STAY SAFE, we have all been told. In the midst of a pandemic people the world over have been locked down, isolated and unable to work in the act of preserving human lives.
With the ‘Stay Safe’ message ringing in our ears we bore witness the to the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May, 2020. As the global effort to preserve life continued we saw this life casually taken, with many of us quarantined we saw this unfiltered by our usual routines and the subsequent uproar has been incendiary.
I wrote this article in 2015 and even as a mixed race black woman raised by activists – my father Oscar Abrams founded the first multicultural arts centre in Britain the Keskidee Centre – the unpicking of facts related to the Black Panthers was revelatory to me. The stark realisation at how the globally influential Black Power and civil rights movements in the United States were effectively shut down by the system during the 1970s forever changed my view on race relations and where they stood at that time.
In 2015, when I wrote this article, the perception of the Black Panthers was still that of a threatening and dangerous group of people who went too far and were too militant, since then there has been a sea change that is still playing out. We are living in a time of change and it is down to us all as individuals as to how these changes impact our future lives.
PUSS PUSS are republishing this article, accompanied by the documentary photography of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch, as it is the right time to share stories of activism and struggle. We need to stay present and we need to stay informed. The story of the Black Panthers shows how far the movement came in the 1960s and 70s, how it was shut down by the system and where we are now picking up from. Power to the people.
Article originally published in issue 2 of PUSS PUSS Magazine in 2015
Black Panthers from Sacramento, Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland, CA, 1968 by Pirkle Jones
Society has borne witness to many versions of black history, and specifically black American history, as its famous figures turned from drug addled extremists to heroes almost interchangeably.
Tales of gun totting militants dressed in black leather, to conspiracy theories about the CIA introducing crack cocaine into ghettos (which subsequently turned out to be correct), the facts regarding the Black Panther Party have been mumbled, however the impact of the movement was huge, and despite being short lived, it’s still felt today.
Young Man, Free Huey Rally, Oakland, CA, 1968 by Ruth-Marion Baruch
Mother and Child, De Fremery Park, Oakland, CA, 1968 by Ruth-Marion Baruch
Black Panther carrying books for study, Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland, CA 1968 by Pirkle Jones
The story of the Black Panther Party has been told in many different, yet largely negative ways and with the release of the film Selma and the feature length documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution this year, it seems that it’s just on the cusp of being updated.
The many questions surrounding the Black Panthers are not about facts and dates, but ones about perception and about who gets to tell the story. It’s about the right to know and understand your own history, whether it’s as complex as the slave trade and colonialism, or as seemingly simple as a family that has inhabited the same place over many generations.
In order to really understand what the Black Panthers were about, we need to take ourselves back a few decades to the 1960s. Indisputably, this was a decade of progress, yet in practice this meant many different things for different members of society. While some were heading to San Francisco to join the Flower Power movement, not everyone had the luxury of turning on, tuning in and dropping out.
The ‘60s are often used as a cultural reference point for the discovery of people power, with the civil rights movement being a core part of that. Powerful figureheads began to emerge from the black community, people such as the Trinidadian Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and of course, Martin Luther King.
During this time, in many parts of the United States police brutality against black people and anyone who threatened the system was the norm. Violence, and what we now call ‘hate crime’, committed by members of the public went unpunished by police and was often tacitly condoned. People of all races protested and were hurt, some even killed, in midst of these events in the hope that this would, one day, affect some change in the rights of everyday people. How those people would feel about the status quo in America today?
By 1968, Martin Luther King, Malcom X and JFK had all been assassinated. This, combined with the ramifications of the military draft to fight in the Vietnam war, brought a new sense of questioning and with it, a call for a stronger, more militant fight for equal rights.
The Black Panthers were from a younger, more disillusioned generation, angry at the slim prospects of potential change. The party was founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton, both sick of how oppressed they felt as poor, black men living in America and disappointed by the civil rights effort so far. They met during the many street rallies that took place around Merritt Junior College in Oakland, California in 1964, the same year that Stokely Carmichael, Floyd McKissick and James Meredith organized the famous March Against Fear.
