Members of the Black Panther Party in an undated photo (courtesy the Library of Congress)
You know them when you see them. The all-black attire. The ebony berets. The closed, raised fists. The guns. Fifty years ago the Black Panther Party exploded into public consciousness, and, on Tuesday, April 11, Virginia Commonwealth University’s African-American Studies Department delves into the complex history of the group, told through the voices of three former Panthers.
(Courtesy VCU Dep’t. of African American Studies)
Dr. Adam Ewing, an assistant professor in the department who organized the event dubbed The Black Panther Party: Legacy and Lessons, sees an educational opportunity for students and the local community alike.
“A lot of what has been passed down about the Panthers is wrong, quite frankly, or at least it’s quite partial,” says Ewing, who is in his third year of teaching at the university. “As a result, I talk to students today, and they have a very skewed idea of who they were, if they know the Panthers at all. It’s really important to really understand what the Panthers represented, which is far more complex and vital than is widely known.”
What, then, was the Black Panther Party? Founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party began as a community service organization, focused on protecting and promoting the civil rights of oppressed people, primarily black Americans, and on combating police brutality, an issue that provoked a rash of protests, speeches and bouts of fisticuffs in 1960s California. The group’s many principles included self-determination, service and, perhaps the most-widely recognized, self-defense, as demonstrated by their legal, open carrying of weapons.
“Huey P. Newton … carefully studied California law, and understood right-to-carry laws,” says Ewing. “What he organized the Panthers to do was, they were following Oakland police around, and when they stopped people in cars, they were there to witness and support the motorists,” he says. In response to allegations of police brutality and aggression against black people in their communities, the Panthers “carried around copies of the Constitution, to show that black people were not being protected under the same laws that other Americans were protected under,” says Ewing. “So there was a deliberate strategy to their expression of unapologetic blackness; they were showing that ‘black people have rights.'”
Huey P. Newton, a civil rights activist, founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense with Bobby Seale in Oakland, California in 1966. (Photo courtesy the Library of Congress)
Although the Party was founded in 1966, it became widely known in May 1967, when the newly formed Panthers led a protest at the California State Assembly. Faces determinedly set, the cadre of neatly dressed, no-nonsense black men marched into the building in protest of a proposed bill which would have outlawed openly carrying loaded guns. They were armed — and they frightened a lot of folks. Government officials’ manipulation of that fear was a major factor in the eventual dismantling of the Party, Ewing says.
At the time of the Black Panther Party’s emergence, the country was struggling to find its footing after the turbulent civil rights era, lasting from the late 1950s until the late ’60s. Dozens of activists, black and white, were killed in that span. President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, granting the most — if still incomplete — civil liberties protection for people of color since Reconstruction. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, meaning no more poll taxes or literacy tests, which were designed to keep black people from voting; the same year, racially fueled riots broke out in Watts, California. It was a tough time, as witnessed by Evans D. Hopkins, who was born in Danville, Virginia, in 1954. After nonviolent protesters were attacked by police with dogs and fire hoses in his hometown, Hopkins, who is an author (“Life After Life,” Simon & Schuster, $19.99), youth mentor, and chairman of the Swanson Legacy Committee, gained an early understanding of racial oppression, and developed the will to fight it. After a cousin showed Hopkins and his sister a copy of the Black Panther Party newspaper, he joined the Panthers’ Winston-Salem, North Carolina, chapter when he was 17, in 1971.
Author and chairman of the Swanson Legacy Committee Evans D. Hopkins now works to educate youth about civil rights history, using his own family’s story. (Photo courtesy the Library of Congress)
“I worked in the free breakfast program, an ambulance program — because wait times in the community for emergency help were too long — a free clothing program,” Hopkins says over the phone from his central Virginia home. “We even had a pest control program, where we’d go to people’s homes to eliminate vermin. The community’s response [to the Panthers’ programs], in general, was very good.”
