AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present
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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present
AFAM 162 - Lecture 18 - Black Power
Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]
Professor Jonathan Holloway: I think maybe I just wanted to be a DJ in another life. I just like playing clips. The–So this is an excerpt from James Brown’s Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud. It’s released in 1968. You know, we aren’t quite there chronologically yet. I’ll be coming, coming up to it in the course of the lecture though. And it becomes an immediate hit, a popular hit, and a political hit. It’s played at rallies to rev up the crowd and call and response, certainly. Brown actually distances himself from the song after a handful of years, saying, “Look, we needed it at that moment. We needed it to develop pride in the black community to understand who we were as a people, but, you know, things are more complicated now.” This is something he’s saying in the 1970s, as his politics start going off in, in a variety of different directions. But we are at this moment, for the purpose of today’s lecture, essentially sixty-six through the end of the six–through the end of the decade. We’re at this moment of profound fascination with blackness in a different, in a different kind of way. It’s being articulated in different ways than it was at the moment of SCLC’s being established or SNCC’s establishment. We’re at a moment of incred–sort of in the wake of incredible successes with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, a moment of incredible ambiguity: what are we going to be doing next?; what’s the next step in the journey?; and a moment of profound rupture. I already talked a little bit about this last week with–calling attention to a tone shift and a strategic shift as far as black freedom movements are concerned in the late–mid to late 1960s, and we’ll deal with it a little more explicitly today. One more clip, this one a video clip, as a way to get another, well as a way to get more traction on what’s happening in this particular moment. It’s a very short one.
[Narrator:] Eldridge Cleaver, who had gained fame from his writings in prison was the chief spokesman for the party.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: I think he made his point rather clear. This is a period of also incredible rhetorical hyperbole. I mean, I’m not saying that he didn’t mean these things certainly, but, but the, the scope of what’s actually going to happen, the violence and the rhetoric, is palpable and we are certainly past that moment of the beloved community, with Martin Luther King and his dream in 1963. And we’ll talk, depending on how far I get in today’s lecture, might start talking about King’s final years today, or we’ll certainly pick it up on Wednesday. But you’ll see the unraveling of this beloved community, especially when we start talking about King.
Now you saw a clip there about Eldridge Cleaver, Minister–Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party. Let’s back up a few steps, overlapping where we were last Wednesday, make sure we’re all on the same page about the Black Panther Party’s establishment in this moment of the Black–the Black Power moment in general. You remember that I talked about the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in, in Alabama, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, the first group to embrace the black panther as a symbol. Stokely Carmichael, a veteran of Mississippi Freedom Summers and freedom schools, just out of college essentially, SNCC activists–activist, goes down to Lowndes County where he discovers these farmers and helps them organize into the LCFO. Becomes a radicalizing moment for Carmichael, one that is on sort of a steady pace for him, one radicalizing moment after another, that eventually leads to his exile from the United States in just a handful of years.
Chapter 2. James Meredith, Stokely Carmichael and the March against Fear [00:05:08]
So we’re in 1966. James Meredith, young man, a civil rights activist who had integrated Old Miss, the University of Mississippi, the bastion of state privilege in that particular state. If you wanted to become a leader in Mississippi, you went to Old Miss, and this was a place that was unavailable to African Americans, and James Meredith wanted to change that. He integrates Old Miss a few years earlier, and in the process, residents of the area riot and actually kill federal marshals who are there to, you know, ensure the place gets integrated. James Meredith is an iconoclastic character if ever there was one, and actually comes out very much against civil rights later on in his life, saying it was demeaning that we, that African Americans had to still cling to these notions of civil rights heritage and battles. James Meredith decides that he wants to call attention to the changes in Mississippi that have been very real, certainly, and he decides he’s going to march across Mississippi in June of sixty-six, a march against fear. “No one’s going to tell me what to do. No one’s in control of my life.” He’s marching by himself.
Civil rights leaders, people on the ground, friends of the movement, are el–all telling Meredith, “This is crazy. You cannot do this. Okay, you’ve done a lot of great things for the movement, but the idea of actually trying to march across Mississippi by yourself without, without protection is a suicide mission.” It turns out they’re almost right. Meredith starts off on his march and before you know it, he’s laid flat by shots, someone driving by with a shotgun. He’s hospitalized. He survives, of course, he’s–but, but it’s not clear at that moment what’s actually going to happen. Leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SCLC, CORE decide, “Well we’re not going to let–Now we’re not going to let this march fail.” So they set out to complete Meredith’s march against fear, so they’re going to march across the state. At a stop in Greenwood, Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael, now the leader of SNCC, been thrown in jail for I think the eighth time, I believe. They’d done the jail no bail strategies. The march is still going on. Stokely Carmichael gets out of jail and tells an assembly out on the lawns, “The only way”–excuse me.
