Black Panther Party

Black Panther Party (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I think of the Black Panther Party I see a bunch of unsmiling and angry Black men and women clad in black leather gear holding rifles. Having come of age in the post-Civil Rights south, images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedy brothers-President Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy-were the political models that I was raised to idolize.

I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of the Black Panthers or other African American revolutionaries such as Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael until I was an adult in my 20’s.

Why? I guess I could blame my lack of knowledge on this very important slice of African American history on the southern school system that in spite of the Civil Rights movement, continued to deny African Americans certain rights-especially the right to study their cultural heritage.

Or, I can blame my family. But, I have to take into consideration that my family is a product of the old south where formal education had to take a back seat to economic survival. My grandmother received her education in the Jim Crow schools of Mississippi and was barely literate. My grandfather could not read and write and had to sign his name with an X.

I finally realized that no individual or entity was to blame. I realized that education or knowledge is a lifelong process. When I was finally afforded the opportunity to learn about African American Nationalism, it was just the right time in my life. I like to think that is was divine intervention.

You see, I was living in California in the early 1990’s. California was far from being a bastion of liberalism at that time. In fact, racial tensions were at an all-time high in this era. Los Angeles especially was a powder keg waiting to explode. It finally did with the uprising following the acquittal of the white police officers who beat Rodney King.

I will never forget the anger that I felt at this injustice. You see, my attitude towards whites before was one of indifference. I mean I knew about the struggles of African Americans in this society. I grew up listening to my grandparents discuss white people in not so flattering terms. I remember watching Roots on television and witnessing my grandmother’s rage at the images of the savage treatment of African Americans. Still, I just figured it was something that happened in the past.

Fast forward to California in the early 1990’s.I can’t say that I was pro black or anti-white. However, after reading Malcolm X’s autobiography and writings about the Black Panther Party, a nationalist sentiment was awakening within me.

However, the more and more I read about the Black Panther Party, the less enchanted I became about their legacy. In particular, their abusive treatment of women. I was particularly ready to disregard their legacy after reading Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power where she chronicles the abusive treatment of women by the party’s leaders.

However, I read a fascinating book entitled The Shadow of the Panther by Pearson. After reading this book I was even more convinced of the less than stellar legacy of the party. Especially when he gives an account of Huey Newton’s descent into crack cocaine abuse and his eventual violent demise. Hugh’s book led me to search for other information about the party. For a short while I became obsessed about Black Panther history. Then I read first-hand accounts by other panthers. I Read Geronimo Pratt’s Last Man Standing, Long Time Gone by Brent Williams, and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver.

I finally realized that we are all products of our time in history. These were politically and economically disenchanted African American men and women. They were the rejects of the NAACP and the Urban League. Their ranks were often from the poor working class. Thus, instead of an unfair and harsh assessment of these people, I begrudgingly give them genuine admiration and respect. Respect, because it took an incredible amount of courage to challenge the status quo. I realized that I am no different. In fact, I more than likely would have been too afraid to take up arms or any other means of defense against unfair treatment of African Americans in those times.

As for the criminal behavior, these men were products of their environment. Most had gang affiliations or witnessed the realities of urban life in this era. Thus, it would be unintelligent to expect them to make a tremendous leap to middle class respectability.

That being said, I believe that we still need the Black Panther Party in 21st century America. The issues that they tried to address in their platform are still with us. For example, although African Americans have made great progress since the 1960’s, gang and gun violence still claim many young lives in our communities. African Americans have not achieved economic parity with the dominant culture. Also, police harassment is still a point of contention among African Americans of all economic groups.

A New Panther Party is needed. This time, it should be composed of African Americans from all economic stripes. Educated African Americans should definitely compose a bulk of its membership. More important, it should compose an equal mix of our elders as well as our youth. In addition, immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean should definitely be included. Furthermore, our local and national politicians should absolutely be prominent in the membership.

I know that some of you smirk at this suggestion as unrealistic especially in light of a two term elected African American president. Although I am an avid supporter of the president, the collective African American agenda isn’t high on his political agenda-understandably so since he wasn’t elected on the majority African American vote alone.

Building an agenda that not only addresses our problems but solutions to these problems should come from the African American community. And, after careful consideration, I believe that middle class organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League miss the mark to truly address the ills that continues to set us back. I believe that the Black Panther Party is the organization that had the tools to truly liberate our community. The missing ingredients to truly make it effective were more angry voices from our elders and of the more upward mobile among us.

This is just a thought. Who knows, one day this could just be a reality.