OAKLAND, Calif. — It once would have been unthinkable for a city to erect a monument to Huey P. Newton.
The Black Panther Party co-founder was feared and hated by many Americans, and party members were dismissed as racist, gun-toting militants — Black avengers who believed violence was as American as cherry pie.
But the unthinkable has happened — in Oakland, the city of the party’s founding 55 years ago. In an unrelenting deluge on an October Sunday, Newton’s widow Fredrika and sculptor Dana King unveiled a bronze bust of Newton.
It is true that aside from Oakland, where the Panthers were born and Newton was murdered, there are few places where such a bust would be welcome; there is probably no other place in the world that could place his statue at an intersection of Dr. Huey P. Newton Way and Mandela Parkway, named for the late South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela.
And it would be wrong to suggest that the Panthers are enjoying a resurgence, or even a moment; the party disbanded almost 40 years ago.
But it is also true that in 2021, some activists and historians are taking another look at the legacy of the Panthers through a less-freighted lens. The Panthers, they say, were a harbinger of today’s identity politics, helped shape progressivism, and have served as grandfathers and grandmothers to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“You have the detractors who only see (the Panthers) as a militia, and then you have the folks who are actually happy for that because the times required it,” said Robyn Spencer, an associate professor of history at Lehman College in New York City.
She said the Panthers and many of their contemporaries set out an agenda with a clarity that is rare even today.
“We have to have a critical perspective on what these organizations did,” she said. “It’s not that we have to defend them because they were attacked so viciously by the state. This moment that we’re in now requires us to be clear politically, to try and cut through the weeds, and to not be nostalgic.”
Much of the party’s story has often been overshadowed by its association with violence. The Black Panther Party has been seen as an organization that sought war with police, a group doomed by infighting, infiltration and corruption among its leaders.
Yet over its 15 years of operation, the party and its politics were a training ground and an inspiration for a generation of Black, Latino, Asian, Native American and white people who hold public office or public platforms today. Some of the party’s biggest accomplishments, like its community service programs, helped transform public education and health care.
Fredrika Newton, who co-founded the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation in Oakland, is among those who want to retell the Panthers story for a new generation. She said the bronze bust is just a start of a larger effort to see the Black Power movement take its place in history with other, less confrontational actors of the civil rights movement. Among her goals: recognition of Panther sites by the U.S. National Park Service.
“You’re hearing more about the Black Panther Party, and Huey’s contributions to (Black) liberation as a thought leader, than you’ve ever heard before,” she said. “There’s a hunger for it. We’re just on the precipice.”
After meeting at a community college in Oakland, Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in October 1966. Newton was the party’s minister for defense and Seale was the party chairman.
Together, they wrote the party’s Ten Point Program, laying out the party’s beliefs. Among their demands: Freedom to determine the destiny of the Black community, economic empowerment through full employment and wealth redistribution, an educational system inclusive of the Black experience, and an end to brutality and fatal encounters between Black people and police.
The party became famous in its early years for its uniform: men and women in matching black berets and black leather jackets, sometimes accessorized by long-barrel shotguns. And there were the Panther formations, marches and patrols, meant as a show of discipline and strength.
Police departments took Panthers’ anti-police rhetoric and name calling as more than just bravado. As recently as 2016, when pop icon Beyonce and her backup dancers performed in the Super Bowl halftime show near San Francisco dressed in black leather get-ups and berets as a clear tribute to the Panthers, some law enforcement groups took offense.
A lesser-known fact was that a majority of the party’s membership, as well as its leadership outside of the central organizing committee in Oakland, were Black women. The party struggled with sexism and misogyny, although less so as it grew across the country. Some of its most famous alumni include Elaine Brown, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis and Erika Huggins. Perhaps not coincidentally, women are the most prominent leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.
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