No, the Black Panthers Were Not the Same as the Ku Klux Klan

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

It doesn’t take much. A Black person expresses support for some attribute of Blackness or solidarity with the unique struggles of Blacks in the US and white people come from all directions with accusations of racism. The arguments are lazy, reactionary and represent gross misunderstandings of not only history, but what “racism” actually is.

Racism is a system of oppression based on race. Like slavery or Jim Crow. While Blacks can certainly hold prejudiced views, racism is distinct. A racist act is itself contingent on society to permit it on some moral or legal ground. Now there have definitely been ethnic and religious barriers against certain whites such as Catholics, the Irish and Italians for example, these are limited when it comes to Native American genocide and African slavery. Sure, Italians were lynched in the South, and in one particularly gruesome episode in New Orleans, President Theodore Roosevelt commented that it was “rather a good thing”. But this nowhere near the devastation faced by others. For one thing, Italians were forced to assimilate and adopt white American culture. In less than half a century, the original model minority were more or less white people with exceptional tanning abilities.

The majority of whites, though, never faced this. Separating the class division so sought after by capitalists, whites, on the whole, are not an oppressed people. They never were.

It’s once again popular amid this current stream of consciousness in our society right now, to attempt a critical look at symbolic elements of Black culture; namely black leather and berets. The iconic symbols of the Black Panther Party.

“They’re both racist!”

Mentions of the Panthers seem to deeply offend many white people. Typically the cohort that challenges to refute what offends other groups of people. The “get over it” when it comes to slavery, but “never forget” the Alamo/Pearl Harbor/9-11 types. This being the case, a Super Bowl half-time show has re-ignited the great cause of many whites to put Blacks back in their place by denouncing the imagery presented as unnecessarily provocative, violent and “racist”. The reason being that the contemporary image of the Black Panther Party is based nonsense and factoids. Things repeated so often that they’ve become ad populum facts. One of the most consistent, among whites who want to put Blacks in their place, but still maintain that they themselves are colorblind, is to write off both the Black Panther Party and the Ku Klux Klan in the same sentence in the hopes that they cancel each other out. Your historically racist band of miscreants for ours.

Some problems here. The Black Panther Party was not a racist organization while the Ku Klux Klan is an overtly racist organization. Attention, too, should be paid to tense. The Panthers are no more. The FBI’s covert war against them has sadly worked and many former Panthers today are either in prison, dead or aging social and economic activists operating autonomously of the former bloc. While there is a group calling themselves the New Black Panther Party running around promoting anti-white sentiment, they’re not affiliated with the former Panthers, have little appeal compared to the former Panthers and have been routinely denounced by former Panthers, like co-founder Bobby Seale.

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Panthers on parade at Free Huey rally in Defermery Park (named by the Panthers Bobby Hutton Park) in West Oakland.

The Klan, though, is alive and well, having experienced a bit of a rebirth since the 2008 election of the US’s first Black president. In fact, hate groups of all kinds saw increases in membership. Hell, white supremacy has such appeal that we have a presidential candidate openly pandering to a host of racist folks. Even former Grand Wizard David Duke is a supporter, though Trump was at least wise enough to reject the endorsement.

And even if the Panthers were racist, they did not have the political control needed to subjugate whites. They didn’t have the numbers. They didn’t have the influence. They weren’t infused in every level of government like the Klan. They weren’t infused with law enforcement like the Klan. And this is crucial, even in the hypothetical case that they sought it. There’s a world of difference in holding a hateful opinion and having the power to act on it or not.

On that point, Stokely Carmichael, activist, revolutionary and member of the Panthers, SNCC and co-author of ‘Black Power’ would say: If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude, it’s a question of power.

It should not be necessary to spend much time on exactly why the Ku Klux Klan are considered violent and racist terrorists. We’re well aware of the lynchings, kidnappings, intimidation, mob violence, arsons and church bombings. We have, though, lost sight of the aforementioned collusion between the Klan and the political and justice systems which made it far easier for them to act.

