loaded rifles. That’s crazy, they think, and that reflects a difference of culture but also more specifically the gun laws. California is a Western state, central to its economy is ranching, and it had very liberal gun laws, as did the South, so that’s one of the examples I would use. I think there’s a misperception of Oakland. Police are bad in Oakland, but the truth is Oakland is not Babylon—Los Angeles is Babylon. New York and Chicago, too. The places where the Panthers faced the worst repression were the biggest cities. 

The concept of a Black Panther Party didn’t originate with the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, but with SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] in Lowndes County [Alabama] in 1966. The earliest Black Panther Party in the North that I’ve been able to find is the New York Black Panther Party, formed six months before the Oakland chapter, but it’s immediately infiltrated—some people are from Malcolm X’s Organization for African American Unity—and it’s under surveillance. That chapter dissolved within a year. Max Stanford from Revolutionary Action Movement, a kind of interesting group of Black nationalists and Black leftists in New York, formed this organization that doesn’t survive. You see the sprouting up of many Panther formations around the country, but the only one that really thrives is in Oakland, a medium-sized city with a comparatively homogeneous Black population that’s firmly rooted in southern migrant culture, which helps the Party take root there. 

Many people would be quite surprised to hear that the Oakland Panthers grew out of a study group, the Afro-American Association. What were they reading and who were they talking to and debating politics with that influenced them? 

I first found out about the Afro-American Association from Panther memoirs—and this is an example of historical erasure. People had only talked about the Panthers’ formation in their opposition to cultural nationalism and the Afro-American Association, yet the founders had once been members. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had been part of the group and split from the root. If you think of politics as a tree growing from a common root, there are branches that come off of it and diverge, which I think is quite important. I found that many people had been connected to the Afro-American Association, including many who opposed each other in the late sixties, were members of the same study group in the early sixties. Everyone from Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to Maulana Karenga, who founded the US Organization, which had a deadly shootout with the Panthers at UCLA in 1969 where two Panthers were killed—Bunchy Carter and John Huggins—which is one of the more surprising examples. But also Ron Dellums, who becomes a Congressperson in the seventies, was affiliated with the group as well. So you have the three major strands of Black power: the cultural nationalists, the Panthers, and those who looked to electoral politics, including Elihu Harris, the second Black mayor of Oakland, who was a high-school student participant in the Afro-American Association.

The problem is that the Afro-American Association didn’t save their archives, so I had no collection to review, but I was helped in the endeavor to find out more about them by Robert Chrisman—rest in peace—a founder of the The Black Scholar, who put me in touch with Ernie Allen, who was also a member of the West Coast Revolutionary Action Movement [RAM]. One of the most interesting things about the Bay Area in the early sixties is you had all these leftist formations: some coming out of the Revolutionary Action Movement, who considered themselves Marxist-Leninist, and the broad range of cultural nationalists, electoralists, those self-consciously identified with the Left, and the Black nationalists. So it’s sort of a revolutionary nationalist organization, although the founder Donald Warden is really quite conservative—he now works for Saudi oil interests. But it’s one of those interesting parallels, as I see it, with what’s going on in the anti-colonial movement where people see themselves as marginal and look to Cuba, to Congo, to Patrice Lumumba, but they all represent different tendencies.

What were the origins of the Panther’s Ten Point Program?

That is a story that remains to be fully told. There are disparate elements that influence Panther ideology. It’s important to remember that the Panthers were really young. These were high school and community college students coming from working-class families, many of them coming from the rural South, like Huey Newton’s family with five or six years of education; so these are the first people in their families to attend high school, much less college or university, or ultimately get a PhD, like Huey Newton.

It’s eclectic. There are elements from the Declaration of Independence, there are elements of socialism arguing for full employment, and there are elements of Black nationalism. They ask themselves what Malcolm X would have done, they’re trying to imagine what he would have done if he’d lived past February of 1965. I also know from the Panther archives that they were reading early Immanuel Wallerstein and world systems theory, which influenced their ideas about intercommunalism. Also William Patterson. So they read a lot of things from the Left, but they also read stuff that was not from the Left. These are young people who are creating politics as they themselves are politicized. So that dynamic of the study group is important historically, but it’s also important in understanding the relationship between theory and practice. 

