“It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community,” activist Stokely Carmichael said in June 1966 upon his release from jail (he had been arrested during the March Against Fear). “It is a call for black people to define their own goals.” Self-determination, Carmichael believed, was the first need of a free people.
The paradox of Carmichael’s charge, however, was that black Americans were not truly free. They had voting rights, on account of the passage of legislation the year before, and could own property, but the racist practices that permeated the nation continued to cripple and chain black men, women, and families at every turn. Real freedom—equal access to education, housing, jobs, and health facilities; the endowment of political might; the privilege to walk down the street without fear of one breathing his last breath—was still far, far off.
But it was Carmichael’s message of black power and pride—that is, socio-economic independence from white capitalist structures which reinforced the belief that black was not beautiful but instead a roadblock to the kind of progress our founding fathers supposedly believed in—that helped give rise to a new liberation movement in American history: the Black Panther Party.
The Panthers are the subject of the new Stanley Nelson-directed documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which charts the spectacular rise and stormy dissolution of the organization. Nelson’s film begins four months after Carmichael’s speech, in October 1966, on the occasion of the Panthers’ founding in Oakland, California by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. Of the original six members, two—Elbert “Big Man” Howard and Sherwin Forte—recall the turbulence of the era in grave detail. “We were setting a new course that we wanted the whole community to follow,” Forte says early in the film. Along with Howard and Forte, former police officers and a range of historians, Nelson interviews several other living members of the party, including Ericka Huggins, Jamal Joseph, Tarika Lewis, and Emory Douglas, the organization’s former Minister of Culture who designed many of the posters and stunning front pages of the party newspaper, The Black Panther.
If Göran Olsson’s 2011 documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, offered a macro-view of the black radical freedom movement Carmichael, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and the Panthers helped to establish and define, Nelson’s film is all the more powerful for its laser focus on the inner-workings of the black nationalist organization. There is a popular misconception that the Black Panthers were anti-white. This is wrong. The party was anti-oppression, and Nelson makes this point evident. Nelson devotes significant portions of the film to highlighting the organization’s 10-point platform (Point 3: “We Want An End To The Robbery By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community”) and several members testify to the Panthers’ community-minded ethos. Among various public enrichment programs, this included social service initiatives in poor neighborhoods—such as free clinics, food distribution drives, and a free breakfast program for kids, which, at its peak, served 20,000 meals across 19 different communities every week—and Fred Hampton’s push to broaden the organization’s reach in Chicago by building a “broad-based” alliance, working with the Young Lords in the Latino community and the Young Patriots Organization in the white community to broker a multiracial coalition.
The party’s growth, however, would become one of its downfalls. Member Kathleen Cleaver notes of the Panthers expansion beyond Oakland: “It was too fast and too big.” As the party expanded and the message of “All power to the people” became a rallying cry in both black and white households across the nation, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover—a man so sick he believed justice was “merely incidental to law and order”—conspired to disband the Panthers, who he felt were a threat to the status quo. Considered a “black nationalist hate group,” Hoover, along with the help of local law enforcement, recruited informants to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit, neutralize and eliminate” the Panthers as part of the FBI’s counterintelligence program, known as COINTELPRO (similarly, the program sought to take down other prominent black activists like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.; “They killed their last chance for negotiation,” one party member remarks during the film’s brief overview of King’s assassination in 1968; Hampton was killed by police the same year).
In August 1970, party leader Huey P. Newton was released from prison after his conviction for the killing of Oakland police officer John Frey was overturned. His release, however, would mark the early stages of the party’s ultimate fracture. Newtown became a symbol—the “Free Huey!” campaign had made him a paragon of the party even as he sat behind bars—and division grew among executive-level members. The Panthers eventually split into two factions: members who supported Eldridge Cleaver’s vision and members who supported Newton’s vision. But the venom of mistrust, coupled with COINTELPRO’s diligent efforts to further dissolve the Panthers, had spread substantially. Rank-and-file members felt betrayed by party leaders, and Newton, in 1972, began shutting down satellite chapters across the country.
In spite of the organization’s shift in focus in later years—Seale ran for mayor of Oakland and former chairwoman Elaine Brown ran for a seat on the city council in a combined effort in 1973 to reclaim the city’s, and the party’s, political power (both would lose)—the mark the Panthers made on history, and in the lives of the young black kids their programs helped to survive, cannot be so easily cast aside. (The documentary is not without error: it largely sweeps over the misogyny that plagued some members or the fact that Cleaver had raped several women in his lifetime, which he openly admits in his 1968 memoir Soul on Ice.)
That this film arrives during a time of great social and political unrest is no mistake. The current Black Lives Matter movement is but an extension of the Panthers’ core goals and ideologies. Nelson’s film, while remarkable and revelatory, is a profound reminder that a free people—the free people Stokely Carmichael spoke so lovingly about—can never fully outrun history. But maybe that’s the true price of freedom and maybe the Panthers knew that best: the acknowledgement that liberation—when one is allowed to determine his or her own outcome without restriction and color-coded prejudice—comes only through unceasing battle. “The rage was in the streets,” Brown says at one point in the film, “It was everywhere.” Then and now.
[Image via AP]