In his last public letter — released two weeks before his death on July 4, 1826 — Thomas Jefferson praised the Declaration of Independence, a document he had drafted a half-century earlier, as “an instrument, pregnant with our own and the fate of the world.”
According to author David Armitage, “as he declined an invitation to attend the commemoration in Washington, D.C., of the fiftieth anniversary of American independence, Jefferson […] regretted that illness would keep him from a reunion with ‘the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword.'”
Later in the letter, Jefferson announces his hopes that America’s independence “be to the world what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.'”
After reading the beginning chapters of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, I am fully convinced that a group of young, Black militants — many of whom were around the same age as many of the Founding Fathers when they took up their swords against the British — were the last citizens of this great country to genuinely act on Jefferson’s words, which is why many of them, like Maywood native son Fred Hampton, are no longer with us.
As Armitage points out in Declaration of Independence: A Global History, and as I’ve stated in the past, the Declaration, in reality, was not a human rights document; it was an announcement directed at other nations, particularly global powers such as France, so that they would recognize the united colonies as a force, independent of Great Britain, to be reckoned with (and worthy of credit to finance the fight for independence that would come later).
The Founding Fathers were not a racially oppressed minority. As a class (economically, culturally, religiously), they were closer to their British ‘oppressors’ than they were to their marginalized would-be countrymen of African descent. Elite American colonists like Jefferson did not need to announce their humanity to the world. Poor, marginalized and despised Black men like Fred Hampton did and do.
The Declaration of Independence is a dangerously contradictory document, in that it makes compelling cases both for self-governance and for insurrection in one fell swoop.
The Black Panthers were revolutionary because they took the Declaration seriously — violently and deadly seriously. Unlike leaders of the modern Civil Rights movement, who operated mostly within a Constitutional context (and took the legitimacy of the U.S. government at face value), the Panthers adopted the fighting stance of the Founding Fathers during the American Revolution.
Jefferson writes in the Declaration of Independence that a legitimate government requires the “consent of the governed,” that it must be created so that its subjects are allowed to pursue “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
The Black Panther Party excerpted a portion of the Declaration of Independence in its original Ten Point Program of May 15, 1967.
In Black Against Empire, authors Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. make an incredibly convincing case, based on thorough fact-finding and exacting historical analysis, for the Panthers’ status as genuine revolutionaries — perhaps the last of their kind in America.
“Not since the Civil War … have so many people taken up arms in revolutionary struggle in the United States,” they write. “Of course, the number of people who took up arms for the Union and Confederate causes and the number of people killed in the Civil War are orders of magnitude larger than the numbers who have engaged in any armed political struggle in the United States since.
“Some political organizations that embraced revolutionary ideologies yet eschewed armed confrontation with the state may have garnered larger followings than the Black Panther Party did. But in the general absence of armed revolution in the United States since 1864, the thousands of Black Panthers — who dedicated their lives to a political program involving armed resistance to state authority — stand alone.”
You can argue over the Black Panthers’ reasons for resistance and their means (and I encourage people to delve into that history), but Bloom and Martin are definitive in this one point. You can’t argue that they weren’t revolutionaries — and in the most Jeffersonian sense of the word.