Over the years, the Black Panther Party has gained a somewhat negative image, with its detractors highlighting its revolutionary nature and some of its more violent aspects. But the University of California Berkeley wants to change all of that, and is making a conscientious effort to honoring the legacy of BPP.
News One reports that the university will be receiving a federal funding grant of $98,000 for the “Black Panther Party Research, Interpretation & Memory Project.” Per the funding announcement, the project will last from August 30, 2017 to September 30, 2019, and will include “a comprehensive collection of local BPP history through acquisition of additional materials from diverse sources including video oral history, photographs, news coverage and other media; disseminating publications that incorporate primary sources from BPP organizational records.”
The project will be led by Dr. Ula Taylor, the chair of the Department of African American Studies at UC Berkeley. Dr. Taylor plans to involve several notable BPP members in the project, such as J. Tarika Lewis. Lewis was the first woman to join the BPP in Oakland.
The project also plans to “compile an annotated bibliography of information (oral histories, literature, art, exhibits or other media/format) as a resource for understanding the complex history of the Black Panther Party” and “will collect additional oral histories, and additionally, interviews will be conducted with people who were not yet born in 1966 but are eager to reflect on how the events affected their lives, their families and their future.”
Overall, the project hopes to “bridge generational, cultural and regional gaps in dialogue on race relations, economic inclusion and opportunity and other critical imperatives that divide diverse populations.”
“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” a documentary by Stanley Nelson which aired on PBS Tuesday, shined a necessary light on the contributions, convictions and struggles of members in the party. Nelson’s informative film took a deep dive into discussing the truth behind the Black Panthers and underscored the heavy institutional backlash the liberation movement received from police and the government.
From the group’s radical inception in 1966 to it’s dissolve in 1982, here are a few important things you must know to better understand the Black Panthers.
1. The Black Panthers’ central guiding principle was an “undying love for the people.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, otherwise known as the Black Panther Party (BPP), was established in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The two leading revolutionary men created the national organization as a way to collectively combat white oppression. After constantly seeing black people suffer from the torturous practices of police officers around the nation, Newton and Seale helped to form the pioneering black liberation group to help build community and confront corrupt systems of power.
2. The Black Panthers outlined their goals in a 10-point program.
The Black Panthers established a unified platform and their goals for the party were outlined in a 10 point plan that included demands for freedom, land, housing, employment and education, among other important objectives.
3. Black Panthers monitored the behavior of the police in black communities.
In 1966, police violence ran rampant in Los Angeles and the need to protect black men and women from state-sanctioned violence was crucial. Armed Black panther members would show up during police arrests of black men and women, stand at a legal distance and surveil their interactions. It was “to make sure there was no brutality,” Newton said in archival footage, as shown in the documentary. Both Black Panther members and officers would stand facing one another armed with guns, an act that agreed with the open carry law in California at the time. These confrontations, in many ways, allowed the Panthers to protect their communities and police the police.
4. The party grew tremendously and drew attention in cities everywhere.
The party’s goal in increasing membership wasn’t aimed at recruiting church goers, as explained in the documentary, but to recruit the everyday black person who faced police brutality. When black people across the nation saw the Panther’s efforts in the media, especially after they stormed the state capitol with guns in Sacramento in 1967, more men and women became interested in joining. The group also took on issues like housing, welfare and health, which made it relatable to black people everywhere. The party grew rapidly — and didn’t instill a screening process because a priority, at the time, was to recruit as many people as possible.
5. “Free Huey” became an infectious rallying cry following Huey Newton’s arrest in 1987.
In 1967, Newton was charged in the fatal shooting of a 23-year-old police officer, John Frey, during a traffic stop. After the shooting, Newton was hospitalized with critical injuries while handcuffed to a gurney in a room that was heavily guarded by cops. As a result of his hospitalization and arrest, Eldrige Cleaver took leadership of the Panthers and demanded that “Huey must be set free.” The phrase was eventually shortened to “Free Huey,” two words which galvanized a movement demanding for Huey’s release.
6. The Black Panthers affirmed black beauty, which helped to attract more members.
The sight of black men and women unapologetically sporting their afros, berets and leather jackets had a special appeal to many black Americans at the time. It reflected a new portrayal of self for black people in the 1960s in a way that attracted many young black kids to want to join the party — some even wrote letters to Newton asking to join. “The panthers didn’t invent the idea that black is beautiful,” former member Jamal Joseph said in Stanley’s documentary. “One of the things that Panthers did was [prove] that urban black is beautiful.”
