Wednesday, October 19, 2016
October 19, 2016: Black Panther Posts: Female Panthers
[On October 15th, 1966, the Black Panthers were founded in Oakland, California by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of histories and stories connected to the Panthers, leading up to a special weekend post on an unfolding contemporary history that echoes the group’s activism and legacy.]
Although the Black Panthers originated with an explicitly masculine—and often sexist—philosophy, by 1969 the group’s official position considered sexism counter-revolutionary. Here are three of the more clearly revolutionary—in both troubling and inspiring senses—female Panthers:
1) Angela Davis: As with almost every figure linked to the Panthers, Angela Davis’ bio has a dark and potentially criminal chapter: she purchased the guns later used by 17 year old Jonathan Jackson in his 1970 armed takeover of a Marin County courtroom, events that culminated in a shootout with police and the death of Jackson, two African American defendants, and the judge. Jackson was acting in support of the three young men known as the Soledad Brothers, who were accused of killing a guard at Soledad Prison (one of the three was his older brother George Jackson); Davis was also a vocal supporter of the inmates. But whatever Davis’s culpability in the Jackson incident (and she was both charged and imprisoned as an accessory and found innocent in a jury trail), her lifelong social, political, and academic activism reflect how far the Black Panthers’ legacy has extended beyond the most controversial and violent histories.
2) Ericka Huggins: Huggins, one of the party’s founding members, was likewise intimately tied to some of its darkest moments: her husband, John Huggins, was killed during protest activities at UCLA in 1969, when their daughter was only 3 months old; the following year Ericka was charged with murder and conspiracy in the death of party informant Alex Rackley (the jury deadlocked and she was acquitted). Yet Huggins cannot be defined solely by those tragedies and trials—not without recognizing her lifelong career as an educator, including a decade at the groundbreaking Oakland Community School (one of the Black Panther Party’s most impressive and enduring legacies) and many subsequent decades of public education and activism on a variety of social and cultural issues. Like Bill Ayers, the former Weathermen radical turned educational reformer, Huggins’ career illustrates the ways in which social and political activism can inform and influence education and future generations through it.
3) Elaine Brown: Brown, who began as a rank-and-file party member in 1968 Los Angeles and worked her way up to a central role, reflects both the sexism within and the crucial female leadership of the Black Panther Party: she served as the party’s national chairperson from 1974 to 1977, but later wrote in her autobiography A Taste of Power (1992) about the sexism she encountered and how it forced her to leave that leadership position. Yet Brown’s multi-faceted career also helps us remember the vital role of cultural texts in the party and period; she sang and recorded two albums, Seize the Time (1969) and Until We’re Free (1973), with the former including the song “The Meeting” that would become the party’s anthem. As with so many of the 1960s social movements, art and culture were as key to the Panthers as political and social activism, and Brown’s talents and work reflect that too-often overlooked element very fully.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Panther histories or connections you’d highlight?