Arms and the Man

Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. University of California Press, 2013.

Charles E. Cobb Jr. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Basic, 2014.

“You can kill a revolutionary,” said Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton, “but you can’t kill a revolution.” The first part of the slogan was confirmed when police invaded Hampton’s apartment in an early morning raid and murdered him while he was lying in bed. The second clause remains an open question. Regardless, the organization that Hampton helped to build has proved difficult to forget. This afterlife is perhaps strongest on the right, where chain emails circulate a “historical photo being suppressed by the main stream media” that shows Barack Obama, complete with beret and bandolier, on a Panther patrol in Los Angeles. Across the aisle Obama has himself built a personal brand around his distance from the “the ’60s and black power,” evident as early as the 2000 congressional race in which he lambasted his opponent, a founder of the Chicago Black Panther chapter, for continuing to “curse out people outside our community and blame them for our plight.” Hollywood has tended to concur with Obama. Last year’s liberal epic The Butler echoed 1994’s reactionary epic Forrest Gump in drafting the Panthers to embody the harrowing low point of Sixties upheaval: the viciousness of the Panthers’ is in full evidence when the girlfriend of Oprah’s Panther son openly belches at the family dinner table.

Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin’s Black Against Empire aims to blaze a path away from the two genres that have for decades characterized most writing about the Black Panthers. Starting with chairman Bobby Seale’s agitational Seize the Time (1970), published when the Party was at its peak, participants of varying notoriety wrote with varying candor about their personal experiences. Another genre was inaugurated in the 1970s, when the Bay Area journalists Paul Avery and Kate Coleman accused Huey Newton of creating “a street gang at the center of the Black Panther Party.” Their work, echoed by New Left apostate David Horowitz, inspired Hugh Pearson’s critical biography of Newton, The Shadow of the Panther (1994). Pearson’s account was hailed as definitive not just by the right but by mainstream newspapers and liberal intellectuals, all rushing to make plain their convalescence from the febrile enthusiasms of misguided youth (though one otherwise laudatory review conceded that Pearson’s book “lacks the empirical rigor a subject this controversial demands”).

The memoirs and the exposés shared certain things: they were written by boomers outside the academy, they were polemical, and they focused disproportionately on individual leaders and the Panthers’ original Oakland chapter. Black Against Empire positions itself as the summa of the recent studies that have moved beyond these limitations. A new generation of researchers with fewer personal connections, and more serious scholarly interest, has fleshed out the histories of various regional organizations and the manifold of social services they provided. Bloom and Martin challenge other scholars on a few points, but mostly they aim for synoptic narrative rather than narrow historiography.

Behind their accumulation of detail, a central question emerges. How did a handful of Oakland radicals, drawing up their plans in a War on Poverty office in 1966, find themselves four years later with offices in sixty-eight cities, a budget in the millions, dozens of popular social programs, and a newspaper circulation of 150,000? And how did it all fall apart so quickly? (The Party formally disbanded in 1982, but Black Against Empire effectively ends in 1971, when an internal schism damaged the organization irreparably.)

Bloom and Martin argue that state repression, though considerable, isn’t enough to explain the decline. Repression was in fact key to the Party’s initial growth: it made them causes célèbres and won them allies among the many who hated and feared Nixon. Among their allies were mainstream civil rights organizations, whose hostility to revolutionary ideology was mitigated by outrage at police murders of black activists and the (fully justified) fear that nonviolent organizations could themselves become the target of repression. In a development almost unimaginable today, even the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League planned an independent investigation of Fred Hampton’s murder and provided escorts for Panthers going to deal with the police.

But the Panthers’ newfound allies and fundraisers exposed them to new pressures. Managing a large national organization isolated leaders from the rank-and-file, with some of the leaders turning quickly into global celebrities. Meanwhile, deadly police raids, frameups, and insidious forged letters contributed to an air of increasing desperation and internal mistrust. Combined with substantive political disagreements, these tensions forced a violent rupture in 1971, dividing those who favored escalating revolutionary violence (their tribune was Eldridge Cleaver, then in exile in Algeria), and those who embraced Huey Newton’s call to focus on social services and community organizing, “survival programs pending revolution.” The damage from the split was severe: Bobby Seale estimates that the group lost 30 or 40 percent of its members because of the two high-profile murders that inaugurated the internecine conflict.