Initially it was very frustrating to me sitting in the Panther archives reading Huey Newton’s papers, I expected something much more polished. But I realized these were very young people experimenting with ideas, which I think is very important. My book is a social history and also an observation. There are people who see the Panthers as a model for organizing. I don’t think I would do that. Of course, I’m a scholar, but I don’t think I’d use them as a model. I think they reflect a particular moment, and we can draw lessons from the things that they did successfully, but there are many things they did unsuccessfully.

What do you see as the Panthers’ biggest success?

Their sheer brilliance and use of political education. The crowning glory of Living for the City is the idea of political education, especially the political education of non-elites. When I lived in Oakland I experienced something hard to put into words, there is a very deep political culture, but it’s not the culture of elites, it’s not the culture of people who’ve gone to Columbia University, as is often represented as the history of the New Left. It came out of the rural South, a very different culture of intellectualism. 

They created a really profound newspaper, they created one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, Emory Douglas, who was there from the beginning. His art is thoroughly a reflection of politics, he sees himself as a political person rather than an abstract artist. Once I was at one of his book signings and a curator there asked him who his intellectual influences are as an artist, and Douglas became very angry. He said my influence is the Cuban Revolution. 

The way they provided a framework for the depth of intellectualism and political consciousness was important. The were able to use the carrying of a gun and a law book, from following the police around to informing people of their legal rights—constitutionalism, if you will—to publishing a newspaper, to providing free breakfast programs, where along with being given something to eat the children were introduced to the ideas of the Party. And in the 1970s, they ran candidates in electoral campaigns. Even though they said they wanted to win in Oakland and Chicago, the real goal was to disseminate the ideas of the Party.

What about their failings?

Their biggest failing was their authoritarianism. You and I have talked about the limits of how they used democratic centralism, and one of the things that happens in the Party is that, faced with repression, the leadership becomes divorced from the rank and file. The leadership was sent to prison. That separation between a leadership in jail and the rank and file outside led to a disjuncture. Huey Newton’s release from jail in 1970 means he comes out and sees an organization that goes from a network of friends and family to an organization of 5,000 members. That disjuncture allowed Huey Newton to be turned into a god and we all know the danger of turning anyone into a god—that never ends well. Their democratic centralist structure allowed for no leadership accountability, so when the leadership became authoritarian there was no way to stop them. And they needed to be stopped.

I’m also very careful about judging them. They were very young and what they did with the resources they had I could never do, it was remarkable. I’m hesitant to sit in judgment of them. 

I also think the nature of state surveillance and repression is important. After the scandal with Richard Aoki, the first Japanese member of the Black Panther Party, [scholars] estimate there were up to 700 informants at the height of the Panthers.* The United States is very different in fact than the way it represents itself to be. If you cross a line, they [the state] try and crush you, and the Panthers obviously crossed that line. 

That raises an interesting question about something you’ve spoken and written about regarding the famous line from FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, that the Panthers were “the most dangerous threat to the internal security of the country.” You say that he was responding to their social initiatives like the free breakfast program. Could you talk about that?

The famous quote from Hoover is made in 1968, precisely at the time when the Panthers are turning away from armed struggle. They were still amassing weapons, but confrontation with police patrols was being phased out and had been illegal since May 1967, so Hoover says this at the time they’re setting up the breakfast program. There’s a great deal of anxiety in the FBI about creating self-reproducing radical institutions. They were worried about the Panthers transmitting these ideas to young people and building a sustained radical Black Marxist opposition to the state. The things that will trigger that level of state repression are not always clear.

These breakfast programs and freedom schools were largely run by women of the Panthers who came to be the majority of the Party. Please talk about the role of women in the Party.

Women are especially important after 1968, when the Panthers turn from police patrols to breakfast and education programs. Very rapidly, the number of women begins to rise. It’s a complicated chicken or egg question, whether they turned to breakfast and education programs because of an influx of women or if the women joined in greater numbers due to the programs. I think there’s still more research to be done about women in the Party. 