Set to make its New York premiere tonight, March 29, 2015, at 9:30pm, at the New Voices in Black Cinema Festival, at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, NY, is “Black Panther Woman” – director Rachel Perkins‘ documentary on the little known Brisbane chapter of the Black Panther Party, which was directly inspired by the American Black Panthers.
Central to the film is Marlene Cummins (photo above), who was introduced to Australia’s Black Panther Party in 1972, when she met and fell in love with its leader, beginning her education into the Black Power movement.
This Australian chapter of the Black Panther Party adapted the politics and style of the American Black Panther Party, from the clothing to their defiance, attracting the attention of the local authorities. Yet, unlike their American comrades, who numbered in the thousands across America, the Australian chapter comprised of just 10 members – young Aboriginal people who staged educational theatre shows, kept watch on the police on what they called ‘pig patrols,’ and were at the forefront of demonstrations, including the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
According to director Rachel Perkins, what began as a straightforward story, recounting the Black Panther Party in Australia, slowly revealed itself as something more. The tensions around the movement and her personal life tightened around Marlene, and finally led to the break up of her relationship with the party’s leader. Marlene filled the vacuum with alcohol and quickly spiralled into a cycle of addiction that left her vulnerable on the streets. Her vulnerability and her belief in the movement made her a target for black men in power. Marlene recalls the incident of her rape, by two Indigenous leaders, after which she made the difficult decision to stay silent. Dedicated to the cause, and distrustful of police, she, like other Aboriginal women facing abuse, chose to stay silent to protect the movement from criticism.
Wayne Pharr, former Black Panther who fought the Los Angeles Police in a historic gun battle in 1969, passed away on September 6, 2014 at age 64. After Pharr and his fellow Panthers defended themselves from the long violent attack by the newly formed LAPD SWAT unit, he became a political prisoner who was exonerated of attempted murder and all other serious offenses. Pharr eventually became a successful realtor in Southern California, a subject of the documentary, “41st and Central”, and most recently authored the well received autobiography, Nine Lives of A Black Panther: A Story of Survival.
In the infamous battle on December 8, 1969, a handful of young members of the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party held off the Los Angeles Police Department’s new Special Weapons and Tactics squad and hundreds of other officers in a five hour firefight.
Pharr was 19 years old at the time and played a pivotal role in the battle as one of the first to repel the invasion into the Panther office by shooting the heavily armored SWAT team members with a shotgun as they entered the Black Panther office at Central Avenue and 41st Street. No one was killed or seriously injured in the battle during which thousands of rounds of ammunition were exchanged and bombs used by both sides.
Observed by hundreds of members of the community, the Black Panther Party and their supporters considered the defense of the office and the people inside a victory while the Los Angeles Police Department considered this very first use of SWAT a tactical failure. Pharr and the other Panthers were tried for attempted murder and other charges but were acquitted of all of the most serious offenses after the longest jury trial in Los Angeles history up to that time.
The battle at the Panther Party Central Avenue office was significant for several reasons. The attack came days after another police assault in Chicago left Illinois Panther leaders Fred Hampton shot dead while sleeping in his bed and Mark Clark killed at the front door attempting to fend off the attack. These attacks occurred during a nationwide war against the Black Panther Party by local police agencies in cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation through the FBI’s illegal Counter Intelligence Program, also known as “Cointelpro”. This was also the debut of the paramilitary SWAT team concept which used military style training, weapons and tactics to crush Black resistance during a time of revolutionary fervor and anti-war activity by activists across the country. Historically, this battle can be seen as the birth of the movement to militarize law enforcement that has swept the country.
In the documentary, “41st & Central”, Pharr describes his feelings about the 1969 battle with the LAPD SWAT team:
“So for those five hours, I was in control of my destiny… I was my own power at that particular point and time. And I relished that, and I enjoyed that and I think about that constantly. I was free! I was a free negro… yes sir!”
Recently, Pharr wrote the following reaction to the police response to community protests against the killing of unarmed 17 year old Black youth Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri:
“Are we Americans, or are we not? If we are, then the police need to stand down, like they did in 1968 with the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society–an activist group made up of white students. With that group, instead of coming in with guns blazing, they attempted to have a dialogue with the student-activists… If we are not Americans, then we need to go to war. The continuing militarization of police forces is a reminder of my encounter in 1969, the 5-hour battle we had with the newly-formed L.A. SWAT team at 41st and Central. It becomes a matter of principle, our right to self-defense.”
