The Heritage of Black Panthers

Four years ago, I took a trip back into time with my father. The Black Panther Party was holding its 30th anniversary reunion, and my pops, who I knew only as a stern, low-key man, had been defense captain of the Maryland chapter before I was born.

I followed him to Oakland, Calif., not simply because this was a historic event, but also because I had trouble reconciling the man I knew with the gun-toting, red book-quoting, black-bereted icon that came to mind when I thought of the party.

My father's attendance at the reunion surprised me. It had been more than 25 years since he joined the Black Panther Party in 1969, when he was 23. He is quick to note that he rose to the head-honcho position of defense captain for the Maryland chapter not for his leadership skills, but by default.

At the time, one of the ways the police liked to harass the Panthers was through frivolous arrest. With much of the Maryland chapter's leadership jailed or simply in hiding, the regional heads in New York handed the reins over to my father. He left the Party in 1971, after the Panthers' national leadership essentially shut down all its national chapters.

Yet despite his history, my father is still my father -- a man who, for all appearances, remains unbent on sentimentalism and idle reflection.

When I went through my militant phase as a kid and would pepper my pops with queries about his Panther days, he wasn't inclined to provide detailed answers or colorful anecdotes. He did have a few stories, though.

There was the time he and some fellow party members were moving guns out of a Panthers safe house and wound up getting thrown in jail after standing toe-to-toe with police, rifles trained on their faces. But for the most part, getting a response from him was like a daylong fishing trip. And if I truly wanted answers, there were books all around our home that could give me plenty.

I always sensed that my father didn't exactly view his days in the Panther Party with the sort of naive awe that other people often did. He was openly critical of what he saw as the party's California-first philosophy, which grew from its Oakland roots. He believed that many of the Panthers in prison who weren't from California had been abandoned by the party's leadership.

Still, he clearly had some kind of soft spot for his Panther days. He frequently spoke at forums about the Panthers' contributions to the black community, and as a book publisher, he put out the writings of Panthers Bobby Seale and the deceased George Jackson. He attended Huey P. Newton's funeral in 1989. And though this reunion four years ago was my first Panther reunion, it was not his.

The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, Calif., in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. Newton and Seale dismissed nonviolence and black nationalism and instead sought to form an organization that was more applicable to the black community. The result was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (later shortened to the Black Panther Party).

At the Oakland reunion, my father shot the breeze with old friends. We attended panels and talked with people who, until that moment, had existed for me only in books. Most of the former Panthers who've since become political celebrities were at the reunion -- Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Eldridge Cleaver, Philly's own Bobby Seale and Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush. There were a few notable absences, including former national leaders Elaine Brown and David Hilliard.

Seeing his old running buddies triggered old memories for my pops, and the stories started flowing. There was the one about the guy who saved my father's life when a feud between Panther factions turned lethal. Many other concerned former Panthers who were driven to the brink of madness by an ill cocktail of personal weakness and government harassment.

But it was neither my father's recounting of wilder years nor the assemblage of history that stuck with me. Rather, it was the new jacks in attendance who I remember most -- the "new" Black Panthers. These were kids my age from California and around the country who wore their own interpretation of the party's old uniform: all black, with berets and, sometimes, sunglasses. They didn't mingle much with old-timers, as the countless reincarnations of the party are looked upon with disdain by most original members.

Most of these cats weren't Panther children. They were kids who learned about the party from, in the best case, books like Seize the Time, and in the worst case, from Mario Van Peebles.

But no matter how they discovered the Party, they'd decided that the world could use a new version of the Panthers. I heard about many of these groups before I went to California -- mostly through the news -- and they differed substantially from the originals.

The original Panthers image -- of rabble-rousers who regularly shot it out with police -- often undermined the real community work it did. The party's "Free Breakfast for Children" program was a staple in chapters across the country. The party also provided free health care via community clinics; it coordinated clothing drives and other social service programs. But because very little of this warranted media attention, the Panthers' image was forever linked with the gun barrel. And this was what the new jacks focused on.

It was all style and little substance, like eating cake made entirely of icing. Though I didn't make the connection at the time, I later realized these new Panther chapters springing up across the country were indicative of a larger phenomenon.

People like me, who've never had to eat nightstick, stand our ground against high-pressure hoses or duck Molotov cocktails, are utterly enthralled by the '60s. Which is why many of us are wont to whip out a quote from Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.

