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Are the Black Panthers Part of the "Bad Sixties"?

The Black Panther Party never fails to stir both interest and controversy, even decades after its hey day. Brilliant revolutionaries or notorious thugs? A generation's best or worst? The arguments tend to sort into such unhelpful opposites. Indeed, the objective of a recent conference on the Panthers at Wheelock College, titled "The Black Panther Party in Historical Perspective," was to nudge the historical conversation beyond simplistic either/or judgments. The more than 40 papers featured at the conference, coupled with half a dozen books in progress that touch on parts of the group's history, represent an exciting new wave of 1960s scholarship.

The conference came at an opportune time for evaluating not just the legacy of the Panthers but the broader politics and activism of the 1960s and 1970s. We tend to see figures like Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, as well as the Panthers as a whole, through an entirely moral lens. Were they idealistic inheritors of the civil rights legacy of leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Or were they cynical street operators who exploited their popularity for material gain? We want the Panthers, like we want the sixties generally, to yield to absolute judgments of "good" or "bad."

The "good sixties" and the "bad sixties" have been contending in the nation's cultural politics for a long time. How we remember figures like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Stokely Carmichael, for instance, speaks volumes about how we position ourselves in the present. We fight over things like whether President Clinton inhaled, whether antiwar activists supported the troops in Vietnam, and whether the Panthers were "thugs" because we have never stopped seeking both penance and redemption in this most complex of decades. It is inevitable, and not necessarily wrong, to draw from the past to make sense of the present. But our understandable drive to distill lessons from the 1960s has rendered that period a flat, ersatz Forest Gump-like world of easy moralizing.

History is far more than a game of looking backward and choosing winners and losers, heroes and villains. Would it were that simple. The Black Panther Party was an extraordinarily complicated organization, with chapters in more than two dozen cities by the late 1960s. In the early 1970s, party members were feeding poor children free breakfasts from Oakland to Milwaukee, Los Angeles to New Haven. They revived the national struggle against police brutality, largely dormant since the 1940s. The Party's Ten Point Platform went around the world as a model for the liberation of oppressed people. Their local social programs helped to educate African Americans about sickle cell anemia, and their liberation schools provided an early model of black studies. All of these things were creative, pioneering, audacious.

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At the same time, many of the party's leaders, perhaps especially but not solely Newton, emerged from a world of street violence they could neither abandon nor contain, especially under the strain of constant police and FBI persecution. Any sincere historical inquiry into the life and legacy of the party must not blanche in the face of this reality. The Party's infamous shoot-out with Ron Karenga's cultural nationalist group US on the UCLA campus in 1969 was destructive and ill-timed. Newton's various illegal activities and his well-known megalomania weakened the party. And the party's internal culture of male supremacy was at times deplorable. However, to foreclose any discussion of the party's contribution to African Americans, to the nation, and to the long history of civil rights and black liberation politics solely because of these failings is willfully to don historical blinders.

The Panthers inspired a generation of black intellectuals and organizers, men and woman who were among the most talented activists of their day. They also inspired, and often drew into their milieu, young toughs whose revolutionary diction was weaker than their street instinct. Both were there, side by side. But it is as intellectually dishonest to dismiss the Panthers because of some shady characters as it is to dismiss the labor movement because of Jimmy Hoffa. If we can't take on the complexity of our past, we are ill-prepared to learn from it and even less equipped to make critical judgments in the future.

Let's be honest. One of the reasons that most white Americans, and not a few black ones, are eager to minimize the importance of the Panthers is race. White Americans sought redemption by participating in the civil rights movement. When organizations emerged that did not offer such redemption, whites by and large lost interest and abandoned the movement. The Panthers' mixture of black liberation, anticolonial solidarity, and anticapitalist rhetoric was too provocative an alchemy to attract the mainstream. Many white Americans today cringe at images of Panther radical chic, but many African Americans embrace the party's example of dignity, self-possession, discipline, and intellectual rigor.

If we sidestep the difficult task of assessing a group like the Panthers in their full context, we reproduce the starkest polarizations of the 1960s and 1970s. That is not historical inquiry. It is raw cultural politics. Today, those who would destroy the Panther legacy without taking the party seriously - and, consequently, not taking the Civil Rights movement itself seriously - play on the same racist stereotypes that have been used for decades to discredit black activism and organizing.

There is an even deeper reason to take the Panthers seriously. They spoke the truth about the state of the nation's cities in the 1970s. Between 1972 and 1975, the party ran a series of campaigns for public office in Oakland. In those campaigns, Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown stumped as grassroots politicians on an agenda of urban reform. They pointed to the glaring contradictions at the heart of the urban crisis: rich suburban communities, poor urban ones; good suburban schools, struggling urban ones; mounting black poverty in an era of affluence. Indeed, much of their critique of the Bay Area foreshadowed the statewide debate over Proposition 13 in 1978. The Party made itself relevant to the most important socio-political conversations of the day in California.

To take the Black Panther Party seriously is to take history seriously and ultimately to take ourselves and the process of unbiased historical research seriously. We need not reflexively romanticize or condemn the Panthers in order to understand them. The party is rightly taken to task for its excessive machismo and its inability to shed association with criminal activity. Those are traits any progressive organization would strive to move beyond. But the party also modeled a profound humanism and racial pride and an optimistic, and deeply American, example of democratic community organizing and empowerment. I, for one, hope we can keep and cherish that legacy.

Related Links

  • Rick DelVecchio, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, about new interpretations of the Black Panthers.

  • Kate Coleman, writing in the LA Times about Black Panther revisionism..