In that same year, Bobby Seale, who after leaving the military was working as an engineer and attending classes at Merritt, was arrested at one such rally for reciting the anti-draft poem, Uncle Sammy Call Me Fulla Lucifer by Ronald Stone:
Bobby Seale, Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland, CA, Black Panthers 1968 by Ruth-Marion Baruch
Uncle Sammy don’t shuck and jive me,
I’m hip the popcorn jazz changes you blow,
You know damn well what I mean,
You school my naive heart to sing
and to pledge eternal allegiance to all things blue,
true, blue-eyed blond, blond-haired, white chalk
white skin with U.S.A. tattooed all over,
When my soul trusted Uncle Sammy,
Loved Uncle Sammy,
I died in dreams for you Uncle Sammy,
Died in dreams playing war for you Uncle Sammy,
No, I don’t want to hear that crap,
You jam your emasculate manhood symbol, puff with
Gonorrhea of corrupt un-realty myths into my
ungreased, nigger ghetto, black-ass, my Jewish-
Cappy-Hindu-Islamic-Sioux-sure, free public
health penicillin cured me,
But Uncle Sammy if you want to stay a freak-show
Fuck your motherfucking self,
I will not serve.
As the account from his book Seize the Power: The story of the Black Panther Party & Huey P Newton goes, he was picked up at the line: ‘…U.S.A. tattooed all over’.
As Seale himself describes in the book, “I was battling up there, and three paddies had me down, tied down onto the ground.”
In January 1967, the Black Panther Party opened its first headquarters in Oakland, California. In May of the same year, they published their Ten Point Plan where they outlined reasonable demands for freedom, equal rights, an end to police brutality, a decent standard of housing the accurate teaching of the history of slavery and less achievable aims such as the freeing of all black men in prison at that time. The tenth point states: ‘We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.’
The Panthers, while undoubtedly a militant organisation, also provided free breakfasts for children, schooling, access to libraries, held swap shops and protected people physically from the police on their infamous patrols. They helped the community, yet held both achievable and unachievable goals. These were born out of a desire for justice and a frustration with what could not be undone. Many members, including founder Huey P Newton, had also spent time in prison before founding the party. Police hounded them and despite making a large impact, the party lost momentum and was eventually dissolved in 1982.
Other key members of the party were law professor Kathleen Cleaver and her husband Eldridge Cleaver, Little Bobby Hutton (the party treasurer), Reggie Forte and Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard. Kathleen and Eldridge went into exile following a shootout with Oakland police during Eldridge’s presidential campaign in 1968. They returned to the United States in 1976, upon which Eldridge was sent straight to prison. Despite that, both Cleavers subsequently lived to maintain public roles in academiaand politics respectively.
It is no revelation to say that race issues persist in the United States. The reverberations of the recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the acquittal of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed him, were felt around the world. The national protests and global outrage drew people’s minds back to the genesis of the civil rights movement and focused attention on what still needs to be done.
Black Panther in doorway of Manzanita Center, Marin City, CA, 1968 by Ruth-Marion Baruch
Kathleen Cleaver, De Fremery Park, Oakland, CA, 1968 by Pirkle Jones
Between the beginning of the movement in the 1960s, which saw a huge amount of positive social change, to the start of the 1970s, by which time the main community leaders had been assassinated, something has evaporated. By the mid ‘70s, the movement in the US had almost completely lost momentum, with the decade ending with the highly dubious ‘Disco Sucks’ movement. This saw piles of disco records by black artists being ceremonially burned by attendees after football games around America.
The tide of the civil rights movement was stalled and the Black Panther Party was effectively quashed throughout the ‘70s, which saw introduction of hard drugs into ghettos by the CIA, and although progress continued, the movement was less vocal and less well-respected.
Of course, after the 1970s came the 1980s, the 1990s and now we are in the 21st century with great improvements in some areas and precious little in others. Attention, both in the US and globally seems to be turning once more to the question of black Americans living in poverty, from high prison numbers to a more three dimensional approach to history. If the Black Panther Party knew one thing, it was that knowledge is power so maybe, if we can take an honest look at the past, we can look to a fairer, brighter future.
Audience, Free Huey Rally, De Fremery Park,Oakland, CA, 1968 by Pirkle Jones
Black Panthers discussing their reading material, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland, CA, 1968 by Pirkle Jones