“The only way we’re going to stop them white men from whipping us is to take over. We’ve been saying ‘Freedom’ for six years, and we ain’t got nothing. What we’re going to start saying now is ‘Black Power.’”
And it’s call and response. You know, “What do you want?” “Black Power!” “What do you want?” “Black Power!” starts going through the audience. Now Carmichael wasn’t the first to start calling for Black Power, using that phrase, but he popularizes it, and so it becomes attached him. People had been ruminating over that phrase and sort of throwing it around for months at that point, but this is one of these sort of lightning flash moments, where it captures the national attention and also scares the nation. King heartily disapproves. It’s like, this kind of, you know, calling for this kind of militancy is misplaced. The country is at sea, and we’re going to alienate all those people who might be fellow travelers in this journey with us, by this kind of–with this kind of anger. I mean sure, we can be angry, but this is not the path.
So you take together the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and its rising profile, Stokely Carmichael being on the ground there, Stokely Carmichael and others taking up the march against fear after James Meredith has been shot. Carmichael essentially snapping, saying, “The hell with this! You know, trying to do things through the system is only getting people shot without retribution. We need Black Power. We need to stand up on our own.” You remember whites had been now thrown out of SNCC. They no longer have a place in the movement.
Chapter 3. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense [00:09:39]
In October of that same year, two college students at Merit College in Oakland, California, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. They’d been hearing about the LCFO, thought it was a fantastic idea. They’d been seeing this radicalizing moment happening in SNCC, and they say, You know, “It’s time for us to take our stand on our own terms. We need to embrace Black Power as well.” Huey Newton declares himself the Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and Bobby Seale is its chairman. And I just realized, [laughs] I left what I was going to read at home. Anyway, it’s a good thing it’s in your reader.
The, the, at the moment of their founding, the issue of the Black Panther Party platform, it’s a couple of pages long in your reader. I can’t read the points I was going to read, but the fact is essentially this. I want you to look at that particular document, and look at the kind of things that the platform is calling for. It’s calling for the kinds of fundamentals, for lack of a better phrase, that I’ve been calling your attention to from other freedom organizations since the Niagara Movement in 1905. Now it’s calling for more than that, of course, but it’s still calling for fundamentals. This is the state of the conversation. It seems to not have changed in some ways. Now it has changed in the sense that the Black Panther Party is, through, through the, the platform, and then what you’re going to see later in the Executive Mandate Number One, talking about in a few moments here, is connecting African American freedom struggles to what’s happening on a global scale.
It’s clearly Marxist in its ideology, in its political–it’s, it’s understanding of political economy. It’s viewing its struggle in the light of what it considers United States imperialism in places like Vietnam. It’s being motivated by the kinds of militancy that you see black soldiers coming home from yet another war, still being denied their citizenship, but now the ground has shifted enough that they can articulate themselves in a different way that, that is calling for armed self-defense. It’s not about, you know, trying to get in the front door of a bus or the front door of a restaurant. It’s about something much larger than that, about being a global citizen. Well, as the Panther Party is organizing itself and delineating in the, in the program, in the platform the ways it shall be organized–no you’re not going to drink, you’re not going to do drugs, you’re going to, you know, be respectful in all different manners of life, and whether they succeeded in that or not is a whole other kind of conversation.
The Panthers start looking for a way to grow, and they hear about this guy named Eldridge Cleaver. Eldridge Cleaver, thrown in jail–I’m sorry. My notes seem to be all over the place today. It’s fascinating–thrown in jail and then writes this book Soul on Ice, and becomes, you know, is incredible–incredibly charismatic and quite brilliant as well. The Panthers realize they can actually tap into Eldridge Cleaver and his charisma, and they use him as the Minister of Information. That’s how you saw him speaking to the public in his position as the Minister of Information, trying to spread the narrative of what the Panthers were all about. Now the popular notion of the Panthers is highly masculine, these young men representing the, you know, manhood of the race, they’re very virile. They’ve got their black leather jackets, they’ve got the berets, their turtlenecks, very fashionable. There are some women in the Panthers as well, but, you know, where they fit into the movement at the early stage is really a little bit unclear. Panthers are armed. They’re going to take back the streets under their own terms and take control away from the “racist pigs” as they refer to the cops.
