This Department features reviews and summaries of new books that link history and current events. From time to time we also feature essays that highlight publishing trends in various fields related to history.
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Jeremy Kuzmarov is J.P. Walker associate professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Massachusetts, 2009) and Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012).
In the summer of 1970, the North Vietnamese invited Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver to speak to black GIs from a radio station in Hanoi. Cleaver was the author of the best-selling memoir, Soul on Ice, which provided insights into the psychological effects of racial oppression in America and a sharp critique of the Vietnam War. He told the GIs that: “What they’re doing is programming this thing so that you cats are getting phased out on the battlefield. They’re sticking you out front so that you’ll get offed. And that way they’ll solve two problems with one little move: they solve the problem of keeping a large number of troops in Vietnam; and they solve the problem of keeping young warriors off the streets of Babylon. And that’s a dirty, vicious game that’s being run on you. And I don’t see how you can go for it.”
In Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. use Cleaver’s speech to show the internationalism of the Black Panther Party and its anti-imperialism. The Panthers considered African Americans as a colonized people within the United States, subjected to social and economic discrimination and the policing of their neighborhoods by racist police officers whom they likened to an occupying army. They promoted the writings of Frantz Fanon, the Algerian psychologist who analyzed how colonized peoples internalized their own oppression and rejected their cultural heritage. Freedom could only be achieved through revolutionary upheaval.
The Black Panther Party originated in Oakland California in 1966 following the assassination of Malcolm X. Huey P. Newton, the party’s co-founder with Bobby Seale, studied law at Merritt College and uncovered that it was legal to carry a loaded firearm in California in public. The Panthers began patrolling the streets of Oakland to defend their communities and recruited ghetto youth who might have otherwise joined street gangs. The Panthers built their ties with the community, first in Oakland, and then in cities around the country, by providing breakfasts to underprivileged youth, medical care and after-school programs. The breakfast program fed hundreds of kids per day and thousands per week, with local businesses often donating food (though sometimes they were extorted).
Through its brash rhetoric, street swagger and commitment to action, the Black Panthers captured the imagination of the white student left and sympathetic liberals who hosted fundraising events. The group spawned numerous offshoots, including the Young Lords and among Asian Americans and Chicanos. Their critique of the racist power structure and Vietnam War was highly resonant at the time. The organization played an influential role in spearheading campus demonstrations that led to the development of black studies programs and a revamping of academic curriculum.
The Panthers were targeted by police, and often got into shoot-outs with authorities. Many of their members were incarcerated and killed. In Oakland, the notoriously racist police repeatedly shot at Panther headquarters, developed bounties for killing Panther leaders, and assassinated seventeen-year-old Bobby Hutton after he was taken into police custody. In October 1967, Huey Newton was pulled over and got into a gun battle with Oakland police officer John Frey, who was killed in the melee. Newton was wounded and arrested for manslaughter, and later freed after his case had become a global cause célèbre. While shackled to the gurney in the hospital he had been taunted and spit at by police, without censure by hospital staff.
Around this time, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover designated the Panthers as the greatest threat to internal security in the United States. In an effort to destroy the organization, FBI agents spread disinformation, penetrated the party apparatus, planted provocateurs and sowed dissension within leadership ranks. In Los Angeles, FBI informants likely murdered John Huggins and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, a leader of the black student union at the University of California at Los Angeles. In Chicago, 21-year old Party leader Fred Hampton and comrade Mark Clark were drugged and then assassinated by local police in collusion with the FBI. The two had forged a truce between rival street gangs whom they had begun recruiting into the party.
With time, the Black Panther Party could not sustain itself, as most of its leaders were incarcerated, killed or exiled. The romanticization of violence and promotion of guerrilla warfare alienated people in society who were otherwise sympathetic to the plight of blacks and opposed to the Vietnam War. The Panthers' inability to forge larger coalitions with liberal leftists was epitomized when Panther leader David Hilliard was booed off the stage at an antiwar rally in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco that had included speeches by Senators George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Hilliard went too far in calling Richard Nixon a “motherfucker” who should be assassinated. “We will kill Richard Nixon and any motherfucker that stands in the way of freedom.” The Panthers reputation plummeted further after Huey Newton began exhibiting megalomaniacal behavior following his release from prison in 1970. Newton took up residence in a posh residence atop Oakland and began associating with elements of the Oakland underworld. After experiencing a mental breakdown, he was later accused of murdering a 17-year-old prostitute, and died in 1989 in an apparent botched crack deal.
By the mid 1970s, the Panthers ceased to exist as an organized political force, synonymous with the decline of the radical student movements of the 1960s. The end of the Vietnam War and Nixon’s opening to China and détente policy, coupled with the Philadelphia Plan promoting affirmative action helped to quell support for the radical, anti-imperialist rhetoric of the Panthers, even though many of the structural inequalities and police brutality they had spoken out against persisted. The party’s newspaper began to deemphasize armed violence and guerrilla warfare, focusing more on providing a structural critique of U.S. capitalism and imperialism. Offshoots such as the Black Liberation Army (BLA) robbed banks and bombed government buildings on behalf of the revolutionary cause, though other Panthers tried their hand at electoral politics. In 1972, Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland on a social democratic platform and forced a run-off with his Republican competitor, though he ended up losing. Elaine Brown, a one-time lover of Huey Newton, helped to organize blacks in support of Governor Jerry Brown and was able to use her leverage with him to procure funding for community development projects. The conservative shift in political life, however, limited Brown’s influence over the long-term and the last Panther chapter closed its doors for good in 1982.
Black against Empire breaks new scholarly ground in providing the first comprehensive history of the Black Panther Party. One of the authors’ main goals is to move beyond the demonization of the Panther Party by neoconservative authors like David Horowitz, who portray the Panthers as akin to a criminal gang. Horowitz and his ilk fail to properly consider the social environment in which the Panthers emerged and the lived experience of black people in that time. They minimize the degree of state repression in contributing to the party’s implosion and deemphasize the positive elements of the party’s history, including the breakfast programs, the party’s ability to politicize ghetto youth and turn them away from gang violence, its raising public consciousness about the inhumanity of imperialism, its sparking opposition to the wars in Indochina, and its stimulating blacks and other oppressed people to stand up for their rights, both in the United States and abroad. Black against Empire represents a significant contribution in restoring the integrity of Black Panther Party activists who fought for social justice, and shows how the history of racism in America sparked mental anguish and torment among black peoples, who resisted in the best ways they knew how. The mistakes made by the party and its leaders need to be acknowledged but those mistakes were largely rooted in the American experience, and the violent, oppressive communities from which most of the Panthers came.