Just over fifty years ago, then college students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale created the Oakland-based Black Panther Party for Self Defense (Self Defense was later dropped) as a response to police brutality and the exploitation of the working-poor by corporations.
As seen in Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Black Panther: Vanguard of the Revolution, the Party was very complex and had its flaws. In addition to the Party’s many Survival Programs such as the Free Breakfast for Children’s Program, Liberation Schools, health clinics, bus-to-prison program, among many others, there was violence—external and internal—as well as misogyny within the organization. Yet the Party championed women’s rights and was led by a woman when Elaine Brown controlled the Party during Newton’s exile from 1974-1977.
The BPP has become a popular topic for public intellectuals. VIBE caught up Prof. Robyn Spencer, Associate Professor of History at Lehman College, and author of The Revolution has come: Black Power, Gender and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, where she discussed her new book, Elaine Brown, gay and women’s rights, #BlackLivesMatter and more.
VIBE: I read that you were able to spend time with notable Party member, Melvin Dickson. Is he still doing community service?
Prof. Spencer: Melvin Dickson joined the Black Panther Party as a youth in Seattle and transferred to Oakland to work at the Oakland Community School, one of the Panthers’ longest lasting survival programs. He is still going strong in his political commitment to social change at age 70. He founded the Commemorator newspaper in 1989, a newspaper aimed at commemorating the legacy of the Panthers that still comes out today. Organizers who work on the newspaper and the various educational programs aimed at the needs of oppressed communities sometimes use Panther iconography. Melvin Dickson is in the tradition of the many Panther veterans around the country who have dedicated themselves to sharing the history and politics of the organization and fighting current oppressions but who have not formally revived the organizational structure or tried to continue the name.
Can you briefly explain your new book Revolution Has Come?
My book explores the common themes that guided activists all over the country and tries to bridge the North/South divide. Panther founders were the children of migrants to Oakland from the South. They were influenced by what was happening in the South at the time but also connected to local and regional actions in Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley. Like many urban areas, Oakland had its own protest movement in the fight against poverty, unequal education, housing discrimination, and police brutality. The Panthers grew out of the same soil as these efforts, influenced by the more radical strands of these movements.
Your book argues that the BPP’s commitment to linking with other revolutionaries across the world made it one of the most effective ambassadors for Black Power. Can you give one or two examples of how?
Panthers activists in the BPP’s International Section in Algeria made alliances with many liberation organizations from Palestine to Vietnam. They participated in Pan-African Cultural Festival in 1969, an anti-colonial and anti-imperial call for liberation of the African continent. These connections translated into increased international news in the Panther newspaper which was disseminated in black communities around the U.S. In addition, oppressed peoples in Australia, India, England and Polynesia created organizations emulating the Panthers to address the inequities in their societies.
I had no idea that the Party worked with gay and lesbian groups? Most of us do not know that.
The Panthers evolved alongside the movement for gay and lesbian liberation as well as the women’s movement. There were many intersections and areas of overlap as the Panthers dealt with issues of sexism and power, sexual freedom, birth control, child care, etc. Women and men within the Panthers challenged each other on these issues and more. This is evident in the fact that one of the Panthers’ eight points of attention was “do not take liberties with women,” the incorporation of formal childcare structures in the organization and the many daily negotiations over gender and power within the organization. The Panthers offered a strong critique of the racism of mainstream liberal white feminism. The Panthers doubtlessly had strategic alliances with leftist gay and lesbian liberation organizations. In 1970, Huey Newton issued a statement in support of gay rights and stating that Panthers “should try to form a working coalition with the gay liberation and women’s liberation groups.” The FBI used this statement to delegitimize his leadership and sow dissent within the organization.
Despite the complexities and misogyny within the Party, Elaine Brown became the Party’s leader. How did the Party change under her leadership?
Under the leadership of Elaine Brown the Panthers moved in the direction of electoral politics and institutionalizing community programs. Brown was also committed to making visible the many Panther women who were shouldering political work within the organization. The number of women on the Central Committee expanded during her tenure.
Did Huey Newton ever express regret for using guns as a tool to protect his community?
Huey Newton saw self-defense as a human right and police violence as a scourge in communities of color in the U.S. The Panthers’ police patrols did not just include legally carried guns but law books and tape recorders. When the laws were changed to make their guns illegal, the role of weapons within the organization changed. Taking aim at police violence is something the Panthers did from their inception to their decline. Increasingly however, this aim was not taken with a gun but with various community programs, political initiatives, lawsuits etc. aimed at defending the community from the police.
What attracted you to study the BPP?
I was attracted to studying the BPP because they sourced black oppression in structural racism and discrimination. They were uncompromising, sought allies among other people of color and spoke in plain language that the average person could relate to. They had a class analysis and engaged socialist ideas. And I could see clear examples of women holding visible roles of influence within the organization. These things made the Panthers appealing to me because I felt that they offered unique insights in the history of Black Power’s radical potential.
And why should we care about a movement that was wiped out in less than twenty years?
The Panthers accomplished so much in their short lifespan. They skillfully used culture—their bold rhetoric, their unforgettable artwork and the music and poetry that was created by members—to paint a picture of a world that would be free of oppression. The organization was built by young people who showed incredible discipline and commitment to the Party structure and ideology. The institutions that Panthers built such as their community programs and their newspaper are evidence of the hard work and sacrifice of membership. The Panthers did imaginative things like try to rewrite the constitution at the Revolutionary People Constitutional Convention and organize people against fascism. The fact that the FBI dedicated itself to the destruction of the organization is testament to the threat the Panthers posed to the status quo. They represent a freedom dream that has been insistent in black life from the earliest slave rebellion.
Can you offer criticism, advice or your thoughts on #BlackLivesMatter as well as compare and contrast #BLM with the BPP?
The #BlackLivesMatter movement has emerged as one of the most powerful movements of this century. It has the potential to unite people across divisions to advocate for a truly intersectional vision of justice for all. It has been wonderful to watch the movement grow and a slogan become an official organization. It is hard to compare organizations because they grow out of historical moments that are unique but the BLM movement’s concept of a leader-full movement and horizontal organizing has the potential to succeed in ways that the Panthers more militaristic structure and centralized leadership structure did not. Time will tell. At the same time, the Panthers’ focus on face-to-face organizing is instructive. My book started with me being politicized by knocking on people’s doors in the projects. These human connections cannot be underestimated even in our technological age. I have observed many opportunities for veterans from SNCC and the Panthers to engage in productive dialogue with this new generation of activists. This learning and teaching should very much be a two-way street.
Prof. Spencer’s The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender and Black Panther Party In Oakland can be purchased at Duke University Press.