My Thoughts on the Black Panther Party – 50thAnniversary
Afrikan people arrived to the shores of North America in the holds of slave ships. Off the boats, poked and prodded, they stood on the auction block for sale. Wealthy people were the only ones who could afford to own slaves, they wanted steady labor to plant and harvest their crops and extract minerals and natural resources from land that they had seized form native people to enrich themselves. Shipping companies, whole new industries grew up and fed off this “peculiar institution”: the stock market, banking, insurance companies, and interstate commerce.
The wealth of North America is largely based on the traffic of black flesh. Tobacco, sugar, cotton production generated tremendous private wealth. Cotton was king and the lash its overseer. Cotton import enabled British textile mills to command the global market in textile production. Slave labor produced such wealth that it made the Industrial Revolution possible from which modern technology evolved.
Early on, slave owners sought to secure their labor supply by legislative decree ordering that both slave and offspring were slaves for life. Slaves had no rights. They were doomed to unremitting toil chained to a grinding economic system and for hundreds of years the wealthy fed off that labor and their lesser entities devoured the crumbs. In the interim and when possible, they wrecked farm equipment, maimed livestock, stole, set fires, rebelled, poisoned their owners, risked being chase down and ripped apart by dogs.
Although the U.S. Civil War of 1863 ostensibly settled the question of slavery, the newly freed slaves soon learned as would succeeding generations that continued white political and economic domination imposed as much control over their lives as it had done during slavery.
The custom of whites dominating black citizens remained largely undisturbed. Thus barring the all too frequent black lynching and white mob violence (that done without fear of consequence or reprisal and is why it’s still being done to blacks today), blacks lived in relative obscurity in white society. They remained invisible to the courts in any real way until the mid-1950s when the Supreme Court weighed in on school desegregation. Otherwise, neither the courts nor law enforcement, local, state, and national intervened to protect black citizens. Whites never regarded or treated blacks as equals. As Dr. King remarked, Change does not roll in on wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.
Blacks gained mobility after W.W.I & II and began to see and think of themselves and their place in the world in a different light. And white authority’s continued intransigence to their civil rights demands marked a decisive turn in their response.
The urgency of now prompted black youth to be far more militant and politically assertive in the 60s and 70s. While we praised the legacy of black resistance – Amistad, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X – we created the Black Panther Party. We occupied racially segregated spaces and fearlessly faced arrests, billy clubs and firehoses. We raised a window through which the world could see u.s. democracy in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Watts.
And during these assertive times, black culture blossomed. Black, not Negro, was the preferred appellation. That “Black is beautiful” resonated. The wig, the processed hair was “out” and the “fro” was “in.” Black pride flowed across the land and nourished the spirit. Black culture, black skin, black music, black dance resonated throughout America. We called it Black Power, signified by a clenched fist in the air as a salute to “black Liberation” colors: red, black, and green.
The black fight for social justice and community control clashed with the white power structure. Some blacks argued that the black community constituted a colony within an imperialist nation – a perspective that likened the black struggle against oppression to a shared global struggle and resistance to that oppression. The government’s resistance to blacks’ fair and honest demands that it eliminate poverty, reform prisons, provide decent housing, jobs, schools, health care and cease unrestrained police violence, radicalized black youth.
A stick instead of a carrot was the response: reduced social service spending, more police, more prisons, longer sentences, life without parole; crack-cocaine suddenly appeared. Unemployment, grinding poverty lack of opportunity paved the way for its use and sale with devastating effect that will take generations to recover from. Warfare whether cold or hot is just as lethal. The local and national media fanned the flames of this undeclared war on black people, agitating for crime control, trumpeting “crime in the streets,” “war on drugs,” and thus legitimizing the stick that law enforcement and politicians viciously wielded.
The Party’s political program, on the other hand, sought to educate, protect, and provide leadership in the black community. Its self-help initiatives had begun to show great promise. Its newspaper, The Black Panther, showed skill, efficiency, and professionalism, and featured cogent analysis of local, national and global events. It enjoyed wide circulation and appeared on time despite the all-out effort to silence this indispensable critical black voice. The white power structure felt threatened by this political program, by all this black energy, this growing black confidence and self-reliance. Perhaps its own self-identity can only be realized through suppressing and dominating others, especially people of color.
Accordingly, f.b.i. and local police launched armed assaults on Party branches across the country. Political warfare disguised as law enforcement. The press both supported these targeted actions and disposed public opinion to regard those targeted, black people in particular, as criminals, drug sellers and violent. Thus then and now, to be black in America is to exist with the presumption of guilt. The corporate media’s malicious mischaracterization of black Americans inspired conclusions that whatever happens to them is because they bring it on themselves.
Centuries of sustained u.s. racial oppression and inequality that still exist today explains the Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants, Michael Browns and is why Black Lives Matter. In defending the black community, Black Panthers stepped into the breach and have grievously suffered or been killed. Since that critical time during the late 60s and early 70s, scores of us were captured, and we remain in prison today. Despite having served long sentences and being parole eligible, the states refuse to release them. Frederick Douglass said way back when that power concedes nothing without a demand. So you should work and fight hard, making our release a chief demand at every opportunity. We represent the spirit and resolve of people who look like you and me and who fought for you and me; locked in a cell, subject to isolation, assaults medical neglect, loneliness, frequent transfers. We brave these harsh conditions because we believe self-determination, social justice and basic human decency are worth fighting for.
The black struggle is far from complete. Black bodies still bleed in the streets, schools remain in crisis, poverty, hunger, police violence, and joblessness persists; the nation continues to warehouse young black bodies in its prisons. The unconscionable number of young black men in prison is painful to see. I know, as I’ve spent 43 years in here. The black community has yet to gather and organize itself into concentrated authority within itself; it continues to react and respond to crisis and community needs spontaneously instead of in a focused and deliberate manner. Thus it’s forever true that a house divided shall never stand on its own.
This commemoration affords those gathered here to ponder and be reminded that in the not too distant past the black community spoke and acted as one and that the B.P.P. made a worthy and proud contribution to that endeavor. It organized a political structure and articulated a political program that inspired young men and women to greatness with little political experience but with lots of street savvy, common sense and courage, and with a fabulous artist named Emory Douglas. Given time to mature without external attacks, the Party might have grown into a formidable black political organization that fully met the needs of its people.
But the white power structure through f.b.i. leadership and its counter-intelligence program saw fit to destroy that effort, dealing yet another blow to the black freedom struggle. Therefore, we gather at this commemoration to reflect on our past (auction blocks cotton fields, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the suffering of our forebears), to honor all those who are no longer with us but who gave their all in their service to our historic struggle for our freedom, for our self-determination. And this struggle is far from complete. Whatever it takes, it will get done. Already, there are signs and indications . . . .
All Power To The People!
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