Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Jan. 5, 6 or 7, 2017
Forty-seven years ago last month, Chicago police in a pre-dawn raid killed Peorian Mark Clark and Chicagoan Fred Hampton in an apartment where they and other Black Panthers slept.
Founded 50 years ago in Alabama as a follow-up to the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense gained attention when armed members patrolled Oakland, Calif., to monitor police and demonstrated at the California legislature, legally carrying rifles.
“As we consider the similarities between the injustices of yesterday and today, it is important to understand that the Panthers were energized largely by young people – 25 and under – who started as a small group of actively engaged individuals that collectively became an international human-rights phenomenon,” said Stanley Nelson, director of “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” film.
“The Black Panther Party emerged out of a love for their people and a devotion to empowering them,” he said.
Eventually involving not only leaders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, but author Eldridge Cleaver, Civil Rights veteran Stokely Carmichael and activist Angela Davis, the Panthers were guests on TV programs from Mike Douglas’ afternoon series to William F. Buckley’s political talk show, and at fund raisers hosted by the likes of composer Leonard Bernstein.
“Their impact on American culture continues to resonate today,” comments journalist Eric Arnold on radio’s “Making Contact.”
The Panthers sought a united front, too, making alliances with progressives ranging from the American Indian Movement, the Latino Brown Berets, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the white community’s Rising Up Angry, and the White Panther Party.
The Panthers foreshadowed Black Lives Matter, except the Panthers became involved in violent confrontations and also were more ambitious, launching a breakfast program for schoolkids and an education arm called the Intercommunal Youth Institute.
The Panthers’ approach was to be armed but nonviolent, as explained by member Robert Williams, who said, “If you are confronted by a racist who believes himself superior, and you’re armed, he has to consider: Does he want to risk his ‘superior’ life to take your ‘inferior’ life? And if you have a gun, you can put him in that position. And nine times out of 10, he doesn’t, and that’s the end of the violence. So we believed self-defense was a way to put a reduction into violence.”
Nevertheless, the Panthers were labeled a threat to the country by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The Minister of Defense for the Illinois Black Panther Party, Bobby Rush – now a Congressman from the 1st District – days after Hampton’s killing said that the FBI was behind the assassinations, and over eight years the conspiracy was exposed, from the plan for the Chicago attack and its cover-up to the FBI’s involvement and its secret and occasionally criminal COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram).
Documents verifying Rush’s accusations came to light after anti-war activists broke in to an FBI office in Media, Pa., and retrieved records showing the FBI’s role.
“An honest Assistant U.S. Attorney produced an FBI memorandum that included a detailed floor plan of the interior of Fred Hampton's apartment that specifically identified the bed on which Hampton slept,” according to Flint Taylor, a lawyer for the Hampton family. It “showed that the floor plan, together with other important information designed to be utilized in a police raid, was based on information communicated by a paid informant.”
Reportedly the longest trial in the history of the federal courts, the 18-month wrongful death lawsuit against the officials who’d murdered Hampton and Clark ended with Judge Sam Perry dismissing all charges. Exonerating police, the FBI and the Department of Justice, Perry in 1979 was overturned by a federal appeals court. A new trial was ordered, but an out-of-court settlement was reached.
In 1976, Idaho Senator Frank Church's Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations devoted a chapter to the “FBI’s Covert Action Plan to Destroy the Black Panther Party.” Decades later, Beyonce’s homage to the Panthers at Super Bowl 50 helped spark conversation and connections, which should continue.
The problems of racism, police misconduct and inequality “loom just as large today as they did 50 years ago,” commented Julia Felsenthal in Vogue.com.
Historical material is online, from documentaries such as “The Murder of Fred Hampton” (a 1971 film) and “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” (released last year) to a roundtable discussion on the news show “Democracy Now!” [democracynow.org] and a half-hour radio feature on “Making Contact”[www.radioproject.org ] .
[PICTURED: Detail from the documentary's promotional material.]