It was not until I reached my forties that I began to understand a malady that commonly affects my elders, that being their forgetfulness. I considered it hilarious when they filled in the gaps caused by receding memories with sensational recollections that amount to little more than half-truths. I mention this for one simple reason; recollections and reconstructions from yesteryear cannot be trusted. Faulty memories lead each of us to unintentionally change historical events. Of all the protest groups that attempted to achieve revolution during the highly-volatile 1960s, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the Vanguard of the Black Power Era, has been victimized by historical revisionism than any other group.
The reason that this matter weighs so heavily upon my mind is that I am currently exposing my survey class to the Panthers. Although I am no longer surprised, I remain a bit stupefied by how little my students, whom I think are smart and courageous, know about African-American History. In their defense, they have not been exposed to Black history during their K-12 educational experience. When asked what they know about The Black Panther Party, they struggle to name the Panther Party’s co-founders, any of the points on their ten-point platform, or the ideological underpinnings supporting the group. Instead they rely upon popular misconceptions that portray the Panthers as a vagabond group of lawless, criminal-minded, racist, irrational militants.
In addition to knowing next to nothing about the Panther Party, my students have no clue regarding the luminaries who made up the organization. The names Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, Kathleen Cleaver, Geronimo Pratt, Lil’ Bobby Hutton, Elaine Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Assata Shakur, Bunchy Carter, Mutulu Shakur, William Lee Brent, Bobby Rush, John Huggins are all foreign to my young students. My students are not alone in their woeful ignorance of the Panthers.
To my amazement, several contemporary groups that have seized the Panther name are equally oblivious as they have betrayed the very foundations of the organization with their myopic, xenophobic, misogynistic, politically directionless posturing that they illogically believe is revolutionary politics. They are not only out of step with the Panther legacy, but also damaging the Panther brand in a manner that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) could never achieve. The vast majority of these expressions of Panther politics are ill-informed half-witted cries from directionless individuals seeking to aid their community in some manner; although their intentions are admirable, good intentions fail to mask their ignorance of Panther ideology as it is so much more than posturing with guns, shouting “Black Power”, and trying to scare white people.
Even a cursory examination of Panther Party politics reveals that the basis of Panther ideology was a Ten-Point Platform that called for things such as: freedom, jobs, housing, and education relevant to Black people, an end to the exploitation of the Black Community by all Capitalists (including Black ones), clothing, and justice. Although it is understandable that many people remember the Panthers only for the guns, the group’s greatest legacy had nothing to do with guns. I allude to their often forgotten community service programs:
- Free Breakfast for Children
- Free Grocery Giveaway
- Panther Patrols
- Sickle-Cell Anemia Testing
- Physical protection for the Black Community against external aggressors
- Free Lunch Program
- Free Ambulance Service
- Legal Defense Fund
The above activities represent the Panther spirit, not the faux groups who are attempting to co-opt their image and legacy by brandishing weaponry that is today as useful as the Hollywood props used in contemporary actions movies.
Huey P. Newton, one of the Panther co-founders, recognized that it was imperative that we work within our community to stabilize and strengthen it. Only after Black folk were taken care of were we to go forth in a revolutionary manner. This is a lesson that too many of the contemporary Panther groups have forgotten. Many of these new groups are merely posturing and “talking loud and sayin nothing.”
I would like to warn those who are best termed the “paper Panthers” of this admonishment from Minister of Defense Huey P. Newton. “The revolutionary is a doomed man as he will either die in the revolution trying to achieve revolutionary change or successfully lead a revolution and then be discarded by the people as he has outlived his utility.”
So my question is how many African-Americans are willing to bypass these faux Panthers with their juvenile antics and enlist in a true expression of Panther Politics? The Panther Party is here waiting for you. Who is willing to take on that challenge? If you’re courageous enough, the Panther Party would love to hear from you.
Dr. James Thomas Jones III