One of the most overlooked elements of the Black Panther Party is that it did not solely concern itself with the plight of Blacks in the US nor was it anti-white. Again, the Black Panther Party was not anti-white. While anti-white sentiment did exist among some members in the beginning, the evolution of the Panthers into an internationalist movement essentially purged it and members of the Panthers that could not reconcile their own prejudices against whites were asked to leave the party. Where the Klan has discriminated openly against not only Blacks, but Catholics and immigrants and Jews as well, their nationalism was based on building a racially purified society. The nationalism of “Black Power” was aimed at building solidarity between Blacks as an element to better address the political, social and economic needs of not only Blacks, but poor whites, Latinos, Native Americans and other groups. As Huey Newton said, “All power to all the people.” This was about coming together to resist oppression, not institute it. As mentioned before, by the late 1960s, the Panthers’ black nationalism transformed into a more internationalist scope eventually culminating in a chapter forming in Algeria and expressed solidarity with Palestinians.

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A Klan lynching.

The Panthers were also one of the first political organizations in the United States to advocate for gay rights — a group, once again, that the KKK has been decidedly and consistently against.

The words of Huey Newton: There is nothing to say that a homosexual cannot be a revolutionary. And maybe I’m now injecting some of my prejudice by saying that ‘even a homosexual can be a revolutionary.’ Quite the contrary, maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.

Where the Ku Klux Klan is predicated on the patriarchy of male-dominated religious fundamentalism, the Panthers not only opposed patriarchy on the grounds of anticapitalism, but were a feminist organization whose later membership was majority female. The issues of women, particularly issues of violence in relation to Black females, were central to the Panthers’ structure, ideology and goals. Influenced by South American revolutionary movements at the time, women were involved on every level of the organization alongside the men from organizing chapters in different cities to leadership positions.

The efforts of the FBI to combat the efforts of the Black Panthers led to the imprisonment of many men involved in the movement as well. Not only did women comprise most of the rank and file, but they held top positions like Elaine Brown who was the chairwoman of the BPP from 1974 to 1977. Fred Hampton considered sexism as counter revolutionary and the Panthers also advocated for abortion rights. By 1982, the end of the run of the Black Panther Party newspaper, the head editors were all female. It wasn’t a perfect fusion of gender equality and feminism, as sexual and physical abuse against women did exist within the party structure. Allegations of abuse sometimes went without recognition from leadership, but in spite of these things, females were still deeply entrenched in running the organization regardless of whether or not a male member thought it was a threat to his manhood or not.

The KKK is notoriously anticommunist, a sentiment that forms a bond with many right wing militia movements and politicians in the United States. This isn’t to say that the KKK is openly or covertly supported by these entities, only that this is a common view among people one might find within these groups. As it turns out, the Black Panthers were Marxist-Leninists who also sought to empower the poor, regardless of their race. But the Panthers’ leftist political orientation being overlooked shouldn’t be that surprising as the decades since the Civil Rights Movement have been unkind to the political and economic views among its most prominent leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Capitalism was seen then, just as it is now, as a system which reinforces not only class distinctions, but racial ones. Evidence of racial castes date back to the emerging days of both capitalism and the European colonization of North America when poor white and Black workers sought to collaborate in raising their living standards. A few extra lines added to legal codes of the day granted extra morsels of privilege to poor whites  and put a quick end to the threat of any solidarity between the groups that could challenge proprietors and legislatures of 17th century Virginia.

Further evidence of the Black Panther Party openly collaborating with non-Blacks comes in the form of collaboration and alliances with groups like the American Indian Movement and the Chicago chapter of the BPP’s crucial role in the establishment of the Rainbow Coalition which served as a collection of radical leftist organizations that worked to combat racism and police brutality in the United States and included groups like the Young Patriot Organization and the Young Lords.

The Panthers also operated, in poor neighborhoods around the country, food drives, daycare networks, freedom schools and free breakfast programs for schools. These actions were not restricted to Blacks only, but openly applied to all of the people in a given community that needed such aid. Then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, committed to destroying the Black Panther Party, would comment that it wasn’t the guns that made the Panthers dangerous, it was the free breakfast program. Hoover’s words: This program was formed by the BPP for obvious reasons, including their efforts to create an image of civility, assume community control of Negroes, and to fill adolescent children with their insidious poison.

