the black panthers -- 7/21/16

Today's encore selection -- from Furious Cool by David Henry. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panthers in 1966, partially in response to perceived police brutality. At the inception, the Black Panthers were as much about community service as political protest, and ran a free breakfast program serving thousands of Oakland's disadvantaged children. The Panthers expanded rapidly to sixty eight cities and thousands of members, and achieved success in obtaining a number of concessions from local governments. However, the Panthers devolved in the 1970s due to infighting and reports of criminal activity such as drug dealing and extortion:

"[Huey] Newton graduated from Berkeley High a functional illiterate but then doggedly taught himself to read by struggling through Plato's Republic, plowing all the way through it no fewer than five times until he understood it. The book, and his accomplishment in learning to read it, fueled his aspirations to become a political leader.

Original six members of the Black Panther Party (1966)

"By the time he and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party in October of 1966, Huey Newton had completed two years of law school and was well known on campus for his spirited discussions on the finer points of constitutional law. Bobby Seale was an engineering design major who had spent three years in the air force doing structural repair on high-performance aircraft and had worked on the Gemini missile program. Yet the press and political forces portrayed the Panthers as armed hoodlums and drug thugs who roamed the streets looking to gun down white people. J. Edgar Hoover's counterintelligence unit regarded even the Panthers' free breakfast program a threat to national security. The free breakfast program, which by 1969 served more than ten thousand Oakland children every morning before they went to school, was but one of the party's 'survival programs', along with clothing and food giveaways, escort services for the elderly, and health care services that included testing for sickle-cell anemia.

"Still, the only thing that mattered to the media and to a majority of Americans -- the only thing they knew about the Panthers, apparently -- was that they had guns. At that time, white America could scarcely imagine anything scarier than 'armed Negroes.'

Panther Jerry Dunigan, known as "Odinka", serves breakfast to children at Panther Free Breakfast Program

"The scariest thing they couldn't have imagined would be Negroes with unconcealed weapons operating out in the open and entirely within the law -- angry young militants brazenly availing themselves of their legal and constitutional rights the same as everyone else. 'They were registered guns,' Newton pointed out. 'Just like the NRA's guns. Just like Charlton Heston's guns.'

"This wasn't what the Establishment had in mind when they advised minorities to work for change within the system. They meant casting ballots -- with proper ID and no outstanding warrants -- every couple of years for either candidate R or candidate D. That didn't mean exercise your rights to peaceably assemble, to engage in free speech, or bear arms and, when challenged, demand the courts to either uphold those rights or announce to the whole world, point-blank, that those rights didn't apply to people like you. But that's what they did. ...

"Exercising their constitutional right to bear arms was but one weapon in the Panthers' arsenal. Along with their guns, they carried tape recorders, cameras, and law books as they patrolled the streets on their mission to 'police the police,' to observe and document law enforcement's volatile interactions with Oakland's black citizenry. ...

"Huey, Bobby, Stokely, Hubert, Eldridge, Sherwin -- who would've guessed that such bookish, even nerdy-sounding names could strike apprehension and fear in the hearts of white America more than midway through what was supposed to be its greatest century?

"Congress went so far as to pass a law against the party's minister of justice Hubert 'H. Rap' Brown -- the 'Rap Brown' Federal Anti-Riot Act, tacked onto a fair housing law at the last minute by Senator Strom Thurmond, making it illegal to travel from one state to another, write a letter, make a telephone call, or speak on radio or television with the intent of encouraging any person to participate in a riot."


David Henry


Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him


Algonquin Books


Copyright 2013 by David Henry and Joe Henry


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