When I learned my book club was reading Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party I was intrigued. Like most Americans I knew very little about the Black Panthers. All I had was a vague sense it was powerful political organization, if only for a relatively short time. Much to my surprise I was able to borrow a Kindle edition of Black against Empire through Overdrive and once it was in my possession I went to work reading it almost immediately. I’m happy to report I couldn’t put it down.
By the late 1960s the Civil Rights movement had won significant victories for Black Americans. Businesses as well as public institutions such as schools and universities were finally being desegregated. For the first time in nearly a century the right to vote was restored in the South by the rollback of Jim Crow, thanks to sweeping Voting Rights legislation. When it came to race relations to many it looks liked America had finally turned the corner and a more harmonious and equitable future loomed on the horizon.
Sadly, despite these gains life for most, if not all Black Americans was less than ideal. In cities throughout America Blacks were relegated to ghettos where poverty, unemployment and inadequate or even nonexistent social services were the norm. All white police departments patrolled Black neighborhoods like occupying armies, ruling with iron hands. Meanwhile the escalating ground war in Vietnam sucked up increasing numbers of young Black men into the draft. While Black America had won the vote, politically and economically it remained powerless. Assassinations of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. only made things worse.
Frustrated by this sense of powerlessness, a group of Black activists in Oakland decided to take matters into the own hands, starting with conducting armed patrols of their neighborhoods. By shadowing police officers as they patrolled the streets early Panthers sought to put a brake on the cops’ racist brutality. Believing substantive change was impossible without possessing true political power, the activists modeled their struggle after the liberation movements sweeping the developing world. The ruling white power structures were seen as colonial overlords to be overthrown and armed self defense, not integration the Panthers’ goal. After adopting this liberationist stance before long the Black Panthers were being warmly received by revolutionary regimes in China, North Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria.
Like any successful liberation movement the Panthers competed for the hearts and minds of those they wished to liberate. Neighborhood children received free breakfasts and the curious were treated to lectures and study sessions designed to raise consciousness and promote the Panthers’ ideology. Inroads were built with sympathetic whites leading to instances of positive press as well as successful fundraisers. Panther candidates ran for political offices in local races. Seen by many Americans as controversial to say the least, and despite the authorities’ attempts to crush and discredit them the future looked bright for the Black Panthers.
But the Panther’s bright star would eventually supernova. Reasons why are many, and still debated but the Black Panthers were victims of forces from outside as well as within. Its relevance as a force for change began eroding when the many of the injustices it fought against finally began being addressed. The Nixon administration, hoping to wind down the Vietnam War began ratcheting back the draft. Taking advantage of new legislation and changing societal attitudes more Blacks were getting elected to offices at local, state and federal levels. Social programs like Head Start improved the lives of inner city children. Police departments slowly added Black officers and began addressing racist brutality. Affirmative action programs increased hiring at federal entities.
On the global front, countries like China and Algeria that supported the Panthers as a people’s liberation organization, began distancing themselves from them in hopes of improving relations with the United States. Realpolitik would take precedence over revolutionary ideals.
Government persecution, which at its zenith occurred when the Panthers were flourishing eventually began taking its toll, unfortunately just when the organization was beset by internal power struggles and vicious infighting.
The most fatal wounds the Panthers received sadly were self-inflicted. Like so many revolutionary movements it was riven by competing factions and personality cults. Deep divisions materialized between those who wished to make the Panthers America’s armed liberation front and those wanting to pursue less violent means. Realists among the Panthers knew armed struggles might work in the jungles of Africa or SE Asia when pitted against colonial forces or a weak national government but was ill-suited for urban warfare in a place like the United States. Power struggles and competing ideologies led to denouncements, infighting and even murder. Huey Newton, once it’s revered founding member, degenerated into a mess of untreated mental illness, drug abuse and criminality before dying like a street punk in 1989.
Black Against Empire is a great book. If you take my advice to heart and end up reading it, I’d also encourage you to follow it up with Isabel Wilkerson’s multiple award-winning 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and Bryan Burrough’s 2015 Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Black against Empire is a strong candidate to make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.