University of California Press

For the remainder of this year until Dec. 4, I’ll be publishing reading guides to complement each chapter of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. 

This book is the inaugural selection of One Book, One Proviso — an initiative launched last month by Village Free Press, a newspaper I publish in the west suburbs. I decided that Austin Weekly News readers would also benefit from this collective reading as well. 

The book was chosen to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Black Panther icon Fred Hampton, who died on Dec. 4, 1969 in an unlawful and unjust raid authorized and carried out by local, state and federal law enforcement authorities inside his West Side apartment. 

The book’s first chapter, “Huey and Bobby,” charts the roots of the Black Panther Party in the personal histories of its founders — Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who met in 1962 as students at Merritt College — a public community college in Oakland, California. They encountered each other at a rally at the college “opposing the U.S. blockade of Cuba,” the authors note on page 21. 

In 1958, the United States basically declared that it would not sale weapons to Cuba while the country was under the regime of the dictator Fulgencio Batista. After Batista was overthrown by Fidel Castro in 1959, the U.S. declared it would no longer ship most exports to Cuba, which under Castro had transferred American-owned oil refineries to Cuban ownership (a process called nationalization).

Huey and Bobby joined the Afro-American Association, a black student group at the college. While members of the group, the young men were introduced to authors like W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Booker T. Washington and Ralph Ellison. They also seriously engaged with the Black Nationalist ideas of Malcolm X, whose assassination on Feb. 21, 1965 enraged Bobby.

Like Malcolm and Fidel, Huey and Bobby were in favor of black and brown people being economically self-sufficient and no longer dependent on U.S. imperialism for material survival.

Contrast the Northern, working-class, relatively impoverished upbringings of activists like Bobby, Newton and Malcolm with the Southern, middle-class and relatively comfortable upbringings of activists like Martin.

The difference between Malcolm’s ballot-or-the-bullet political rhetoric (see page 27) and Martin’s political rhetoric of Gandhian nonviolence boils down, in many respects, to economics. Malcom, a reformed hustler, speaks the lingo of the Northern ghettos. Martin doesn’t.

Another important difference between Civil Rights leaders like Malcolm and Black Power leaders like Bobby and Huey is that the latter opposed the Vietnam War and other acts of U.S. imperialism from the very beginning of their activist careers, and anti-imperialism formed the foundation of their political philosophy. Martin would eventually oppose the war, but only later in his evolution as a political and economic radical.

The Panthers also very swiftly identified that the Cold War had less to do with the United States spreading democracy across the world than with the United States attempting to establish economic and military dominance over Third World people, who were predominantly black and brown (hence the rally against the blockade of Cuba at Merritt College). Southern Civil Rights leaders were not as vocal in their opposition (if they were opposed at all) to the Vietnam War, in particular, and U.S. imperialism, in general. 


Guiding questions

Explain how the Black Panther Party logo symbolizes the party’s philosophy?

After wracking his brain, what solution does Huey Newton finally hit upon for organizing “the brothers on the block”?

Who are some of the key people responsible for helping the Panthers develop their “language of the gun”?


Further Reading

Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Writers and Readers, 1995)

David Hilliard and Lewis Cole, This Side of Glory: The Autobiography of David Hilliard and the Story of the Black Panthers (New York: Little, Brown, 1993)

Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (1971; reprinted Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1990).

Penny Von Eschen, Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism 1937-1957 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997).

Robert F. Williams, Negroes with Guns (New York: Marzani & Munsell, 1962).