In the march on Sacramento for armed self-defense, there were five women present, so  women were involved in armed self-defense. I often get questions about carrying guns being about men oppressing women. There’s something to be said about men, masculinity, and guns, but there are also women who carried guns and who were part of the underground, Assata Shakur being the most important. Some of our conceptions of what women are supposed to be like are flouted by the Black Panther Party. One of the interesting things is they’re so influenced by Cuban revolutionary ideas and Third World Marxism, so images of women like Emory Douglas’s, of a woman carrying a baby with a rifle on her back, is an iconic female image in the Panther Party. That to me is important because it shattered what femininity is. 

One reason women become more powerful in the Party after 1968 is that as a result of the repression all three major male leaders are in prison or exile. Huey Newton is in prison on a capital murder charge, Bobby Seale is jailed and tried in Chicago, while Eldridge Cleaver leaves in 1968 and remained in exile, so there is a convergence between state repression and the rise of women in the Party, but they also join in larger numbers. There’s also a lot of middle-class Black women who go into the Party, and I’ve always thought there was something very interesting about the class dynamic of the Party. The women tended to come from more elite backgrounds— not all but some. And that’s definitely true of Kathleen Cleaver, but other women as well. 

This may intersect with my own interests as a scholar. I have many female friends writing about state violence today, and I’m struck by the fact that both in protests in the street and in the academy the leaders are mostly women. Even though the Panthers are associated with iconic Black male imagery, women played a really important role. Seeing elite women drawn into the Party is interesting because it didn’t happen with elite Black men. I’m wondering if some of the attraction to the Black Panther Party has to do with the different ways men and women are radicalized. I don’t mean to make any huge generalizations about gender, even though I’m just about to, but I think women are less identified with the repressive state, including today. 

I’ve long been curious about the solidarity statement Huey Newton put out after the Stonewall rebellion in June 1969. In 1970 he said, as you know, “Homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. Maybe they might be the most oppressed people in the society.” This is pretty extraordinary for the time. What, if any, ripple effects did this have inside the Party?

That’s a really great question and I wish I knew more about the reception of Newton’s statement inside the Party, but I haven’t researched it. One thing I do know is the backlash discourse which is commonly heard in Oakland. A lot of people attribute it to Huey’s time in jail. There’s a whole homophobic discourse about his time in jail, becoming a punk, and out of this finding identification with the gay rights movement. What he did in making that statement was really brave; I also think that there were very material ties between the gay radicals, as they were called, and the Party in the Bay Area. He makes an overture to both the gay and women’s movements and that reflects who some of the Panthers’ allies were.

Which raises a larger question about the allies of the Panthers. Much of the their conflict with cultural nationalism, you’ve argued, has to do, at least in part, with the cultural nationalists’ refusal to collaborate with non-Black forces. How would you describe the Panthers’ approach to multicultural, multiracial movements and forces? Where did white working class people fit into their revolutionary perspective?

The Panthers believed in solidarity and their politics were based on political ideas. It’s impossible to separate out the anti-colonial struggles and the movement against the Vietnam War. The Black Panther Party is formed in 1966 when Newton and Seale are hanging out in Berkeley, one of the national centers of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and especially the radical wing of it. There’s a bring-our-boys-home wing—“The Deer Hunter” thread—that saw Vietnam as destroying white male youth. But there’s also a very strong wing of the movement that identifies with the Northern Vietnamese, that sees the United States as a colonizer, so in the same way that African Americans had a domestic battle against the United States, the Vietnamese had a battle against the external colonizer—first France and then the US.

To bring that back to the Panthers’ vision of solidarity, they choose that image of the pig to delegitimize law enforcement, and Huey Newton talks in incredibly interesting and insightful ways about delegitimizing the state that are nonracial. They purposely chose the pig because they didn’t see it as a racial symbol. The ironic part is that now the way it’s been appropriated and used—Forrest Gump is the worst example—“pig” has become almost a “reverse racist” way of some Blacks talking about whites. They purposely chose a nonracial image because they understood that they were facing repression from law enforcement in the same ways the movement against the Vietnam War was facing repression, and they had a lot of white, antiwar support. 