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Black Panthers free breakfast program.

By the end of 1969, the first year of the breakfast program, the Panthers fed an estimated 20,000. By 1971, it was estimated that over 50,000 kids in 36 cities received free breakfasts as part of the Panthers’ program. One US government official allegedly stated that the Panthers were “feeding more kids than we are.” This made it difficult for the government to discredit them.

Where the government’s antipoverty measures fell short, the Panthers promoted self-sufficiency, which not only presented a threat to the establishment as a group of communists sought popular alternative means beyond capitalism to provide for and build communities, but also segues into the the next bit of common misconceptions of Panther activity — self-defense.

“They’re both violent!”

Next to racism, the most common criticism today of the Black Panthers is that they were violent. And the FBI continues to this day to label the BPP as an extremist organization committed to the violent overthrow of the US government. That the thought of Black men, dressed in black leather and toting assault rifles, is intimidating to many whites may come as a surprise, especially with the prevalence of open-carry activists today. White people walking around Wal-Mart with AR-15s strapped to their backs are seen as resistance against “draconian” gun legislation and a secret Obama plot to steal guns. In the absence of violent acts against white people, such as murders, kidnappings, lynchings, arsons and church bombings, it comes off a bit hypocritical for whites in present-day America to assume that the Black Panthers advocated violence simply by appearances. Especially since these views are most common among the same groups of whites — conservatives.

The truth is that the Black Panthers chose to arm themselves in self-defense, in fact Huey Newton and Bobby Seale originally organized the panthers as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, modeled it after the armed Lowndes County Freedom Organization and even appropriated their logo. Do not forget that this was the 1960s. Blacks were only beginning to reverse centuries of secondary citizen and subhuman classification in society. While the Warren Court deserves recognition, the greater part of the justice system did not work for Black people. The political machines of the day did not work for Black people. This encouraged violence against Blacks, and allies, due to the impunity many perpetrators of violent acts operated with, like the Ku Klux Klan. We should also not limit the historical perspective of violence against Blacks to a single decade when it pervaded for centuries. That the Panthers organized themselves against violence is not simply a reaction to the times, but to the entire Black experience over the course of not only US history, but North American colonization as well.

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Police brutality in Texas during the Civil Rights Era.

The climate of the Civil Rights Era and the goals of the Panthers led to tense relations with the police and federal government. Indeed there would be violent interactions between the police and the Panthers as “neutralizing” the Panthers would be a stated goal of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations to discredit and dismantle the group. From this, it is evident that there was a mutual antagonism between the Panthers and the authorities as well as multiple controversial accounts of police murders, shootouts and even attempts to frame the Panthers of terrorist attacks such as that which alleged a bombing plot by the chapter in New York City resulting in the acquittal of all 13 members charged. While the case of Eldridge Cleaver, one of the party’s most influential members, will always be controversial, the man who in the 1980s after his split from, and decline of, the BPP admitted to ambushing police officers still maintained that the police were always violent murderers themselves. His admission, it should be noted, was more of an insight to personal convictions rather than the Panther doctrine.

The argument that the Panthers were as violent as the Ku Klux Klan is easy to make, but less convincing under scrutiny. Where the Klan targeted innocent civilians, the Panthers’ armed incidents involved the police or other political groups wherein both sides regarded each other as a potentially deadly enemy and lacked the indiscriminate nature of Klan terrorism. For liberals this is a tough pill to swallow as they more or less champion nonviolence and restrictions on guns. For conservatives, there’s a bit of a double standard applied to the incidents with police when considering recent events in the US concerning right wing militia standoffs with federal agencies and occupations of federal land, the latter culminating in a shootout, as these received their support from elements of the gun-supporting right. For other elements of the left, however, the armed approach  of the Panthers was well within the boundaries of ideological consistency as communists, socialists and anarchists have used guns in several past struggles throughout the world.