Black Panther Party member Charles Bursey serves children food as part of the Party’s Free Breakfast Program. (photo courtesy Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch/PBS)
Hopkins became a deputy minister of information in the organization. “I made up the information leaflets, made up the posters for our programs, and sold the Party’s newspaper door to door,” — and moved to the movement’s birthplace and headquarters, Oakland, California, soon thereafter. In Oakland, working with the Panthers, he began what would become his life’s work, not only as an activist, but as a writer: He started writing articles for the paper, many of which shared information on incidents of police brutality and shootings in California and across the nation.
The June 21, 1969 edition of the Black Panther Party newspaper, which circulated news of police brutality and citizen deaths at the hands of the police, as information of use and importance to black communities across the country. (Photo courtesy of Jihad Abdulmumit)
“In-house, we called it the Police Murder Desk because it seemed like every week, there was somebody writing us about another person who had been shot and killed by police.” Hopkins’ most recent work with the Swanson Legacy Committee yielded a historical marker recognizing his uncle Gregory Swanson as the first black person admitted to the University of Virginia; Swanson had to sue the institution to gain admittance to its law school in 1950, and, along with Thurgood Marshall (who would become a Supreme Court Justice), laid the groundwork for school desegregation. Hopkins hopes VCU’s panel on the Panthers helps clear up misconceptions about the group, including labeling it a “black nationalist” organization or a hate group.
“The Panthers were not a hate group. That is totally wrong,” Hopkins says emphatically. “The Black Panther Party was conceived out of a love for the community. One of our mottoes was ‘love the Party and love the people.’ Another was ‘serve the people, body and soul.’ That’s what we were about.”
Another common misunderstanding is that the Black Panther Party was nothing more than a violent, terrorist group, full of criminals and sociopolitical outcasts, says former member and Richmond resident Jihad Abdulmumit. Having served during the 1970s in the Panthers in his home state of New Jersey and co-establishing a chapter there, Abdulmumit is one of the panelists speaking at VCU’s forum. One of several incidents that eventually led him to join the Panthers was a terrifying traffic stop; he says police pointed guns at the heads of his father and brother before releasing them with no charges and no explanation.
“The police brutality and aggression, the profiling — which adversely affect black people — we see those same things today, which we were speaking against then,” he says. “The Black Panther Party was defending our communities against racial violence and police aggression, period.”
Jihad Abdulmumit has been a case manager at the Health Brigade (formerly the Fan Free Clinic) for 14 years. Additionally, he chairs the National Jericho Movement, which support political prisoners. He is a former member of both the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. (Provided photo)
Abdulmumit also became involved with the Black Liberation Army — a faction that formed under Eldridge Cleaver on the East Coast and was ideologically at odds with what founder Newton wanted to pursue after his release from prison in 1970. Newton, who had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to prison for allegedly killing a police officer, wanted to focus on supportive community programs, “survival programs,” he called them. Several members of the Black Liberation Army would become involved in numerous violent incidents and confrontations with police. One high-profile member, activist Assata Shakur, in 1979 was found guilty of killing a New Jersey state trooper during a traffic stop shootout and sent to prison; she escaped and fled to Cuba for political asylum, where she remains to this day.
Abdulmumit went underground to continue his work with the Panthers and the BLA, and was convicted of robbing a bank and served 22 years in prison. His actions, he says, were financially necessary to fund the community-building work of the groups. Context, as they say, is everything, a lesson Abdulmumit urges anyone examining the Panthers through the lens of history to remember.
“Here we are 40 years later, and people may look at me as a criminal bank robber. But I never kept that money; I put it directly back into the work, for our community.” He, like Hopkins, echoes the sentiment of community support for the Panthers’ actions, even those deemed illegal. “At my arraignment, they brought in two white bank tellers; one of them refused to identify me. At one of the trials, people clapped. People knew what we were trying to do.”