According to Deadline.com, Open Road Films has acquired U.S. rights to Tupac, the long-awaited feature film on the life of hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur, directed by John Singleton. Written by Jeremy Haft & Ed Gonzalez and Singleton, the movie traces Shakur’s life from growing up as the son of activist Black Panther Party members in East Harlem, to reaching superstardom as a songwriter, music and movie star, to his position in the East Coast/West Coast rap war, to his untimely shooting death at 25 in Las Vegas after the 1996 Mike Tyson bout.
The film is being produced and financed by Morgan Creek Productions and Emmett/Furla/Oasis Films, and one of the executive producers on the project is Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur. It’s a reunion of sorts for Singleton and Tupac, as Singleton directed him in the 1993 film Poetic Justice.
The casting will start shortly, for a late summer production start in Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York.
A small hearing March 4, 2014, in an obscure courtroom at the Circuit Court for Baltimore City ended with the release of former Black Panther Marshall Edward Conway, who has spent nearly 44 of his 67 years in maximum security prisons. Eddie, as he is known to his thousands of supporters, entered the courtroom wearing a Department of Corrections sweatshirt, in handcuffs and leg chains, and walked out of the courthouse about an hour later in civilian clothes to greet a host of family, supporters and old friends:
“I am filled with a lot of different emotions after nearly 44 years in prison. I want to thank my family, my friends, my lawyers and my supporters; many have suffered along with me.”
Marshall “Eddie” Conway headed the Black Panther Party in Baltimore.
Despite Eddie Conway’s insistence on his innocence, it took years for Conway and his attorneys to find a way to overturn his conviction. Finally, in May 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in the case of Unger v. State that a Maryland jury, to comply with due process as stated in the U.S. Constitution, must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that someone charged with a crime is guilty before that jury can convict the defendant. What made this decision momentous for many people in prison, including Conway, is that it applied retroactively.
Robert Boyle and Phillip G. Dantes, attorneys for Conway, filed a motion on his behalf based on this ruling, arguing that the judge in Conway’s trial had not properly instructed the jury that this “beyond a reasonable doubt” proviso was mandatory for conviction. Based on this motion, they negotiated an agreement whereby Conway would be resentenced to time served and be released from prison. In exchange, Conway and his lawyers agreed not to litigate his case based on the Unger ruling.
As he walked away from the courthouse, Boyle said: “It’s a big day for Black political prisoners that one of them has finally gotten out. I feel that (the late mayor of Jackson, Mississippi) Chokwe Lumumba was speaking into the judge’s ear, to urge him to let this happen.”
Eddie’s attorney, Robert Boyle, said: “It’s a big day for Black political prisoners that one of them has finally gotten out. I feel that (the late mayor of Jackson, Mississippi) Chokwe Lumumba was speaking into the judge’s ear, to urge him to let this happen.”
Scores of former Black Panthers are serving virtual life sentences in prison, largely the result of the efforts of J. Edgar Hoover, who ordered his FBI in the 1960s and ‘70s to target the Black Panther Party – as revealed by the 1977 Church Committee Senate hearings. The first Panther chapter was started in 1966 in Oakland, California, but by the time a chapter was formed in Baltimore in 1968, the FBI had had ample time to insert more than its usual share of informants into the fledgling organization.
The FBI, moreover, often worked in league with various municipal police departments. As Conway wrote in his political memoir, “The alleged murder of police officers would soon take the place of the mythological rape of white women as the basis for the legal lynching of Black men.”
Twelve years ago, Reflections in Black became the largest exhibition ever conceived to explore the breadth and history of work by black photographers.
It is unlikely that many people would be familiar with the name Jules Lion. A free man of color, Lion established the first daguerrean studio in New Orleans and, in doing so, became somewhat of a local celebrity. Alone, his accomplishments might have been of little interest. But the fact that he did this in the early spring of 1840, soon after the announcement of the daguerreotype process, is worthy of special attention. Moreover, there is evidence that Lion may have immigrated from France with knowledge of the process. For historian Deborah Willis, Lion’s achievements mark not only the beginning of photography in the U.S., but the pioneering involvement of blacks in the medium. As a result, Lion is included in the landmark exhibition,Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African American Photography. Continue reading “Reflections in Black: Celebrating African Americans in Photography”→