Black Panthers

One of the most controversial radical black organizations that emerged in the back half of the nineteen-sixties was the Black Panthers. While historical accounts are not nearly as negative toward the Black Panther Party as the media or the authorities were during the nineteen-sixties, it is nevertheless clear that some of their negative depictions stuck, as they are still generally portrayed as a violent and perhaps even dangerous organization. Looking at accounts by authors from a minority background, we get a good impression of the other side of the debate. This reveals that the Black Panthers were not so much a radical separatist movement, but rather a community organization that really improved living conditions in African American neighborhoods. This more positive interpretation comes not just from Eldridge Cleaver, who was an important figure in the movement himself, but also from Baldwin and Deloria, who were far from related to the movement. Somewhere between these highly praising accounts and the negative portrayals, there must be some middle ground that gets at the reality of the Black Panthers: an organization that put up a confrontational attitude, but was rather harmless in their actual behavior.

A Panther on the Panthers
Eldridge Cleaver gives a fairly detailed account of what happened to the Black Panthers in Soul on Fire, which is interesting, because although his views had shifted considerably at that point, he still looks back on their achievements positively. Even though they were radical and militant, they were not necessarily violent and a lot of what they did actually focused on helping black communities. In fact, they were formed mostly in the context of police violence and started by putting patrols on white police officers, which made the police furious but also got them “respect and admiration of millions of blacks for having the guts to face up to these bullies” (Cleaver Soul on Fire 26). Nevertheless, this upset the authorities and soon their movement “became the target, the lightning rod, for every shock wave that bounced back from a threatened white power structure” (Soul on Fire 26), as persecution increased.

‘The media presented them as cutthroats and outlaws.’

The FBI came after them with full force and “no one seemed to care a flick about the life, limb, or security of black people, especially if you were a young, black, ghetto-bound person, and very especially, if you were a member of the Black Panthers” (Soul on Fire 29). The media had a part in this as well, presenting them “as cutthroats and outlaws, taunting the police and disturbing the peace” (Soul on Fire 30), which was particularly jarring given that most deaths were on their side and they had actual reason to fear for their lives. Furthermore, Cleaver dispels the notion that their formation was radically different from the established status quo. Not only did they fill a leadership vacuum (Soul on Fire 117), people also based their views of the Black Panthers on misconceptions about the United States. As Cleaver points out, “many people have the idea that, once upon a time, America was a peaceful Garden of Eden and then along came the Black Panther Party which in turn gave rise to chaos” (Soul on Fire 115), whereas in reality, their rise may have been sudden, but it was certainly not unexpected when looking at the racial history of the United States.

Other minority perspectives
These positive interpretations of the Black Panther Party as a community organization that helped to maintain order in black communities across the United States are confirmed by Deloria. He points that “those cities where militant black nationalists were strongest were the quietest because the young blacks kept order in spite of the white police” (Custer 188) in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s death. In We Talk, You Listen, Deloria also encourages local organizing in black communities, reiterating the point that riots after Martin Luther King’s death were less severe in cities where there was a strong presence of Black Panthers, or a similar organization (We Talk 163).

Although Baldwin is usually considered a more integrationist thinker, who strongly opposed the forceful identifications as black put forward by for example the Black Muslims, he had a lot of respect for the Black Panthers. In No Name on the Street, he also discards the idea that the Black Panthers were a radical gang, emphasizing that they had considerable community support (No Name 159) in African American communities. The real problem was not that they were violent or disruptive, but rather that whites could not accept the more autonomous stability they had to offer (No Name 165), determined “to hide the truth of the American black situation” (No Name 177), both domestically and internationally, refusing to accept that domination by the white middle class could ever end. The Black Panthers introduced “a new pantheon of black heroes” (Baldwin No Name 168), who stood up to the Nixon administration despite severe repression, with almost military action against them.

‘The Black Panthers presented a logical progression of radicalism.’

A white perspective
Although historical texts often give the impression that white people were scared of groups like the Black Panthers, and they may well have been, this is not reflected in these texts. In fact, Vidal and Thompson have not really commented on them and even Mailer is mostly silent. Of course this has to do in part with a more general disinterest in civil rights activism that had become prevalent by the late nineteen-sixties, but also suggests that the impact of Black Panthers outside of African American communities may have been overstated. Still, Mailer recognizes their importance, connecting them to the larger Black Power movement as represented by Stokely Carmichael. In Armies, he comments that “he had known immediately that neither Stokely Carmichael nor Black Power were insignificant phenomena on the day he heard that in Lowndes County, Alabama, Negroes were organizing into the Black Panther Party” (Armies 95), drawing a direct link between earlier more militant activism and the Black Panthers. Even if the Black Panthers were not formed in Lowndes county, and the two moments were several years apart, Mailer draws attention to the fact that these developments cannot be seen as separate from one another, which is also what Cleaver suggested. The rise of the Black Panthers was therefore a logical progression of the developments that had been taking place rather than a sudden, violent anomaly as it is often made out to be.

Discussion Questions:

  • Can the Black Panthers be perceived as a fundamentally American movement for wanting the law to more closely match reality and using the second amendment to justify being so heavily armed? 
  • How is the separatism put forward by the Black Panthers different from that of for example the Nation of Islam?

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