July 06

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What Do You Know About The Black Panther Party? by Alex Harrison

As I become more intentional about reading literature centered around making education for Black students more purposeful, I have been fascinated with The Black Panther Party. Admittedly, I was only familiar with the organization based on what I had heard in the media about The Panthers being radical and wreaking havoc. Conversely, I arrived at the book I selected to learn more about The Panthers with the minimal knowledge that they also sponsored programs that encouraged education and upward mobility, so I set out to learn more about the community activism that they engaged in and discovered more than I had ever known about what The Black Panther Party means to American history.

Revolution in Our Time focuses on The Black Panther Party, but author Kekla Magoon, lays the historical foundation for the creation of the organization, citing hundreds of years of mistreatment at the hands of some white people, the various levels government, the FBI, and limiting laws that did not allow for much upward progress.

Magoon begins with the legacy of uncountable wrongs against Black Americans starting in 1619. Slavery as an institution was perpetuated because of the free labor that was relied on from the enslaved. Even when Black soldiers partook in the Civil War as Union soldiers because they believed they were fighting for their own freedom, they swiftly discovered it was all a farce. Reparations, forty acres of land that would help freed Black men and give them opportunities to provide for their families, never arrived like the government initially promised.

The emergence of Black intellectual leaders and organizations who fought towards civil rights, white allies who assisted in the plight, and strategic efforts to combat injustice were still not enough to stave off racism and encourage equal rights for all.

Fast forward to the 1960s – Black teenagers and young adults who participated in protests and sit-ins were encouraged to be non-violent and engaged in nonreactive training to not be triggered by the vicious behavior they were encountering at the hands of some white people. These young activists discovered that even with passive resistance training coupled with exercising civil disobedience, which was occupying spaces where they were not supposed to be, the white people who wanted segregation to continue were still unhappy, if not even more upset by the peaceful rebellions.

The Black Panther Party emerged out of mounting frustrations. Black people were fighting through boycotts and protests, marches and rising ups – yet little to no changes occurred. With a Ten-Point Platform and Program inspired by the Black organizations and leaders that had gone before them, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale created The Black Panther Party for Self Defense on October 22nd, 1966. Newton was Chairman, while Seale became the Minister of Defense.

Disturbed by the acts of violence that some white people inflicted on peaceful Black people utilizing passive resistance to fight for the right to be treated equally, Newton and Seale created a plan to arm Black folks with legal guns to visually communicate the idea that they were adept in fighting back. However, self-defense did not imply only protecting their physical bodies, it also meant that they were fighting against the inequalities that existed like not being able to gain access to adequate health care, deficient schools in Black neighborhoods, and the fallible justice system.

Although policing the police and ensuring their fair treatment of Black people was one part of the Ten-Point Program, The Panthers, who donned black leather jackets, pants, and revolutionary berets also fought for political education for the community. Contrasting ideology of predecessors, members of The Black Panther Party did not practice civil disobedience. Instead, they strived to know the law and followed it to deter from being intentionally arrested. Political education classes were popular amongst Panther members because the classes were meaningful and applicable to their lives. Arguably, rules for Panther Party membership were strict, including the rule that a prerequisite for receiving weapons training was attendance in political education courses. Some of those political education meetings were life-transforming, affording some members the opportunity to journey from illiteracy to literacy. This was a testament to the ideology that the revolution could only progress once Black people realized the obstacles and barriers they were facing and had the ability to unify in protest.

The brutal death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the catalyst for non-violence, caused anger and frustration amongst his followers and those who were also fighting for civil rights. This caused the Black Power movement to grow. Expressions, like the raised fists during the playing of the national anthem at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City as Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium, became more prominently displayed. The symbol encouraged the strength of the idea and the movement – “All Power to the People!”

Uncharacteristic for the time period, women were welcomed as members of The Black Panther Party, and their leadership within the organization was encouraged. In fact, women worked in tandem with men and even received the same self-defense weapons training men underwent. That is not to say that sexism did not rear its head within The Panthers, but at its core as an educational organization, all forms of oppression were actively taught against. Furthermore, Chairman Bobby Seale also remained open-minded and listened to concerns that women shared if they felt uncomfortable with male chauvinist behavior that was sometimes displayed.

The Black Panther Party obtained a reputation for being a militant group, so some people were stunned to learn they had also cultivated community programs. Believing that survival programs were essential to creating a full revolution, Panther members began offering meals, clothes, healthcare and other necessities to meet the needs of the community. The idea was that more people would “participate in their own upliftment” if they knew the importance of rising to the occasion and if their basic needs were also met. One of the most pivotal community programs was the Free Breakfast Program that provided children with breakfast in Black communities. This program required community effort including food donations from local restaurants, grocery stores, and businesses. At the apex of the Free Breakfast Program, the Black Panther Party was providing nearly ten thousand breakfasts every day throughout the nation. The Panthers believed it was beneficial to the children’s success in schools if they went to school being well-fed instead of hungry. As another form of self-defense and another program that promoted community improvement, the Panthers also operated the People’s Free Medical Clinics where the goal was to offer people the ability to see doctors and receive medicine that they might not have otherwise been able to pay for.

Life as a member of The Black Panther Party was risky, but members knew that their sacrifices were not in vain. Members of The Black Panther Party all possessed their own rationale for joining, but, ultimately, they remained active members because of their love for serving the community and creating a better society inclusive of equal rights for Black citizens.

There were multiple factors that ultimately contributed to the demise of The Black Panther Party, but their activism lives on. Magoon closes the book by reiterating the legacy of The Panthers and how the seeds that they planted have taken root and blossomed through the activism we see today. The lives of Party members who are still alive today are highlighted, their accomplishments are shared, and attention is called to what they are currently doing. Readers are also presented with a call to action: to not allow the contributions of The Black Panther Party to be in vain. Some living Panther members stated that one of their pitfalls was believing that the work could be completed during their lifetime, but only after growing older did they realize the revolution must continue, and the torch must be passed to the younger generation of activists. In closing, the author provides an anecdote about the research it took to write such an extensive novel as well as sharing the powerful range of emotions that she felt when meeting some of the living members of The Panthers.

After reading Revolution in Our Time, not only did I gain major respect for Kekla Magoon for staying the course, conducting a sizeable amount of research, and writing the book for over ten years, but I also gained an understanding of how The Black Panther Party is infinitely more than what I had ever believed.

alex harrisonAlex Harrison is a second-generation educator who currently teaches fourth grade at the same school she attended as a child. She is a doctoral student at the University of Houston-Clear Lake majoring in Educational Administration with a concentration in Reading.