Thursday, April 18, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 18: Black Power, Black Panthers

Sharon Riley did an interview with Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin Jr., co-authors of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (2012) for Harper's The Stream 03/15/2013; the interview has the same title, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Apparently they made joint responses to her questions.

They talk about the period in the 1960s when urban rioting began and Black Power came to be a popular slogan among many African-Americans. This period turned out to be paradigm-setting for segregationists. Because their framing for issues of racial conflict often sound as though they are living in 1969.

Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party (BPP) in 1966 in Oakland. I sketched the history of the BPP in The sixties: Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party 06/247/2008. It emerged from the conditions that faced African-American urban communities in the 1960s.

The peaceful protests of the civil-rights movement proved powerless to address urban poverty and ghettoization. Large numbers of blacks had migrated to the cities of the North and the West for wartime jobs. White and industrial flight left concentrated urban black poverty, and municipalities responded with brutal containment policing. Urban police and fire departments remained almost exclusively white. Blacks were shut out from political machines, underrepresented electorally, denied access to elite white colleges and universities, and mired in poverty. In the mid-1960s, inspired by the civil-rights victories over legal segregation, young black people in Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and cities throughout the country took up the cry for "Black Power!" They sought new ways of organizing to achieve economic and political power.

In the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party emerged as the exemplar. The Black Panthers weren’t alone in theorizing that the black community was a "colony in the mother country" and calling for self-determination as part of a global struggle against imperialism. What distinguished them was their advocacy of armed self-defense against the police. They recognized that young urban blacks were ready to stand up to police, as evidenced by Watts and the spread of urban black rebellion, and sought to organize armed resistance into a political force. Initially, the Black Panthers used the law to challenge police brutality while bearing loaded weapons. Soon, hundreds of black people were rallying armed in legal protests against police brutality. The State of California responded by changing the law to restrict the right to bear arms. But the party adapted. Attracted to both armed self-defense and such community programs as Free Breakfast for Children, young black people from across the country contacted the Black Panthers asking to open chapters. During the party's peak, from 1968 to 1970, thousands of young blacks in close to seventy cities dedicated their lives to the party and to revolution, often at great personal risk. [my emphasis]
The year 1968 was the year membership in the BPP soared nationwide. As they say in their book:

As late as February 1968, the Black Panther Party was still a small local organization. But that year, everything changed. By December, the Party had opened offices in twenty cities, from Los Angeles to New York. In the face of numerous armed conflicts with police and virulent direct repression by the state, young black people embraced the revolutionary vision of the Party, and by 1970, the Party had opened offices in sixty-eight cities from Winston-Salem to Omaha and Seattle. The Black Panther Party had become the center of a revolutionary movement in the United States.
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. set off urban riots in cities across the country and gave the BPP a sudden new appeal.

But their heyday was a short one. As they recall in the book, "In the early 1970s, the Party rapidly declined. By mid-1972, it was basically a local Oakland community organization once again."

But their memory still haunts today's segregationists.

Many whites found it easy to ask in the 1960s why, after the federal government and white taxpayers had "done so much" for blacks Americans, they were still so angry and staged urban riots. But the lived experience of African-Americans wasn't one of continuing improvement. As John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss, Jr, put it in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (2003):

Between 1949 and 1964 the relative participation of African Americans in the total economic life of the nation declined significantly. During that period the unemployment rate of blacks was at least double that of whites. Even in 1963, a prosperous year, the unemployment rate for blacks was 114 percent higher than for whites. Where blacks were employed, more than 80 percent worked at the bottom of the economic ladder, as compared with 40 percent of employed whites. In later years it was no better. In 1964 the unemployment rate among blacks was 9.6 percent versus 4.6 percent among whites; in 1971 it was 9.9 percent among blacks and S.4 percent among whites. In 1969 the median income of blacks with eight years of schooling was $4,472, while it was $7,018 for whites with the same amount of schooling. In 1970 the Census Bureau, defining poverty as a median income of less than $3,968 for a family of four, reported that one in every three blacks as compared with one in every ten whites was in that category. And the chances for African Americans to move up were greatly restricted not only by general race bias but also by the meager opportunities for apprenticeship training and by discrimination in many labor unions. [my emphasis]
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