|SURVIVAL PENDING REVOLUTION: The History of the Black Panther Party by PAUL ALKEBULAN
September 23, 2007
Special for THE NEW TIMES HOLLER!
© Amir Bey, 2007
SURVIVAL PENDING REVOLUTION:
An important addition to the growing literature on The Black Panther Party of Self Defense
THE HISTORY OF THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY
176 PAGES, Bibliography, The University of Alabama Press, 2007
Special for THE NEW TIMES HOLLER!
By Amir Bey
Paul Alkebulan worked in the Black Panther Party for Self Defense’s first free breakfast program that began in Oakland, CA in 1969. He is now Assistant Professor of History at Virginia State University and has put together a well-researched study, Survival Pending Revolution, which tells the BPP story and offers an extensive bibliography for scholars and those interested in having an accurate perspective of the BPP. Judging from a personal communication with the author, one of his motivations in undertaking this project was the lack of factual awareness and appreciation of the community programs that were initiated by the BPP, the uniqueness of its local chapters, and the roles the rank and file members played apart from and in spite of its well known leaders. Alkebulan felt that many writers saw them as a quasi-military group of posturing, aimless anarchists who didn’t truly have the people’s interests at heart.
A Synopsis of Survival Pending Revolution, or my take on it:
Alkebulan identifies three ideological eras of the BPP’s 16 year history: 1966 to 1971, when the BPP promoted armed struggle as a means to overthrow the government and liberate the black community, which was the period that most captured the imagination of people around the world; 1971 to 1974, when the BPP became involved in electoral politics in Oakland and diverted resources from its local chapters in other parts of the country, also a time that drew attention to perceived and actual abuses of power by its leadership – its leader, Huey Newton, was charged with murdering a prostitute for example, and 1974 to 1982, when women such as Elaine Brown assumed the leadership role until Huey’s return to stand trial, and the final breakdown of BPP community activities. It should be noted that there are small groups of original Panthers and in some cases wanabees who have formed Panther parties.
The most wrenching and difficult aspect of reading the history of the BPP is their eventual end. Reading about the Panthers, this writer had the same feelings as when he reads about Tecumsah’s dream of a Pan-Indian nation being thwarted, or the mighty Zulu nation being brought down. Like those struggles, the demise of the Panthers was about the valiant struggle fought by brave warriors of a beleaguered community against overwhelming odds and the irresistible tide of history, but the BPP story differs in the nature and causes of its collapse. The most important devolutions were not fought in battlefields with opposing armies, nations against nations, but were the result of two conflicts the BPP faced: internal ones within its organization as well as with other opposing black nationalist groups like US (“Us against them”) and externally, by the FBI’s fatally successful COINTELPRO (counter intelligence program) that manipulated those internal conflicts as it led varieties of unrelenting attacks that were sophisticated, overt, insidious, and will go down as a model for domestic counterinsurgency warfare.
To begin with, the Panther leadership saw that their earlier call for armed struggle to implement change wasn’t going to work, and after Huey was freed from his first conviction in 1971, he directed the BPP to develop community survival programs and began to promote the concept of intercommunalism. Alkebulan, in the chapter Heirs of Malcolm, describes this concept as:
During his incarceration Newton had concluded that nation-states were outdated because capitalism ignored borders and governments while transforming the world into a network of oppressed and interdependent communities. Newton maintained that these communities should unite around a new philosophy that he called revolutionary intercommunalism.
This new approach created confusion and in some cases dissension among some party members and supporters. It also was the beginning of power plays by leaders, notably by Huey that were masked as policy and the “correct” party line. Alkebulan goes on to say:
Revolutionary intercommunalism would resist capitalism’s reactionary intercommunalism. Newton’s philosophy encountered resistance from a confused rank and file. They did not understand the logic behind the transition of the distinction between intercommunalism and the previous alliances with third-world countries.
Some party members accused the Panthers of ideologically inconsistent, and in fact they were correct. Newton, however, had another agenda that had nothing to do with consistency. He believed that he needed to distinguish himself from (Eldridge) Cleaver and his continuous calls for armed struggle.
