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.
In the first paragraph of the book’s second chapter, the authors describe a moment in early 1967. “Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Little (Lil’) Bobby Hutton, “the first recruit to their Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, were cruising around north Oakland in Seales’ 1954 Chevy.”
The three young men spot a police patrol car in the area and decide to patrol the patrolman. “When the officer turned right, Newton turned right. When the office turned left, Newton turned left. Newton was are with a shotgun, Seale a .45 caliber handgun, and Hutton with an M-1 rifle. A law book sat on the back seat.”
This paragraph tells us a lot about who the Panthers were in their early days and why they even existed. A careful reader with no prior knowledge of the Panthers must ask: Why is Newton following the cop in the first place? Is he asking for trouble? Is he baiting the cop just for kicks? Notice how easy it is to play into some rather simplistic assumptions about this group of young Black men if you don’t have any context to frame your questioning.
Thankfully, based on our reading of chapter 1 (“Huey and Bobby”), we know that Los Angeles policemen were notorious for abusing the city’s African American residents, most of whom were forced to live in certain racially isolated segments of the city. The role of the police was to ensure that they stayed where they were warehoused.
For instance, police officers in LA “called their nightsticks ‘nigger-knockers’ and residents “of one of the most highly patrolled precincts called their area ‘little Mississippi’ and never knew “where or what hour may come blows from the guardians of the law who are supposed to protect them,'” according to the local NAACP (see page 28 in chapter 1).
We also know that the peaceful efforts of activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer to fight racism by registering Black voters and lobbying white politicians to change laws had real limitations. Blacks like Huey and Bobby who lived in northern cities felt that the progress that Black activists in the South achieved did not translate into material progress for them.
Although it may have been effective for King, Huey and Bobby believed that nonviolence would not protect them from the powerlessness they experienced at the hands of a racist police force. But how do you politically mobilize Blacks in places like Watts without a coherent strategy for achieving your goals?
Huey and Bobby realized that they could meet a basic need among many Blacks in their community — the need to feel safe and protected from random acts of police violence — by arming themselves, abiding by a California law that allowed residents to carry guns as long as they were not concealed, and asserting their Constitutional rights (and not just the Second Amendment, but also the Fourteenth Amendment).
The sight of the Panthers confronting the police brandishing guns and citing laws (without getting arrested, beaten or intimidated) was magnetic for many Blacks in LA. Whites had to do something to bring the Panthers down a notch — change the law allowing residents to openly carry loaded firearms.
When Huey and Bobby got wind of what white lawmakers were trying to do, they protested in their own way. On May 2, 1967, 30 Panthers got their guns and went to the state’s capital in Sacramento.
At the very moment the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was at its most vulnerable (lawmakers were trying to remove the very law that gave them such power), the party’s national profile took off.
How does Black Panther Executive Mandate #1 compare and contrast with the United States Declaration of Independence?
How does the Black Panthers’ national TV debut on May 2, 1967 compare and contract with the iconic TV image of police dogs attacking peaceful protestors during the civil rights movement’s Birmingham Campaign in May 1963?
Why were some of the Black Panthers’ earliest recruits attracted to the party?
Gilbert Moore, A Special Rage (New York: Harper & Row, 1971)
Sol Stern, “The Call of the Black Panthers,” New York Times Magazine, August 6, 1967.