The Panthers would do–the bases they were in Oak–in Oakland at their founding–decided to take control of that community first, and very contro–controversially, one of the tactics they decided to pursue is monitoring the police. Just as you see people in Los Angeles in, at the flashpoint of the L.A.–the Watts riots, excuse me, people frustrated by the years of police brutality, unmarked, unchecked police brutality; Oakland residents felt the same way. And so the Panthers start to patrol the police, it’s the famous Panther Patrols. They studied the California laws to the letter, and they knew that they had a right to carry guns, and they knew that they had a right to watch the police. And they knew that if the police arrested somebody, they could stand witness, as long as they kept say twenty or thirty feet, I don’t know the distance. As long as they kept distance–the proper distance from the police, they could observe everything that’s happening.
Now as you can imagine, if you’re a police officer, whether you are a racist pig of an officer or not, you’re not going to be too thrilled about angry men with guns following you around when you arrest somebody, whether they deserve to be arrested or not. You’re not going to be too happy about that, because the guns are loaded. It creates incredible friction, and creates a crisis at the state capital. The Panthers–the state legislature, very unhappy about these Panther Patrols, entertains a bill that makes it illegal to carry weapons in urban districts. Well, the Panthers were exclusively urban. Now it didn’t mention race, didn’t mention the Panthers, but it clearly was targeting the Panthers, trying to kill these Panther Patrols. So the Panthers decide to go up to Sacramento, the state capital, and challenge the bill, and while they’re there, something of a circus happens. I want to play to you–for you a clip of that circus.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: As you see, people didn’t know what to make of these young men and young women. The Panthers go national immediately following this run in at the state capital. People are attracted to the charisma of its representatives, its members. They’re attracted to the cleverness in the way they’re handling, you know, the police and authorities that don’t know what to make of these folks. But they’re also responding to the agenda of the Black Panthers, and certainly in, in no small measure, internationalism. I want to read to you an excerpt–and you heard part of the Executive Mandate Number One being read. This is what they came up to Sacramento to, to announce. I want to read to you a, a longer excerpt.
Again, an era of heightened prose, certainly, but there’s no doubting that the Panthers are tapping into a nerve that’s reverberating throughout America, deepening anxiety of what exactly is going on over in Vietnam, deep concern about what’s happening to the young men who come back shell shocked, if not in body bags.
Now so much of the Panthers is about this bravado, so much of the Panthers is about actually doing real work on the ground. And over the course of the, of the, sort of the, the heightened moment of the Panthers’ existence, which is really about sixty-six to about seventy-four in terms of its greatest coherence, the Panthers are doing other things as well. Yes, there’s no doubt that there are many Panthers who are violating the, the Panther program because they were using alcohol and using drugs. They were also selling drugs and, you know, en–engaged in all kinds of things that are illegal. There’s no doubt about that. This is part of the thing that infuriates white America. It’s like, “Why are we going to let these thugs have guns for goodness’ sakes, and, and tell our police, our right-minded citizens, what to do?” But the Panthers were also doing things on the ground that people really didn’t hear about, or if they heard about it, they ignored.
Looking at a city like Oakland, with essentially a ravaged social services system, the Panthers saw the need for after-school programs for black children and for hot breakfast programs, things that they just weren’t getting through the school system. So as the Panthers get a little more organized towards the late sixties and early seventies, you see hot breakfast programs starting, after-school programs starting, you know, basic education, literacy kind of programs starting as well. You also see, not just in Oakland, but in places throughout the country, with a ranges of success, Panther health clinics opening up. These are medical underserved communities. And even though we’re the era of the Great Society, when, when LBJ is trying to prop up the poorest people in the country across the board, the quality of healthcare in black communities was abysmal. So the Panthers organized health clinics, free health clinics. You come in–and very successfully organized sickle cell anemia tests, a disease that afflicts African Americans disproportionately in this country, and the Panthers would test for it. And try to find, to help these, these people who get tested positively, to get the medicine they need to live a life without so much discomfort and pain.
So the Panthers were doing social service work, community organizing work, certainly. They were, in their way, trying to enforce law and order, follow the constitution, state constitution as well, and they were also doing those things that terrified so many Americans, in terms of representing this kind of angry, violent, hyper-masculinity and also being involved in, in gun and drug trades. Now Eldridge Cleaver had a particularly important role in cultivating support for the Panther Party and does a lot through Soul on Ice, the book I’ve asked you to read this week, or read most of this week. Cleaver is, was, a petty criminal, and if you’ve already started the book, it’s, you know, shocking that here’s a person who admits to rape and justifying by prac–or not justifying, explained that he practices on black women before his plan to start raping white women. He is, to be as polite as possible, rather homophobic. He goes after James Baldwin in most aggressive ways. But he’s also, he’s also quite brilliant, certainly as a cultural commentator, cultural critic. And I want to read a passage from the book that actually helps you understand, or gives you a sense of the ways in which that Cleaver, through Soul on Ice, really fascinated a certain well-heeled part of black America–excuse me, of America, that really helped the Panthers onto the road of success, at least for a time. And I believe this is from about page one hundred and seventy-eight. It’s essentially, I think, maybe three sentences I want to read, but it’s one heck of a series of three sentences.
