Oh yes, those were troubled times during the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s. When Beyoncé gave tribute to the 50th Anniversary of the start of the Black Panther Movement, I thought, “She doesn’t know what she is celebrating.” A look back at the years of the Black Panthers demands attention to other groups who equally tried to force this nation into equal rights for all – especially Blacks. America was about to change one way or the other.
When Rosa Parks lit the “spark” by refusing to give her bus seat over to a White man, the fire of the Civil Rights Movement began. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely set out to change the racial status of the United States via nonviolence. It required patience and discipline plus a lot of faith. There were others who became impatient and entertained the thoughts of rioting, war, separation from the Union or “by any means necessary,” according to Malcolm X.
Dr. King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), because the traditional Black religious groups refused to follow him or his movement. However, his following grew and eventually culminated into the signing of the Civil Rights Act and eventually the Voting Rights Act. These two great pieces of legislation were taking a long time to be fully enforced. Doubters and opportunists decided to take advantage of this slow motion.
Beginning in the summer of 1965, the Los Angeles Watts Riot gave notice to the nation. Blacks were not going to take the abuse, discrimination nor police brutality by ignoring or turning the other cheek. Newark, Chicago, Detroit and other cities burned significant sections of their cities. Plus, the Vietnam War was going on (drafting Black boys in discriminatory fashion) and the war veterans were returning home to the same sad situation they left. Many of them didn’t come back alive, but in a “body bag” (500 per week at the height of the war). Some became violent.
The anti-war movement, frustration with discrimination and lost faith in our political system caused many groups to form. Groups that were anti-establishment. One particular Black group was formed in Oakland, California. It was the Black Panther People’s Party then shortly changed to the Black Panther Party. Its foundation was to follow socialist/Marxist doctrine and to protect and govern their own communities.
They carried weapons, called police “pigs,” wore black leather jackets with black berets fitted over their afro and promoted revolution. Violent skirmishes with the police started becoming frequent as their chapters started popping up in cities throughout the United States. Some members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided to become violent and join the Panthers. Most notably Stokely Carmichael (author of the term Black Power) and H. Rap Brown.
I was going to Ventura Community College near my hometown of Oxnard, California. Suddenly, members of the Black Panther Party – Los Angeles Chapter came on our campus to recruit Black students into the movement. Amazingly, they succeeded. Gwen Harvey, fellow student, was the first in our community to grow a “natural” or afro. I laughed at her for a full hour. Two years later I and everyone else was sporting one – I even bought a black leather coat. What I didn’t know was that Gwen had joined the Black Panthers.
A couple of years later, while I was at the University of Wisconsin, my mother sent me a local news article. Gwen, who was going to the University of California at Santa Barbara, joined a fellow Black Panther and hijacked a commercial jet taking off from the Santa Barbara airport. They commandeered it to Havana, Cuba where they refueled and then flew across the Atlantic Ocean to land in Algeria. Algeria greeted them with open arms and allowed a new chapter of the Black Panthers to be formed there. The nation even funded them. That is where Gwen spent the rest of her days. She died of natural causes a decade or so later.
The FBI went to “war” with the Panthers. In her autobiography, Elaine Brown, clearly discusses the adventures and soon deterioration of the Panthers through J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous COINTELPRO investigations and assassinations. If you want to know about life with the Panthers and the viciousness a nation can be, this is a must read.
While I was attending the University of Wisconsin, I had the opportunity to meet and quickly chat with Fred Hampton who ran the Chicago’s Black Panther chapter. He gave a rousing speech at an event sponsored by a White communist organization – Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). My buddy and I were so intrigued we decided to drive to Chicago, go to his headquarters and request an on the spot interview and then write a paper for one of our professors. Fred took us in! The brother had the makings of a great leader. A few weeks later the Chicago Police Department assassinated him via a couple of dozen bullets as he laid in his bed beside his eight months pregnant wife.
It was devastating! It was a hard lesson for me. Fight the power, but remember the power follows no morals.