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Old and young gather in DC for the 35th Anniversary of the Black Panthers.

Looking Backward and Forward

The 35th Anniversary of
the Black Panther Party

By Regina Jennings
Special to SeeingBlack.com

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Bobby Seale (left) and Huey Newton founded the Black Panthers in 1966.

The Black Panther Reunion, held April 18-20 in Washington, D.C., was, for me, a retrospective revisit. When I searched faces of Panthers I had not seen or physically spoke to for over thirty years, I saw myself young again. As a teenager, I packed my clothes and jumped a late plane to Oakland, Ca., to join Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. I wanted to help build a defense against police brutality in this country. I saw no other organization with the courage and tenacity to fight racism in the words of Malcolm X, and in a language that oppressors would understand. I had marched with Martin Luther King and certainly respected his nonviolent precept, but I never appreciated being spat at, called "nigger," "ape woman," and other obscenities. I wanted to eradicate racism and injustice like a real woman, one who represents, so the Panthers made great sense to me.

No other organization appealed to the youth of America like the aesthetics and actions of the Black Panther Party. Original sister anthers wore combat boots that today translate into Timberlands. Original Panthers wore fatigues, t-shirts and other baggy grung attire that resemble the chic of contemporary youth. The major distinction between some progressive rap lyrics and Panther rhetoric is that the Panthers had a political organization that buttressed oratory with action.

Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale started the Black Panther Party in Oakland on October 15, 1966. In the history of Black resistance in America, the Panthers provided a hard- edged seriousness and revolutionary commitment that eclipsed previous operations. The Revolutionary Action Movement had demised prior to the Panthers because of destructive and thorough FBI infiltration. Bobby Seale had been a RAM member. Another resistance organ, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, functioned mainly in the South to defend nonviolent marchers against violent attacks.

The Black Panther Party increased to at least 30 branches across America. In its heyday from 1966-1972, Black people watched members defend themselves from police attacks, get Huey P. Newton released from prison, and later get Bobby Seale and Erika Huggins released as well. We also experienced the Black Panther Party's free community-based programs. Panthers served free breakfasts to school children and started liberation schools for young people. Americans watched socialist programs flourish in a capitalistic country. The fact that the Panthers dared to patrol police and control communities, while training Black youth to be responsible for rectifying the ills of Black America, astounded the public.

At the reunion, held on the campus of the University of the District of Columbia, vintage Panther photographs decorated the Panther conference site. There were images of Panthers standing in formation in afros, of others feeding schoolchildren breakfast, of some testing Blacks for sickle cell anemia. The joyful conference participants, around 200, warmly greeted old acquaintances and cameras snapped everywhere. Most wanted to pose with Bobby Seale, the only remaining founder.

Panel discussions and workshops resembled what Seale and Newton emphasized in the ten-point platform written in 1966. Reunion topics included Police Brutality and Civil Liberties, Youth Organizing, the Prison Industrial Complex, COINTELPRO, the Black Panther Party Legacy and the Black Liberation Movement. Films such as Women in the Black Panther Party and American Exile were shown daily.

Much focus was on healing and renewal. Father Earl Neil, for example, the first pastor to house the Panthers' Free Breakfast for School Children in 1968, conducted a healing session. Kathleen Cleaver, former Communications Secretary of the Panthers, initiated a healing circle for all the sister activists. Rosemary Mealy headed a workshop on Women's Roles in the Party and she shared her own personal narrative of confrontation with Huey Newton and Elbert "Big Man" Howard.

In the session entitled "The Legacy of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the New Black Panther Party," JoNina Abron, former editor of the Black Panther Party Newspaper, and Ron Scott, co-founder of the Detroit Chapter of the Party, bridged the old and the new. New Black Panther Party members arrived "suited and booted" in uniforms, all black with red, black and green Africa insignias on the chest. Resembling bandits, some of the New Black Panthers wore bright red or orange scarves that covered their noses and mouths. They all wore black berets. As invited guests, the New Panthers came to learn firsthand from their predecessors, whom they call "original Panthers," "old head Panthers" or "O Gs." They stood in awe of Bobby Seale; even though he has problems with this Black Panther offshoot. One of the major distinctions between the New Black Panthers and the original founder concerns coalition building with Whites. The New Panthers work solely with Blacks.

The original Black Panther Party started around a ten-point program and platform. Yet, their most memorable activity is not the platform ideology but, rather, the community patrol of police. Newton, a law student, and Seale, a history student, decided that direct confrontation with the police would solve the egregious police brutality that proliferated throughout Black communities nationwide. Dissatisfied with armchair "theorists" or "revolutionaries," Seale and Newton legally armed themselves and without precedent they policed the police. This action, overshadowing the other directives in the BPP platform, caused the world to recognize Oakland. While Newton and Seale won Panthers recruits, they additionally inherited the wrath of the United States government.