“The establishment,” Abdulmumit says, was the source of the negative, frightening image the Panthers gained then, and that still pervades group’s legacy now. The establishment was federal government officials, namely J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigations director. Hoover is best remembered for his staunch anti-Communist views, and COINTELPRO, a multi-tiered, complex program designed specifically to monitor, discredit and ultimately destroy subversive groups, often using illegal surveillance methods to do so. Hoover, who famously branded the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation” and who zeroed in on nonviolent civil rights groups, had absolutely, positively no tolerance for the Black Panther Party, its ideologies or actions, Ewing says.
“Hoover felt that the way to delegitimize these groups, including the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights group headed by King that was deemed too passive by activists such as Malcom X] and the Panthers, was to show them as dangerous, violent hate groups. He wanted to paint them as radicals, and reckless, gun-toting lunatics. That sentiment, that plan, worked. Part of the reason it worked was that law enforcement was able to provoke a response from the Panthers,” Ewing says. “They got into gunfights with the Panthers, jailed almost all the Panther leaders; they effectively criminalized what the organization was doing. This was a big part of the broader reality of the late 1960s. It’s when black rights efforts were conflated with criminality, which government leaders said needed to be met with ‘law and order.'”
Abdulmumit agrees with that assessment.
“If you look at Harriet Tubman, some people would say that she was a criminal, smuggling ‘property,’ slaves, away from their owners. Now, she is a hero. But back then, who was she to the status quo, and to the paddy rollers, and to the government? It’s the same with the Panthers.”
Like many, Abdulmumit credits COINTELPRO with fueling the Party’s split in the mid- to late-’70s. “If you draw a line down the paper, the split would be between those who saw the necessity of armed struggle and self defense, which was the East Coast, Eldridge Cleaver and his group. On the West Coast, Huey Newton and his group shied away from that revolutionary stance, after Huey came home.” The Panthers inner conflict became increasingly bitter and antagonistic, says Abdulmumit. “FBI’s COINTELPRO … seized upon the, at first, civil disagreement, and exacerbated it until it became very inflammatory between Newton and Cleaver. [FBI officials] were sending fake letters between the two, starting rumors, etc.” Without the FBI’s deliberate interference, he says, “it would never have gone to that level.”
Abdulmumit is a community case manager at Health Brigade (formerly the Fan Free Clinic), a job he’s held for the past 14 years. He shares information with Richmonders on HIV and helps them set up tests at the clinic, a job which he prepared for while still in prison, where he began an HIV-awareness program and conducted peer counseling. Additionally, he serves as the chairperson of the National Jericho Movement, an organization which works to aid and liberate political prisoners.
Undoubtedly, the Panthers had a complicated history. Were they revolutionaries or criminals? How should they be remembered? No one person can answer these questions, but the Black Panther Party’s legacy is certainly worth study — and it’s on a lot of minds lately. The group often nets comparison with the Black Lives Matter movement for its strong opposition to police brutality. Even pop culture is getting in on the act. Beyonce’s SuperBowl halftime show performance, replete with background dancers sporting black berets, immediately invoked parallels to the Panthers’ familiar uniform last year. The Panthers’ brand of unapologetic blackness — the “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” mentality born of the Black Power Movement — is evident in the work of a new generation of musicians and artists like Grammy- winning jazz musician/composer Robert Glasper; actor, writer and producer Donald Glover; and wildly popular rap artist Kendrick Lamar.
Of the Black Panther Party’s ultimate legacy, “I think it’s an important era in our history, which is overlooked, and which people don’t want to talk about,” says Abdulmumit. “But we were strong back then, we were real people — fathers, brothers, mothers, aunts, children — and we cared deeply for our community.”
Hear more from Abdulmumit and former Panthers Pamela Hanna and Sekou Odinga at The Black Panther Party: Legacy and Lessons, Tuesday, April 11 at 7:30 p.m. at The Depot, 814 W. Broad St. Free. Further details here.