It’s a heck of four sentences, and really one of the sharpest cultural critiques that I’ve seen in quite some time. Now, taking back to the very beginning of this course, when I talked about the ironies of John Jack’s existence. Remember, the, the charcoal rubbing of the headstone, saying that you couldn’t understand, you know, American freedom without understanding slavery. You might remember, I forward—I, I shot forward two hundred years to talk about Eld–excuse me, Ralph Ellison, saying that southern whites could not talk, sing, walk, make love, or make war without thinking of blacks. Eldridge Cleaver is doing the same thing here, in a very different voice, very different voice, mind you. But he’s telling about this moment of fascination of white America, progressive, left leaning, white America especially, with blackness. Part of that fascination grows out of the martyrdom of folks like Malcolm X, of course, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, but it also grows out of this anxiety about what we are as a country during the Vietnam era. It grows out of an anxiety that you see reverberating through radical left groups, largely white groups like the Students for a Democratic Society.
So the Panthers are tapping into a nerve. In fact, a lot of their funding comes from white progressives, who are just completely enthralled by what they see as the brutal honesty of the Panthers. Now building off the Executive Mandate Number One incident in Sacramento, building off of the popularity of Soul on Ice, the Panther Party goes national, starts building its self, its, its social service organizations, its clinics. But this is not to say that things go smoothly. In fact, the Panthers are one car wreck after another, in a sense, as far as its organization’s concerned. In October of sixty-seven, Huey Newton is arrested in Oakland, during a dispute over which a cop is shot and dies. He’s thrown in jail and you start having “Free Huey” rallies popping up all over the country. The phrase “Free Huey” is in response to this, knowing he’s been thrown into jail. The facts about the case were murky at best, and actually in three years, he’s released from jail, with the charges dismissed, something that horrifies law and order types.
But while Huey Newton’s in jail, the Panthers want to see, they need to feel, they, they, they recognize the need to build upon this trajectory, upward trajectory of popularity, and they reach out to SNCC, Stokely Carmichael in particular. And they offer Carmichael the position of Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party. You know Carmichael’s got this magnetism that’s got people excited about Black Power. He is being seen by many people across the political spectrum as the heir apparent of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, although of a different kind of politics, but the heir apparent. The Panthers see SNCC as a great resource, because of Carmichael’s charisma, certainly, but also because SNCC has proven its chops. It has organized and organized and organized and has a national structure already in place that fans could, you know, build into that structure. SNCC, through Carmichael’s thinking, sees that they can tap into this sort of this heady moment in the Panthers, and their international agenda, and build something great.
The problem, however, is that Stokely Carmichael, in a sense, violates the premise of SNCC that had been there for so long, of group centered leadership. He was the head of SNCC, but you just, you know, he didn’t actually consult anybody in SNCC about this affiliation. So other SNCC leaders and people on the ground are really, you know, angry. Yeah, they kicked whites out of the movement, so you might think they’re really on, in, online, in line with the Panther ideology, but there’s no consultation, so they’re upset about that. And, as it turns out, because the Panthers were so open about courting white support–through cocktail parties, where Eldridge Cleaver would come up and tell, you know, all the whites in attendance about how bad they are, essentially–because the Panthers courted white support, SNCC militants said, “We have–We’ve left whites behind. We don’t want anything to do with it.”
So the irony is, you know, the way we historicize a group like the Panthers who we hear a lot about, is that, you know, they’re the most militant, you know, race nationalist group on the scene. And SNCC, whom less is well known about the group, of course, but it turns out that SNCC, which starts out as this, as this, you know, very polite, respectable group of college kids, white and black, committed to voter registration drives and leadership organization–leadership development, they says, “To hell with all of that. Whites are out. It’s about a black agenda.” So the coalition collapses, and in, and in short order, Carmichael is essentially forced out of SNCC because he’s now gone far afield of what SNCC has actually–has become. So the Panthers–now we’re in early 1968–are trying to make sense of themselves as an organization.