The final piece of the puzzle, for Bloom and Martin, were shifts in government policy that undercut the Panthers’ original appeal. The end of the draft, and the end of US involvement in Vietnam, the normalization of US relations with once-Panther-friendly countries like China, the expansion of black electoral power, and affirmative action policies—all of these “concessions” thwarted the Panthers’ chance to build a credible coalition with white students, the postcolonial world, and the black community. With these reforms in place, neither Cleaver’s guerrilla war nor Newton’s social programs could match the brief apogee the Party had earlier achieved, at a time when the breaches in the system seemed too wide for anyone to repair.

The most vexing issues provoked by Black Against Empire regard political violence, the Panthers’ defining characteristic in the popular imagination and—for many—a characteristic that makes them unworthy of emulation. One thing the book does well is remind us that the future Panthers lived in a world pervaded by violence before any of them ever picked up a gun. Some violence was structural: in the 1940s, black Southerners moved to cities like Oakland looking for jobs, but by the war’s end, industry had begun its long move away from the North, leaving behind fewer and less remunerative jobs. Children of the migrants like Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were born poor and grew up trapped by housing discrimination underwritten by government policy. Some violence was personal and immediate, often deployed by casually brutal police forces composed of transplanted white Southerners. Bloom and Martin report that in the three years before the Watts riots of 1965, the Los Angeles coroner’s office examined sixty-five people killed by law enforcement (including twenty-seven shot in the back), legally justifying every death but one.

In the three years before the Watts riots of 1965, the LA coroner’s office examined sixty-five people killed by law enforcement.


After Watts, inner city after inner city erupted in violence. Following a radical convention, Bloom and Martin label these events “rebellions” rather than riots, but, as some fascinating details attest, their usage is in accord with the common language of the time: establishment journalists and police officials referred to urban unrest as “insurrection” and the signs of “civil war”; meanwhile, a contemporary survey of black Detroiters found that 56 percent thought of their 1967 “riot” as a “rebellion or revolution.” In the flames of Detroit and Newark, the Panthers saw the protopolitical outline of a new front in the black struggle, suited to the terrain beyond the formal reach of Jim Crow. “Let your pig cops know you ain’t just causing a ‘long hot summer,’” warned Bobby Seale, “you’re causing a Black Revolution.”

Though they flourished in the urban North and West, and were spurred to action by circumstances there, the Panthers—whose founders were born in Louisiana and Texas—were also inspired by struggles in the South. Ostensibly a sphere of Gandhian nonviolence, the Southern civil rights movement actually involved a complex of tactics, including armed self-defense. Detailed in Charles E. Cobb Jr.’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, this unsung militancy provides an intriguing context for thinking about the Panthers.

The link between the Panthers and the Southern civil rights movement is crystallized in a 1966 photograph featured in Cobb’s book: a young man dressed vaguely like a guerrilla stands in drill position, his long-barreled rifle pointing at a billboard with a familiar mascot—black cat, claws bared, mid-pounce—and an injunction to support “the Black Panther.” But the gunman—so reminiscent of the Oakland cadre whose rifle and beret soon became a symbol of Northern upheaval—is posing in rural Alabama. Newton and Seale borrowed their feline mascot from the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, an independent black electoral party founded by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee veterans disgusted by Lyndon Johnson’s support for Mississippi’s all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention. The LFCO’s logo was a nonverbal way for illiterate voters to identify the organization (a white cock did the same for Jim Crow Democrats). But the panther also showed “that we would fight back if we had to.” Their guns showed the same thing.

If these Southern ur-Panthers are remembered today, it is often to explain the origins of the Oakland group or to illustrate the decay of SNCC from “civil rights” to “Black Power.” This tragic narrative has been questioned before, but perhaps never as commandingly as in Cobb’s new book, a historical and personal reflection on “picking up the gun” by a former SNCC field secretary. Cobb insists that to study properly the relationship between civil rights and armed force, one must replace the narrow context of the 1960s with the longue durée of African-American experience. His early chapters show that black people have often turned to the rhetoric or practice of armed self-defense, from Union Army veterans killing Klansmen in pitched battles to the dozens of armed men who shot five white cops while warding off a lynch mob in 1946 Tennessee. Decades before he came to espouse Marxist and Pan-African radicalism, W. E. B. DuBois was a proud gun owner and declared that if provoked by race rioters he “would without hesitation have spread their guts over the grass.”

