Former Black Panther passing the party's legacy on

Billy 'Che' Brooks teaches on the party's history, social justice issues across the Chicago area

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By Bonni McKeown

Lamar Billy "Che" Brooks confesses to starting out as an angry young man on Chicago's West Side. He joined the Black Panther Party to work for a better life for his people and all people, and has pursued this commitment in the everyday world ever since. He has spent 50 years as a social worker, helping youth find themselves and think critically about how to interact with political and economic conditions around them.

Growing up, Brooks got frustrated with his stepfather, a preacher who answered questions like "How could Jesus really walk on water?" with statements like "You just have to believe." Brooks says young people gain more from adults who will enter into dialog with them. 

Brooks said he got through Marshall High by doing a lot of running — on the track team, but also on the street to avoid gangs. His mother told him not to join and he sometimes had to fight gang members to stay independent.  

In September 1967, Brooks entered what is now Kennedy-King College and while there joined a meeting of senior citizens protesting slum housing that was held in a tent on the street. The protest was organized by Fats Crawford, of the Negro Rifle Association, and Doug Andrew, of the West Side Organization. 

After Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, Brooks attended Black Student Union meetings aimed at getting Black Studies courses on campus. When the black student protestors occupied the school cafeteria, a teacher called a student an N-word. Brooks picked up a 4 x 4 signpost and went after the teacher. Brooks was expelled from the college. The court put him on probation, requiring him to go back to school or have a job.

Instead, he joined the Black Panthers. He lived in "Panther pad" apartments and spent all his time organizing on the street. Donations and newspaper sales sustained the Panther groups. Visiting Oakland, Brooks got to know Panther leader Huey P. Newton. But Fred Hampton, the Illinois Chairman from Maywood, was his closest Panther friend and mentor.

Many Chicago Panther leaders were arrested in 1969 and police raided their headquarters at 2350 W. Madison St. on Oct. 4. Since Brooks hadn't gotten a "real job" in November 1969, he faced jail time for the cafeteria altercation. He and Hampton sought talking points to free him, but Judge Hechinger sent him to jail for a month. 

The jail time probably saved his life. On Dec. 4, 1969, city police raided the Panther pad at 2337 W. Monroe. Their shots killed Panthers Hampton and Mark Clark. 

"Fred actually loved people. He was humble. He wouldn't ask somebody to do something he wouldn't do himself," Brooks said. "So I would do anything he asked. If Fred had lived, I would've stayed in the party."  

Brooks left the Black Panther Party in 1972. He needed to spend more time with his sons. He regretted missing his grandmother's funeral in Forrest, Miss., and he didn't like the internal friction that was tearing the party apart. 

Useni Eugene Perkins and Warren Saunders helped him find a place as a volunteer, then a youth worker at the Better Boys Foundation, now BBF Family Services, at 15th and Pulaski, where he had joined boxing programs as a youngster. Over the years, he worked on a Harvard School of Public Health research project directed by Dr. Felton Earls, researching Chicago neighborhoods; with Habilitative Systems on adolescent mental health; and with West Side Association for Community Action in a pre-trial program for youth. He returned to work with BBF youth in 2007 and retired in 2015 to spend time with his seven grandchildren. 

This year, the 50th anniversary of Hampton's assassination, Brooks has led Living History/Social Justice discussions at the Oak Park Main Library and on the South Side at the Arts Bank. 

"Oak Park is not for black People, but it pretends to be," said Brooks, who lives in the west suburbs. "I like the diversity in this area and I like a challenge helping youth with critical thinking. I tell them not to copy what we did. We already have school breakfast programs (something the Panthers started) and there's no need to go fight with police; they know who you are. Don't replicate. Create."

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com  

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