Over the course of the next five or six years, they implode time and again. Huey Newton develops an incredibly damaging drug habit and as the nominal leader of SNCC starts purging people. He kicks out Bobby Seale; that’s one of his first targets. Huey Newton, you know, coalesces power around himself. He’s purged people left and right. It’s almost like, you know, these stereotypes of this, of a demagogue gone a bit crazy. Eldridge Cleaver leaves for exile. Seale is disillusioned; he’s left the Panther Party. You have battles developing with other grassroots groups, like the group called US, based out of–essentially based out of UCLA in Los Angeles, under the leadership of Maulana Karenga, a cultural nationalist group that wants to align with the Black Panther Party, but the Panthers are internationally, politically nationalist, not culturally nationalist. And there’s a gun battle in Westwood on UCLA’s campus between the radicals and US, the group called US, and the Black–members of the Black Panther Party. And then seeding discord this whole time as well are external forces, like especially an FBI program called COINTELPRO, Counterintelligence Program, COINTELPRO.
COINTELPRO started, I think, in the fifties or so, as an anti-counter–anti-radical group, but really gets focused on the Black Panthers more than anybody else, any other organization in the late sixties. The task of COINTELPRO was to infiltrate the Panthers–they were trying to infiltrate everybody, but really focused on the Panthers–infiltrate the Panthers, spread lies, rumors, and discord and watch the Panthers destroy themselves. It turns out they were awfully successful at it. The Panthers, as they uncover one informant after another, or one suspected informant after another, start to implode in places, in, in Detroit, in Chicago, all throughout the country. No one could be trusted. It didn’t help that Huey Newton is sort of drug-addled as well. This most amazing moment for the Panthers’ existence really is short lived, two or three years, before this really starts to happ–starts to become unspooled. And actually, we can get into the 1970s, women are running the Panthers, and that’s when there’s the most success with the school lunch programs, these after-school programs–school lunch–hot breakfast programs, excuse me, after-school programs, and health clinics really take off in the early seventies as well.
Chapter 4. ‘The Panthers’ Lose Popularity [00:38:15]
So these are a number of the events that take us through the late 1960s and into, into the early seventies. By seventy-three, seventy-four, the Panthers are essentially defunct. There’s still chapters around throughout—I mean they never–there hasn’t been a moment when there have been no–there hasn’t been a moment–I’m trying to think this through double and triple negatives here. There have always been Panther chapters, since the Panthers were organized. And you have Panther chapters now called the Gray Panthers. You know, these are folks who are now, you know, sixty and seventy years old, who have not given up on the militant–militant attitudes and progressive critiques, who are trying to organize themselves. But the–it was a flash, a moment in, in time, a brief moment, with the Panthers as sort of this, this group that claimed so much fascination with the American public and fear as well.
Now in talking about the Panthers in this way, sixty-six through the end of the decade, I’ve left out a whole other narrative that’s really quite critical, upon which the Panthers are sort of based its foundation. It’s really a narrative of the North. The Panthers are overwhelmingly an urban group, organization and a northern and western organization, based in Oakland, but, you know, you can see them through urban enclaves throughout the northeast, Midwest as well. This is a moment in the late sixties, heading into the early seventies, of, as I said, confusion and dismay. And it’s a moment of Martin Luther King taking up the final battles of his life from sixty-six to sixty-eight, as he takes the movement north, the movement–SCLC takes it north, to engage in new battles. Fame–Most famously, he takes the battle to Chicago. And that’s what I’ll actually spend most of the lecture on, discussion on, on Wednesday. But I want to maybe wrap things up here, it’s a couple of minutes early actually, with a reference to a poem that might frame this a little bit. It’s a poem by the late poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, one of the great, one of the great American poets. She writes a poem called “We Real Cool.” When asked about the poem–this was written in 1966. This is why I’m reading–I’m bringing this up now, I’m sorry. When writes about the poem–when asked about the poem, Brooks had the following to say:
This is Brooks’s poem. It’s very short.
It’s a poem that starts out with an assertion of, you know, cool aesthetic that we would see reverberating through the Panthers, certainly, that quickly moves through the despair of living in an inner-city in an African American enclave, caught up in drinking and games. Caught up in an anti-establishment ethos, as she mentioned in describing the poem, but then ultimately caught up in a moment, a language of despair and of hopelessness. “We jazz June. We die soon.” Although King doesn’t know that he’s going to be assassinated, what you see in the final two years of his life, someone who was truly establishment, Martin Luther King, certainly, you see in the last two years of his life sort of a reckoning with the intransigence of certain problems in the North that create a mindset where you have young men who are hopeless in the possibilities for the future, and of course, like the young men, he too would die soon. And we’ll pick up that narrative on Wednesday. Thank you.
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