For them, their primary relationship to other groups was their shared politics. At the center of those politics was fighting against imperialism, stopping state violence, supporting a redistributive state, supporting full employment, and seeing education and housing as human rights. In terms of the white working class, the Panthers allied themselves with the Patriot Party, especially in Chicago. I don’t know if for them it was so much identification with the white working class as with radicals who shared the same principles about opposition to imperialism and support for a radical redistributive state. 

When you look at images of the Panthers speaking at protests or before large crowds, a fairly substantial number of their audiences were white. The image one often gets of that collaboration is of white financial support and whites as junior partners in their alliances. How would you describe the dynamic?

That’s interesting, and more needs to be written about the allies—or I should say solidarity, because I do want to contrast that with the concept of allyship we see today. 

Why so?

The Panthers felt strongly that political ideology mattered. Politics was at the center. Not everyone in the Party was a Marxist, but the leadership embraced Marxism. Even more important to them than Marxism is anti-imperialism, so I think they felt a sense of solidarity and kinship with those who opposed the state in the ways that they did. The way I see that differently from allyship is that—now let’s be clear, they were an all-Black organization. They had a couple of Japanese members and a few Armenian members, but it was really only an organization for Black people. At the same time, their relationship to other groups was focused on how to build solidarity, but I do think it’s fair to say that they treated other groups as junior partners.

They basically physically threatened and kicked out the Northern California Black Panther Party, which was related to the West Coast RAM, (Revolutionary Action Movement). They literally shut them down, they were very aggressive. That’s one of the reasons they were successful. They were very aggressive toward a lot of people, including their allies, so I think it’s true that they often subordinated other groups to themselves. Other groups also wanted to be subordinate because the Panthers represented such a compelling vision. But there wasn’t a sense of antagonism. The Panthers were very confident. 

The way that allies are talked about and treated today is as if we let them into our organizations they’re going to take us over. I don’t think the Panthers were worried about that, they were so forceful and were very strategic about trying to marshal resources and people towards their goals. And honestly, I like that much better. I think that’s the way political organizations should operate. I used to use the word “allies,” but now I’m hesitant to use it because it’s taken on a whole other meaning. To me, it’s very useful to figure out the politics that are shared and work out how to mobilize on that basis.

What thoughts do you have about the power, legacy, and lessons of the Panthers that we could draw on for struggles and organizing today?

The Panthers were very concerned with post-industrialization and the transformation from an industrial economy to a post-industrial one. This is no accident, since they were the children of migrants who came for defense jobs in World War II. Their parents were working in shipyards that were producing “liberty ships,” centrally, personnel transporters. When the war was over, unlike in LA and Seattle/Tacoma, this whole industry in Oakland goes belly up. 

That experience of Southern migrants who come to the Bay Area and get high-paying jobs, what Robert Weaver describes as the biggest increase in Black opportunity since Emancipation, and then their parents lose their jobs. There was a real awareness of this and interest in left politics and post-working-class formation. They wanted to know what you do when you have populations without steady jobs that can’t be easily organized. This intersects with concerns of today about precarity. I started researching all of this fifteen, twenty years ago when people were not talking about precarity. That term has really come into parlance in the last ten years, but they were dealing with that then, and it continues to be an interest of mine. 

The other thing is the role of the carceral state. The term a few years back was not very common and there really wasn’t an analytic frame to think about it a few years ago. A big part of my argument in Living for the City is how the state of California responds to this unprecedented Black migration by criminalizing the children. It’s not just about police brutality—which is often used as an umbrella term to talk about state violence—but it’s something much broader. You have people migrating to California seeking opportunity, and what they’re met with is a sudden transformation of the state as they arrive because they’re seen as social dysfunction. They’re seen as economic threats, especially after World War II when their labor is no longer needed.

This transformation of placing police into schools, what’s called today the school-to-prison pipeline, I saw in the late forties and fifties when Black children were seen as threatening. They are seen as a demographic threat, and I use that term with the self-awareness of all the things that means. That’s another lesson I learned from studying the Panthers, the transformation of the welfare state to something increasingly focused on incarceration. I’m currently writing about the period after the Black Panthers because, in order to understand this period, we need to understand the escalation of policing and the rising carceral state. 

*    Richard Aoki joined the early Black Panther Party and was eventually promoted to the position of Field Marshal. After his death it was proved that he was a government informant. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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