The use of guns and violence to meet political ends is long, convoluted and will not be clarified once and for all here. Ownership of guns has proponents throughout the political spectrum, though through an American political lens it may seem that gun rights are the domain of the right, but even this, which seems like such a cemented value, is not as consistent as it may seem. When the Black Panthers were marching their patrols through poor neighborhoods, conservatives in the 1960s were appalled by their open-carrying tactics from Ronald Reagan, who was serving as the Governor of California in the late ’60s, to the National Rifle Association — which at the time had been operating as a gun control lobby since its inception in 1871. In 1967, when two dozen armed Panthers marched into the California statehouse to protest a bill on gun control, Reagan commented that there was “no reason on the street today that a citizen should be carrying  loaded weapons.”

“Oh, but If I started the ‘White Panther Party’…”

Rounding out the big three criticisms of the Black Panthers is the smug point about starting up a group of White Panthers. This is entirely predicated on thoroughly rebuked misconceptions on the ideology and methods of the Black Panthers to begin with. Also, any attempt at it would also be about 50 years too late.

As the Panthers worked with and inspired groups of many races, orientations and religions, many wanted to do more in promoting cultural solidarity against oppression, patriarchy and capitalism. Thus, in 1968, the leftist, antiracist organization called the White Panther Party was established by Pun Plamondon, Leni Sinclair and John Sinclair. These individuals took up the call after Huey Newton stated in an interview that whites could form a White Panther Party to further aid them in their struggle. So not only did the White Panther Party exist, it existed to assist the Black Panthers, was formed half a century ago and was advocated by Huey Newton himself.

Digging deep enough, it is plain to see that the Black Panthers, while not a perfect representation of their ideals and goals, were a far cry from the likes that opponents today attempt to pigeonhole them as. A thoroughly revolutionary organization that sought and acted upon coordination with radical groups comprised of many races, orientations, genders and religions, they are not to be conflated with the racist tactics and ideology of something like the Ku Klux Klan. Furthermore, violence attributed to the BPP was either directly orientated towards the state or in isolated skirmishes with other radical organizations. In the former instance, understanding of the Black struggle in North America needs to be seen as a response to a comprehensive system of violence and oppression against Blacks by authorities that was centuries old. The BPP did not take up arms in self-defense for the sake of provocation, but for the very real need to address issues of police brutality and white supremacist terrorism.

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Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Eldridge Cleaver, who served as communications secretary, spokesperson and press secretary for the Black Panthers.

If you dig deep enough into any movement, you’re going to find inconsistencies. Consider the United States which was founded on the premise that all men are created equal, but favored the same class of wealthy landowners who founded it for centuries. In an organization that was nationwide, and in its later stages international, which had so many moving parts, synthesis on all things is virtually impossible and represents one of the disadvantages of centralized movements. When you have leadership, your entire movement is subjected to the faults of that leadership and despite the many more beneficial things the Panthers did, it isn’t hard to see why Americans cannot grasp the message of the Panthers or why so many view them negatively. We have to remember that the police are a sacred cow among the institutions of the United States. Police brutality and institutional racism are and were real things. Bias in the criminal justice system is a real thing. The Black Panther Party operated during the turmoil of the Civil Rights Era, and while it was subjected to some controversial internal policies, it in no way deserves to be written off so lazily with comparisons to the Ku Klux Klan.

Even with its bruises, the overarching goals of the Black Panther Party were bold for its time and presented a dangerous challenge to the legitimacy of the state in providing for the welfare of its citizens, alternatives to the prevailing economic system and a warning of the lengths the state will go to to protect its power. It is no wonder why such concerted effort is applied to discrediting the Panthers even today. Where the Klan looks inward, the Panthers looked beyond Blackness, beyond the borders. Exclusivity versus inclusivity. Racial purification versus multicultural internationalism. Oppressing civilians versus resisting the state. The Black Panthers could not have been more different from the Klan in ideology, method, structure or goals and any conflation stems from two things many whites in America do not want to address: white supremacy and Black struggle.

 

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