Huey and Bobby preached that power belonged in the hands of the people and that Blacks must determine their own destiny. They desired full employment for Black people, an end to police brutality, and a nationwide "plebiscite to be held throughout the Black colony in which only Black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny." (Black Panther Party Platform and Program)

Their sacrifice and bravery are gifts to this country. Yet most Black people have never acknowledged the devotion and commitment that Panthers made in this bastion of White supremacy. For example, nobody served breakfast to schoolchildren until the Panthers. Nobody demanded from storeowners that they support the community that provides their largesse. We arose before dawn to make the trek to the church or community center to prepare breakfast and then serve our children, never asking for a paycheck. We served our children and their parents because we absolutely, unquestionably, fell in love with our own people. You had to love Black people in order to be a Panther. Panthers vowed to take bullets and/or incarceration for the violated basic rights of African-Americans.

I have often asked myself where are the parades for the Panthers, the dinners, the accolades, the sponsorship from our people. Many Panthers are dead, at least thirty-three are political prisoners or in exile. There is work to be done while folk with short memories act as if opportunity opened because of White largesse instead of White fear. Whites have told me personally that Panthers frightened the hell out of them.

Their fear, as Andrew Hacker explains in Two Nations: Black White Separate Unequal (1995), is based upon White privilege and cruelty perpetuated against Blacks. Huey P. Newton and Bobby G. Seale taught recruits from the very beginning to accept and enact two life altering behaviors: to be willing to live and to die for Black people. More patriotic than the founding slaveholding fathers, Panthers also believed in liberty or death. Living under the yoke of oppression, without fighting back fiercely, was simply unacceptable to us. We breathed the same breath as Queen Nzingha, Harriet Tubman, Sengbe Pieh (Cinque), Nat Turner, David Walker, Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and all unnamed fighters for human rights.

Sister Leila, who served in the Seattle branch and Harlem chapter of the party, laughed with me at the reunion banquet, saying, "Sister Regina, it's so good to be with people who understand my using 'motherf---,' 'pig,' etc." Leslie, Chairman Bobby's wife, and Ethel, who served in Oakland and Philadelphia, totally understood her perspective. As young Panthers, we expressed ourselves often in harsh diction and Black neologisms. Our language froze the tough mode. After all, we were members of a vanguard army.

During the reunion I met brothers and sisters from the Black Liberation Army, those recently freed from prison and others working diligently in community-based, grassroots programs. One senior sister crocheted beautiful slippers that she sold to keep her dance troupe of disadvantaged youth together, and to donate proceeds to Free the Angola Three: Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, a.k.a. Albert Shaka Cinque. The National Coalition to Free the Angola 3 was formed in 1999 to find justice for three wrongly convicted men who took a stand for human rights at the prison in Angola, Louisiana, where racial segregation and sexual slavery pervaded prison life. However, The Angola 3 Panthers, in prison for thirty years, have an important success: the recent release of Robert "King" Wilkerson, on February 8, 2001. But there is still the Angola Two left. Write to the following address for more information: New Orleans Chapter, P.O. Box 15644, New Orleans, La 70175, or Phone: 504-940-6756 or 504-484-7131, or email: neworleans@angola3.org.

When Newton and Seale started the party, they would have been unfamiliar with one of the reunion's themes, COINTELPRO—an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program derived from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's efforts to neutralize Black groups during the 1960s. Political prisoners, the other conference theme, describes what Huey P. Newton became in 1967 when he was sentenced to the gas chamber for shooting two policemen. Political prisoners are members of community organizations imprisoned for their beliefs, affiliations, "and activities in furtherance of their political beliefs and goals" according to Safiya Bukhari (The State of Black America, 2000).

The most highly profiled political prisoner is Mumia Abu-Jamal, along with Jamil Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown), newly added to this category. Both are charged with shooting policemen. Today, the United States holds approximately one hundred political prisoners. Bonding with brothers and sisters who work to stop racial profiling and to free political prisoners, I am renewed with commitment to help and I urge everyone to join in this effort. We have brothers who have served thirty or more years in prison for enacting the ten-point platform of the Black Panther Party. All they did was to actively work to transform this country. And it is no secret that the FBI violated the human rights of many in Black organizations.

"By 1969 the Black Panther Party had become a primary focus of the program and was ultimately the target of 233 of the total 295 authorized black nationalist COINTELPRO operations. Though the claimed purpose of the bureau's COINTELPRO action was to 'prevent violence,' many of the FBI's tactics were clearly intended to foster violence. Some of these were assassinations, false imprisonment, and provocateur activities" (Human Rights in the United States, 2001).