Beyond simple phraseology, many of our protest strategies were stolen from our parents. So anxious was Al Sharpton to piggyback on King's 1963 march on Washington that a couple weeks ago he led a similar effort to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the first march.

Even Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March and this year's Million Family March hearken back to King's 1963 pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial. And still today, more than 40 years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the favored weapon of the black political activists is still the boycott.

You'd think that as the son of someone who struggled during the glamour years of protest, I'd be on the front lines with these activists. You'd think that my pops would have schooled me on the importance of civil disobedience and political militancy. You'd think I'd have some sort of deep understanding of the malaise that touches America's unfortunates.

But you'd be only half right.

The understanding is there, but not much more. If I feel anything when I watch marchers, pickets and guardians of civil rights, it's a strong feeling of alienation. For me, watching today's black political activists is like meeting a very distant cousin to whom I am constantly struggling to see my relation.

As a result, I'm about as politically inactive as any person you'll find. I am involved in no civil rights organizations, I've never voted for president in my life and have no plans to do so this year. In many ways, I am not my father's child.

I wasn't always so politically jaded. Back in the late '80s, when Public Enemy and KRS-One ruled, I worshipped at the altar of Huey Newton. Even without my father's political leanings, I never really accepted the way Martin Luther King Jr. was presented in the schools.

The idea of getting your face kicked in to pay someone who doesn't like you for a cup of coffee never resonated with me. So it was natural that I gravitated to my father's past. During my mid-teens, not a day went by when I didn't pester my father about the Panthers or some other radical '60s group: Who was George Jackson? Who were the Weathermen? How did Assatta Shakur escape?

The length of my father's answers depended on his mood. Some days, I got detailed re-enactments. Other days, I was promptly referred to some thick volume in my father's collection. More often then not, I was sent the way of the book. It was a good thing I liked to read.

For a few solid years, I devoured anything having to do with the Panthers, then anything I could find on black power, and finally, anything on black people period. I read everything from Sam Greenlee's The Spook Who Sat by the Door to Chancellor Williams' The Destruction of Black Civilization.

Though I didn't know it at the time, my reading selection, while diverse, was still fairly limited. I restricted myself mostly to titles written by black nationalists, which painted a world forever divided between black and white, where each side was in eternal conflict with the other. I later discovered that integration had rendered much of this conflict irrelevant and that most of the pernicious evils faced by black people were really American evils carried out with more efficiency in our community.

Yet almost overnight, I went from an X-Men collector/Dungeons & Dragons lover to a budding pseudo-revolutionary. I assembled a huge collection of T-shirts featuring Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. I tacked the infamous poster of Malcolm X looking out the window with rifle in hand to my bedroom door. I played progressive spoken-word artist Gil Scott-Heron tapes constantly. And whenever opportunity presented itself, I debated my history teachers about everything from the conquistadors to Clarence Thomas.

At the end of my senior year of high school, when I got accepted to Howard University, it was like a scene out of a movie: The black mini-militant goes off to the capital of militancy. Howard had an unwitting tradition of producing graduates -- and non-graduates, as I eventually became -- who shook up the American landscape. They ran the gamut from authors like Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka and Zora Neal Hurston to philosophers and scholars like Carter G. Woodson and Alain Locke to scientists like Charles Drew. With this history in mind, I went to Howard in search of the revolutionary statement I felt sure my generation would make.

Admittedly, my expectations were overblown, and it wasn't because most of the campus had come to Howard because of its rep as the black college party headquarters. Howard in the mid-'90s was more in the spirit of Mase than Malcolm X. On any given day, you could walk across the campus yard and find some geek passing out flyers advertising the next happy hour.

My view of college was colored more by School Daze than Animal House, so my freshman year at Howard was a 10-month wake-up call. I soon realized that most kids who go off to college aren't so much trying to change the world as they are trying to act a fool free of chaperoning eyes. So I learned to overlook the masses and began searching out those still interested in saving black America from itself.

Howard's activist community was small but diverse -- from student government preps who orchestrated voter registration drives to Farrakhan's uniformed converts hawking The Final Call at Campus Mosque. We even had a white student who hustled Communist literature daily.

Initially, it was all inspiring, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it was the movie version of a book I'd read years before. I came to Howard looking for my generation to take the black freedom struggle to the next level. Instead, I discovered that most of us had no clue what that level was.