Cobb then turns to his experience with SNCC to explore the subterranean relations between the largely nonviolent movements that overthrew Jim Crow and the surprising number of guns that accompanied them. Even among those active in nonviolent struggles in the South, he writes, nonviolence was usually seen as a tactic rather than an end. The minority of true-believers were widely admired, but even King applied for a concealed weapon. Among the “local people” who hosted and protected out-of-town organizers, nonviolence had even less traction, thanks to their constant exposure to racist violence as well as black participation in a broader rural Southern gun culture.

One such community leader was Hartman Turnbow, whose eerily prescient warning to Martin Luther King in 1964 gives Cobb’s book its title. Turnbow also made a strong impression on an idealistic New Yorker named Mario Savio, some time before the Free Speech Movement took off. From Mississippi, Savio wrote, “If it were not so very well known that the Negro farmers are not non-violent, I seriously doubt that a nonviolent student movement would be possible.” In the words of one of Cobb’s SNCC comrades, not just the practice of nonviolence but the theory itself—“even having a conversation about nonviolence as a way of life”—was a luxury activists could enjoy “because local folks stayed up all night protecting us.”

Cobb shows that the Panthers can’t be dismissed by holding up the image of the saintly unarmed prophets of the civil rights movement. But he does not provide the Panthers an alibi. Almost all of the departures from nonviolence he documents in the South were strictly defensive, and none—even conjectural—took aim at the state. For Cobb, “[b]lack guerrilla warfare, retaliatory violence, or ‘revolutionary’ armed struggle” represent sheer “political fantasy.” The Panthers, according to their own program and practice, were different. Understanding the specific nature of their departure from even the non-nonviolent activists in the South should be central to any consideration—positive or negative—of the Panthers’ importance. What were the guns really for?

On this point, Bloom and Martin equivocate. They justify their subject’s historical importance by comparing it with the Civil War, the last time that “so many people [had] taken up arms in revolutionary struggle in the United States.” By this reading, the Panther chant “the revolution has come / Time to pick up the gun” should be taken at face value. But elsewhere, the authors concede that the Party “[avoided] direct and explicit organization of insurrection,” for the good reason that “guerrilla warfare was never politically practical in the United States.” From this perspective, the chant has to be seen as performative (like patrolling with an unloaded shotgun), rather than literal (like firing on Fort Sumter).

One reason for this apparent contradiction is simply that the situation was dynamic—the original name, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense of 1966, was shortened two years later to the Black Panther Party. The Panthers’ first brush with notoriety, the Party’s organization of armed Community Police Patrols to watch over cops (still extant in activist networks like “Copwatch ”), was provocative but scrupulously legal. After the California legislature passed the 1967 Mulford Act, specifically targeted at making the Panther patrols illegal, prohibiting the carrying of loaded firearms in public, the logic of armed self defense became an open question, which gradually came to divide the Party. After 1971, a militant faction, joined by white allies in the Weather Underground, openly put the rhetoric of revolution into practice through bombings, shootings, and armed robberies. Meanwhile, the Party’s more cautious wing dropped even the rhetoric. Bloom and Martin calculate that, in 1970, 65 percent of Black Panther newspaper editorials advocated “revolution now”; in 1972 and 1973, fewer than 1 percent did.

But Black Against Empire often leaves the fine details of what happened between early and later phases, and between competing factions, frustratingly unclear.  Bloom and Martin assure the reader that after the Mulford Act, “Newton was able to reinvent the politics of armed self-defense . . . . He believed that black people were ready to fight the police.” Evidently: within a year, both Newton and Eldridge Cleaver would engage in crossfire with the cops. An analysis of these high-profile incidents would be crucial in defining what it meant to be “ready to fight the police.” But Bloom and Martin are strangely reticent on this point.

The details of Newton’s shootout probably followed him to the grave in 1989, but Cleaver’s case is less of a mystery. In 1980, Cleaver confessed that the shooting was an ambush “to drive the police out of the community with guns.” Another participant, David Hilliard, confirmed that they had set out that night to attack the police. Two recent (and fairly sympathetic) historians of the BPP, Paul Alkebulan and Curtis J. Austin, report this as fact.  But Martin and Bloom offer a terse evasion: “accounts differ about how the shootout began and what the Panthers were doing there.” They quote the Party’s contemporary press conference denials while omitting the later straightforward confessions.

