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Monday, October 17, 2016

October 17, 2016: Black Panther Posts: The Alabama 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.]
On the group’s largely forgotten inspiration, and two reasons why it matters.
Before Newton and Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense on that October day in Oakland, they had written to another group, the Lowndes County [Alabama] Freedom Organization (LCFO), for permission to use the black panther image and name. The LCFO had been created in 1965 with the Black Panthers as both an organizational nickname and an emblem, as illustrated (literally) by the letterhead highlighted here. (In between the two organizational creations, Marvel artists Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had also created an African superhero by the same name.) First organized as a follow up to a SNCC voter registration project in the county (which was 80% African American but as of 1965 had precisely zero registered black voters), the LCFO became a significant political entity in its own right, fielding candidates for office in 1966 (and beyond) and advocating for voting rights and other Civil Rights and Black Power goals across the county and state. Yet because the Oakland Black Panthers would become and remain far better known across the nation, the story of this original Black Panther organization and its significant role in the movement and decade has been minimized at best.
That history and story of the LCFO is worth remembering on its own terms and in its own right to be sure. But doing so also helps us better engage with two underappreciated aspects of the Oakland Black Panthers, and especially with the group’s founding identity. The Panthers are often explicitly connected to California, not just as the literal location of their founding but as a new center of American and African American community and life in the mid-20th century. Through early actions such as their May 1967 march on the state capitol in Sacramento, the group certainly emphasized their interconnections with the state. But at the same time, California’s African American community had been substantially constituted by the Great Migration, or what is sometimes called the Second Great Migration as it took place more in the 1940s and 50s; Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, one of the three individuals on whom Isabel Wilkerson focuses in her wonderful The Warmth of Other Suns, moves from Louisiana to California as part of that migration. Linking the California Panthers to the earlier Alabama ones can help remind us of that South-to-West trend and trajectory with particular clarity.
Despite those links, however, California was quite different from Alabama and the South, and the Oakland Black Panthers reflected that difference in a striking way. From their earliest iterations and actions (like that 1967 march on Ronald Reagan’s state house) the Panthers carried guns, and indeed made their armed status a central part of their identity and goals; to quote what one young member supposedly said during that march, “We’re the Black Panthers. We’re black people with guns. What about it?” There’s no doubt that those guns were a source of controversy and (among many white Californians and Americans) consternation, and contributed greatly to negative responses to the Panthers from both the mainstream media and law enforcement. Yet at the same time, I would suggest that if the LCFO, the Alabama Black Panthers, had made bearing arms a central part of their organization, the responses of the white community and power structure in Alabama and the South would have been far more apocalyptic. (Look at how they responded to unarmed, peacefully resisting protesters like those in Selma, after all.) Better remembering these two organizations, then, also helps us appreciate such regional and national distinctions and how they contributed to the decade’s social movements and debates.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Panther histories or connections you’d highlight?

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