The result was a hollow re-enactment of strategies our parents had employed. We protested the school's administration, marched to the National Mall for the Million Man March and otherwise raised hell whenever we could. Our own emulations could be excused, as we were only troops in training. But worse was the fact that national black leadership was caught in the same time warp.

During my school years, civil rights leaders called for boycotts of everything from Texaco to Webster's. The black nationalists weren't faring much better: Nation of Islam minister Khalid Muhammad was a comic disgrace. Farrakhan's Million Man March turned out to be show of potential rather than actual strength. Never had so many black people been mobilized to do so little.

It took me some time to understand we had fallen in love with tactics instead of struggle. What we loved was Huey Newton with a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other, glaring out at the world. We loved the image of Martin Luther King immortalized at the Lincoln Memorial.

There was something cool about those battles -- perhaps that they featured a definite bad guy and a clearly defined fight -- that made them almost the stuff of Hollywood. Deep inside, we longed for a conflict that was easy to mobilize around -- and perhaps more important, that was easy to sell to the media.

My father's radical past made it easy to believe in a battle that would be fought the way Panthers fought -- with cameras clicking and crowds of people watching. But the sensational work catching firebombs from the Ku Klux Klan or having shoot-outs with cops had already been done -- by my father's generation.

What was left was a softer, slicker, more sinister form of racism. It was a racism more pervasive than the previous generation could have ever imagined. It ran the gamut from the annoying (the utter inability to catch a cab) to the ominous (prisons stacked with people who looked like us). How do you mobilize against such an all-encompassing beast? What do you do now that the racists have become polite, and are willing to pay your way through school and then hire you?

Today's racists consistently outsmart people like me, because we're forever looking for the racial Armageddon, unaware that it's slowly playing out right in front of us. The problem has changed, but our strategies remain the same.

We're still fighting like it's 1963 and the enemy is a half-brained Southern redneck. But you can't march down the incarceration rate of black males; the death penalty laughs at boycotts; and black-on-black crime refuses to be protested away. Even police brutality, a very tangible evil, has proven invulnerable to our outdated arsenal of sound bites and rhetoric.

The fight no longer demands public demonstrations, but private grunt work. So many of the worst problems afflicting black America -- drugs, poverty, lack of health care -- are American problems that just hit us a little harder.

Most of us were told our parents struggled so we wouldn't have to. And we've found out for ourselves that it's much easier to deal with occasional police harassment than living under the threat of lynching.

My most enduring memories of the Black Panther Party begin with the trip my family would take a few times a year from Baltimore to the state penitentiary in Jessup, Md., to visit a forgotten '60s footnote. Marshall Eddie Conway is one of my father's oldest friends, as well as Baltimore's own Mumia, minus the celebrity and glamour. He's in prison for a cop killing he says he didn't commit.

Conway was a member of the Maryland chapter along with my father. As a kid, I had no real understanding of why he was in jail or what that meant. But now I have a hard time thinking of my father as a Panther without thinking of Conway.

I think of him primarily because my father could easily be in Conway's place. I also think about Conway because he helps prevent me from glamorizing the Panthers.

In name, the Black Panther Party continued into the early '80s. But in reality, it collapsed in the late '70s, the victim of a war launched by J. Edgar Hoover and local police, who systematically jailed Panther leaders and infiltrated the organization with agent provocateurs. Poor party leadership didn't help matters.

When Panther chapters across the country folded, many members were left in jail to the pay the price for the movement. For Conway, it may well mean the rest of his life behind bars.

Conway is a side of the party you rarely hear about -- one that young activists pay too little attention to. He doesn't, after all, fit the simple, mythical image many now have of the Black Panthers. Which is why I am constantly amazed by people who insist on re-creating the past.

While searching my father's archives, I discovered an old newspaper article that quoted an FBI file about my father. The quote wasn't taken from a memo detailing an assassination attempt. It was simply a notation of people to keep an eye on.

For some time, I thought it was cool that the FBI had a file on my father. That is, until I sat down and thought about how scary that must really be.

If people like the new Panthers really studied the sadness and despair surrounding some of the people who paid the price of the '60s, perhaps they'd think twice about donning those black berets. There is a sense among activists in my generation that we missed out on something big in the '60s, and that the only way to capture that feeling is to try to re-create what was. But the time for shootouts with cops and massive marches is gone.

The war remains, but that battle has been fought. And we should be grateful for that.

Ta-Nehisi Coates can be reached at tncoates@philadelphiaweekly.com.

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