The FBI and local law enforcement were thus given opportunities to exploit differences and confusion in conflicts like these. COINTELPRO wrote anonymous letters that threatened the lives of party members, harassed community members who supported BPP initiatives such as its breakfast programs, or gave false information about Panther objectives. The recounting of murders of Panthers would be too long and painful to recite here, but a few statistics that Alkebulan lists can give you an idea of what the BPP was up against: by July of 1969 –hardly one quarter of the BPP life span- 233 of the 295 so-called Black Nationalist counterintelligence operations were directed at the BPP; at their height, the BPP membership amounted to around 2,000; compare that to the FBI development of 7,402 “ghetto informants” between 1967 and 1972.
One lingering fallacy that persists is the macho image of the BPP. While there were certainly a lot of male-centric attitudes and icons, such as Huey sitting on an African throne-like chair with a spear in one hand and a rifle in the other, there was also a strong influence by its female members. They were not a small minority, and they were not only members of the rank and file, but some of its most dedicated and enduring leaders. They often had administrative and technical skills that were superior to male members. Besides discussing some the most well known figures, Alkebulan identifies and gives testimonies of the officers and workers who were as heroic and vital as their male counterparts in his chapter Women and the Black Panther Party. For sure, they were subjected to subtle manipulations and not so subtle coercions, but they were among the vanguard of progressive women at the time. Not only did they have to fight within the party, they were also fighting against the overwhelming COINTELPRO conspiracy set on the Panthers by the FBI. For this reason, BPP women as a group advanced women’s rights further than other progressive groups’ women did at the time. The boldness of the Panther character was expressed by both sexes; here's an example that is not discussed in the book: compare a late 1960s anti-Viet Nam war poster of Joan Baez and two other folk singers simulating early 20th century women’s suffragettes with the caption “Women say yes to men who say no!” to Elaine Brown’s call to use “Pussy Power” against men who weren’t revolutionary enough. Her message was more potent because it was here and now, a threat, a weapon, and not a coy re-hash of a nostalgic time. That kind of flamboyance was part of the Panther spirit and ethos, a brewing cauldron that attracted or nurtured many female leaders like the dedicated Erica Huggins, who was on the school board, Elaine Brown, who sought public office and ran the party at one time or the highly articulate and glamorous Kathleen Cleaver. Alkebulan tells lesser known Panthers’ stories, such as Tommye Williams, JoNina Abron, Lu Hudson and describes aspects of sexual relationships within the BPP that reveal the tensions that existed for families in the party, women and men.
Alkebulan’s description of the local chapters that sprung up in major urban areas, as well as in Soledad Prison, where George L. Jackson was a member, provides a view of what the BPP meant beyond the personalities of leaders. He discusses the unique circumstances that gave birth to each chapter, their leadership, their evolution and eventual demise. Probably the two most well-known were the Chicago chapter whose charismatic and effective organizer, Fred Hampton, was murdered by the police, and the New York Chapter, home of the New York 21.
The author’s critical Bibliographic Essay, which is followed by the book’s bibliography, confirms the aforementioned purpose of this book: to offer a complete picture of the BPP through reliable sources in the forms of archival, book, pamphlet, audiovisual, dissertations, theses, government reports, and documents. A sampling of the sources he mentions are: Kathleen Cleaver, Kit Kim Holder, Charles E. Jones, Black Panther Party Archives, Robyn C. Spencer, the Huey P. Newton Foundation Collection and an example of one many government sources that he researched: the U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee to Study Government Operations, Book 3: Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Operations 94th Cong,, 2nd sess. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976, and many others.
This writer lived in the Bay Area during most of the period from 1969 through 1977, and was on the periphery of many of the events that are described in this book. However, it is only possible to imagine what Alkebulan, as a member of the BPP during those pivotal periods must feel about those times, what he saw, and what may have happened to him in the process. However, he presents a well structured and objective analysis about a courageous and in many ways flawed struggle that met an unrelenting onslaught from the FBI’s COINTEL Program that eventually overwhelmed them. But hold on, Alkebulan’s Survival Pending Revolution is testimony to the BPP’s legacy not being dead and that it is still evolving.
Here’s a listing of functions that Paul Alkebulan will appear at for Survival Pending Revolution:
October 13th – Baltimore MD – African World Books
October 20th – East Orange, NJ – East Orange Public Library
October 24th – Virginia State University, Petersburg, VA
November 3rd – Richmond, VA Southern Historical Association
March 2008 – Charlottesville, VA Festival of the Book