Return of the Black Panthers

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I had lost track of the Black Panthers after they disbanded in the early 1980s.

But this week’s PBS special about the black nationalist movement brought it all back. During much of the group’s history, I was writing editorials for The Journal Gazette.

I championed school desegregation. That was the last thing the Panthers called for. For my part, I don’t recall writing much of anything about the Panthers or other black nationalist groups.

Yet the TV special reminded me that the struggle for black rights didn’t begin and end with the sermons of Martin Luther King Jr., the marches he led or the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

But for a time, the Panthers were another part of the story. And the special brought to mind that group’s call for full employment, decent housing and free health care.

But their founders like Huey Newton and Bobby Seales had no patience with advocates of school desegregation. They demanded that police officers stop abusing black citizens. At the time, police brutality was even more common than it is today.

I imagine one thing that’s changed is that departments that serve minority communities recruit minorities. That has meant a revolution in policing. In Oakland, California, during the era of the PBS special, the department had nearly 700 officers. Only a dozen or so were black.

One disturbing part of the story I thought the TV special skipped over were the tactics of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Abuse by his agents and local police, in fact, was so common that in Oakland and other cities, the Panthers started monitoring police patrols.

What the special did remind me of was how the Panthers performed social services in black communities. For example, the PBS program showed members serving free breakfast to mostly black children.

At their peak in 1970, you could find a chapter of the Black Panthers in 68 cities with thousands of members. They gave voice to a population in our country that’s often silent. Or that population is represented by a minority – the gang-bangers, the jobless and the drug dealers.

One review I read of the PBS special called it a whitewash. I didn’t think so. I didn’t think that the special glamorized the Panthers or was silent about the crimes of a few of their leaders.

Not unlike today, the Panthers’ era was one of great division in the country. Not unlike today, it was a time of great hardship for so many people.

Did the Panthers make a difference? I think it’s fair to say that they did. Their story belongs to any fair account of the historic struggle of black people for justice and equality.

So thanks PBS for the reminder.

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