Marshall "Eddie" Conway, locked down for thirty-two years, says he is falsely imprisoned. His beautiful and eloquent wife, Nzingha, made a passionate plea to those at the reunion to help in the release of her husband. COINTELPRO sent agents into all Black Panther Party chapters and they targeted the most proficient panthers. Marshall Conway was among that percentile, spending decades behind prison walls. Prisoners need letters of support, encouragement, and donations from as little as a dollar or more. Family and friends often disappear when people are incarcerated for decades. We need to remember that as Blacks our bonds are deeper than biology. Split families during slavery resettled in different regions and created and recreated new kinship. Adopting a political prisoner is not far-fetched.

For those of you with misinformation about the activities of Party members, let me clear up a vulgar falsity. Black Panthers were never taught or ordered to murder police. We were taught to defend ourselves against police attack. We believed that our defensive stance would send a message to the authorities and to Black people. Our major objective was to halt police from killing and murdering our people with impunity.

Do you recall any murders by the police? Tyisha Miller, Eleanor Bumpers, Winston C.X. Hood Jr., Steve Biko, Amadou Diallo, Arthur Morris, Bobby Hutton, Tommy Lewis, Robert Lawrence, Steve Bartholemew, Welton Armstead, Sidney Miller, Frank Diggs, Alprentice Carter, John Huggins, Alex Rackley, John Savage, Sylvester Bell, Larry Roberson, Nathaniel Clark, Walter Pope, Spurgeon Winters, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Sterling Jones, Rory Hithe, Zayd Shakur, Robert Webb, Babatunde X Omarwali, Jonathan Jackson, Fred Bennett, Samuel Napier, George Jackson, Joseph Waddell, Cindy Smallwood, Carl Hampton, Twymon Myers, Bruce Deacon Washington, LaTanya Hagerty, Dannette Daniels, Vickey Finklea, Roy Hoskins, Denzil Dowell.

I could go on.

William Patterson wrote We Charge Genocide (1951), an excellent read for a historical examination of racism and police abuse. Revisit the beating of Rodney King and Sherae Williams, or the rectum plunging of Abner Louima and ask yourselves what happened with the police. The formation of the Black Panther Party started because of such continuous brutality. Next to the dead shot down by police, place the actuality of political prisoners and prisoners of war—Black, Native American, and Puerto Rican. To learn more about their reality visit www.politicalprisoners.org and by all means purchase the book Can't Jail the Spirit: Political Prisoners in the U.S (2002). Buy copies as birthday and other holiday gifts.

Here are a few locked down for decades: Romain "Chip" Fitzgerald, Ruchelle McGee, Sundiata Acoli, Mark Cook, Herman Bell, Veronza Bowers, Fred Burton, Janet Holloway Africa, Michael Davis Africa, Debbie Sims Africa, Sekou Odinga, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, Leonard Peltier, David Gilbert, Richard Mafundi Lake, Russell Maroon Shoats, Ali Khalid Abdullah, Alvaro Hernandez, Luis V. Rodriguez, Dr. Hosť SolÓs Jordan.

I could go on.

For the Marshall Eddie Conway Support Committee, send a letter to the following address: The Marshall Eddie Conway Support Committee, P.O. Box 41144, Baltimore, MD 21203-6144. To get a source book on the Conway case write to Natural Alternatives Press, P.O. Box 68152, Baltimore, MD 21215. For an outstanding and contemporary analysis of police brutality, purchase Police Brutality (2000) by Jill Nelson and turn immediately to Robin Kelley's essay. And for an insider's report, get Jerome Miller's Search and Destroy (1999).

Many of the problems we faced as Panthers during the 1960s and 1970s are regrettably with us today. Pete O'Neal and his wife Charlotte have been in exile since 1969. Pete O'Neal was head of the Kansas City Chapter of the Black Panther Party and he dynamically and legally challenged the police department for corruption. He was arrested for transporting a shotgun across state lines and, because he recognized the high probability of being killed in prison or locked down like Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt or Marshall Eddie Conway, he (and his wife Charlotte) fled the country settling first in Algeria and then Tanzania. In the three decades since, the O'Neals raised children, learned a new language, and started a community center for Tanzania youth and at-risk Kansas City teenagers. Interested in modern day heroism, I urge you to check out the movie American Exile (2002). It tells Pete and Charlotte's extraordinary story. Order it at www.americanexile.com or contact the producers at 510-685-2813. This is not a Hollywood fictive. It is our history for real.

It is vitally important to remove the blinders that many of us wear in order to survive in America. Remember those who fought bravely to improve our existence. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale deserve a fitting tribute. In honoring Newton, Seale, and the Panthers, we move forward through our own truth, heroism, and ingenuity.

Regina Jennings, who teaches at Rutgers University, is the author of the forthcoming books: Race, Rage, and Roses and The Malcolm X Influence on the Poetic Vision of Haki Madhubuti.

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-- May 24, 2002

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