The pattern repeats itself. In their chronicle of the conflict with the cops, Martin and Bloom mention the widely circulated charge that the police murdered twenty-eight Panthers in two years, and also mention that the New Yorker reduced the death toll to ten cases, mostly involving police self-defense. But they don’t examine the evidence behind the body counts or parse the ingenuousness of the Party’s claims to self-defense. They state, accurately, that, “Newton eventually defeated every one of the major criminal charges in court.” They do not mention that that Flores Forbes, bodyguard to “The Supreme Servant of the People,” has since written in detail about being ordered to assassinate the woman who had witnessed Huey Newton murder a teenage prostitute (Forbes almost succeeded).

The book’s treatment of the enigmatic Black Liberation Army is similarly laconic. The BLA became famous for its direct attacks on police after the Panthers’ internal split, but Bloom and Martin indicate that the BLA predated 1971 by several years. They describe an internal BPP memo from 1968 that “permitted disciplined revolutionary violence and specifically allowed participation in the underground insurrectionary ‘Black Liberation Army.’” Yet there is nothing further on the BLA’s origins, activities, or formal relationship to the Panthers. How can a book centered on the Panthers’ evolving repertoire of “insurgent practices” leave to one side the questions of when they began to engage in preemptive violence, how common it was, and how the relationship between “aboveground” and “underground” was theorized?

These lacunae may result from Martin and Bloom’s constrictive methodology and the political motivation behind it. They say that they have gotten to know the important living Panthers and conducted several formal interviews, but have decided not to use any retrospective accounts as principal sources because of the dangers of hearsay and false and conflicting memories. This leaves them with the written word, which in practice means a heavy reliance on the Party’s own newspaper. This documentary approach yields some interesting results—for example, that a confessed FBI  informant wrote in the paper advocating the torture of suspected informants. But it’s doubtful that the published accounts in a party organ are inherently more reliable than retrospective interviews. When the political stakes are reversed, moreover, Martin and Bloom favor more flexible standards—assembling, for example, a highly circumstantial case that George Sams, who oversaw the torture and murder of a suspected informant, was himself in the pay of the FBI.

These questions matter less for assigning blame to individuals than for grasping how the Panthers themselves understood their project. A large part of what makes the Panthers important is their distance from other forms of radical political violence in the late 1960s. Though they saw Watts as a crucial harbinger, they distinguished clearly between riot and revolution, and even helped to “keep Oakland cool” as riots swept the country after King’s assassination. And unlike the chiliastic vanguardists in the Weather Underground, the Panthers rooted their politics in a popular social base, “serving the people” of the inner cities and helping them to see themselves, often for the first time, as political actors. The Panther project might be seen as an attempt at the classic left-wing goal of dual power, in which an alternative form of governance arises parallel to the official one, gradually assuming the functions and winning the legitimacy that had formerly belonged to the state.

Around the time the Panthers were founded, veteran black socialist Bayard Rustin broke with his pacifist comrades over the American war in Vietnam and Rustin’s support for the administration prosecuting it. “You don’t understand power,” he told them. “You guys can’t deliver a single pint of milk to the kids in Harlem, and Lyndon Johnson can.” The Panthers’ “dual power” was an attempt to avoid this choice between impotence and complicity, by developing the capacity to deliver milk independently of the warfare-welfare state. The most difficult question thrown up by any such strategy is whether and when to mount a direct challenge to the existing authorities. How did patient organizing mesh with the desperate bravado of Newton’s catchphrase “revolutionary suicide”? How did the Panthers envision the transition from community programs and Police Patrols to a socialist revolution? The reticence of Black Against Empire offers little help in thinking through these issues.

According to survey research conducted by political scientist Michael C. Dawson in the mid-1990s, “a large majority of African-Americans still would have supported a clear majority” of the Panthers’ foundational Ten-Point Program. The enactment of these demands—including full employment or a guaranteed income, and the abolition of police brutality and mass incarceration—are just as compelling now as in 1966, though it is perhaps even harder to imagine how they would come into being. Future movements fighting on behalf of such goals will eventually face some of the questions the Panthers faced. If adequate solutions remain elusive, the problems themselves might emerge more clearly from frank and critical history than from defensive elision.

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