Photography by Getty Images/Bev Grant
Episode 15, Season 3
The history of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense can help us understand the transition from civil rights to Black Power and contemporary issues like mass incarceration. From the Ten-Point Platform to survival programs, historian Robyn C. Spencer outlines key aspects of the party’s revolutionary ideology, grassroots activism and community service. And historian Jakobi Williams joins to share valuable classroom insights.
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Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights MovementEdited by Hasan Kwame Jeffries
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- Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project, Online Resource Guide
- Learning for Justice Lesson, Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System (grades 9-12)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: During the 1994 July 4 holiday, the world was introduced to Forrest Gump, the affable, if slow witted, lead character of the major motion picture by the same name. Played by Tom Hanks, Gump's innocent missteps took him on a lifelong adventure through memorable moments in modern United States history, from the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door and the assassination of JFK, through the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, to the start of the AIDS epidemic.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The film was a box office sensation, earning nearly three quarters of a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales during its premier year. It was also a critical success, taking home the 1995 Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as five other Oscars, including the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for its seamless insertions of Forrest Gump into archival footage of major historical events.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The phenomenon that was Forrest Gump has never abated. From VHS tapes and laser discs, to Ultra Blu-ray DVDs; home video sales have always been strong. And during a time when big box stores don't keep anything on their shelves that doesn't move immediately—when anyone can stream the movie online—one can still walk into Target or Walmart and find a copy of Forrest Gump. And if you scroll through the guide on your TV, I promise you, you can find it playing on some channel, just about every day.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But Forrest Gump is also a staple of middle school and high school social studies classes—from general US history and American Government, to APUSH. Whenever I teach "African American History Through Film," a class that enrolled 70 this semester, I always ask my students to raise their hand if they have seen Forrest Gump. And without fail, nearly every hand goes up, with most saying they watched it in school. And then I ask them to raise their hand if they ever learned about the Black Panther Party. And once again, almost every hand goes up. And finally, I ask my students to raise their hand if Forrest Gump is where they learned about the Black Panther Party. And true to form, just as before, nearly everyone's hand goes up.
[FILM CLIP, Forrest Gump: Jenny and me were just like peas and carrots again. She showed me around, and even introduced me to some of her new friends.]
[FILM CLIP, Ruben: Shut that blind, man. And get your white ass away from that window. Don't you know we in a war here?]
[FILM CLIP, Jenny: Hey man, he's cool. He's cool. He's one of us.]
[FILM CLIP, Masai: Let me tell you about us. Our purpose here is to protect our Black leaders from the racial onslaught of the pig who wishes to brutalize our Black leaders, rape our women, and destroy our Black community.]
[FILM CLIP, Wesley: Who's the baby killer?]
[FILM CLIP, Jenny: This is my good friend I told you about. This is Forrest Gump. Forrest, this is Wesley. Wesley and I live together in Berkeley, and he's the president of the Berkeley chapter of SDS.]
[FILM CLIP, Masai: Let me tell you something else. We are here to offer protection and help for all of those who need our help, because we, the Black Panthers, are against the war in Vietnam. Yes, we are against any war where Black soldiers are sent to the front line to die for a country that hates them. Yes, we are against any war where Black soldiers go to fight and come to be brutalized and killed in their own communities as they sleep in their beds at night. Yes, we are against all these racists and imperial dog acts.]
[FILM CLIP, Jenny: Forrest! Stop it!]
[FILM CLIP, Forrest Gump: He should not be hitting you, Jenny.]
[FILM CLIP, Jenny: Come on, Forrest.]
[FILM CLIP, Forrest Gump: Sorry I had a fight in the middle of your Black Panther party.]
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: For the last quarter century, this two-minute scene in Forrest Gump has been the main source of information on the Black Panther Party for students. And the fact that this scene has been viewed by so many students, a scene that depicts the Black Panthers as gun-toting rabble rousers consumed by anger and obsessed with rhetoric for the sake of rhetoric, means that this gross misrepresentation of the Panthers not only shapes how most students understand the Party, but also colors how they make sense of the Black Power Movement.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But the Black Panther Party was so much more than this caricature. The Panthers had an ideology that was shaped by an international perspective on capitalism and self-determination. They created model community service and education programs that addressed a wide range of local needs. They were targeted by police and vilified by the media in ways that resonate with the Black freedom struggle today. Students have to unlearn the inaccurate version of the Black Panthers portrayed in the movie Forrest Gump, which has become so omnipresent in their homes and in their classrooms. And instead, they have to learn who the Panthers really were, and what Black Power was really about.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Learning for Justice project—formerly known as Teaching Tolerance. To learn more about Learning for Justice and to meet our new director, visit us at LearningForJustice.org. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the Black freedom struggle, or the US civil rights movement. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is the most iconic organization of the Black Power era. But students are taught little about the Party's actual approach to change. In this episode, historian Robyn Spencer outlines key aspects of the Party's platform and programs, and discusses implications for understanding contemporary issues like mass incarceration. And historian Jakobi Williams shares valuable classroom insights on how to teach the transition from civil rights to Black Power using the Black Panther Party.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm glad you could join us.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It is a true pleasure to welcome Dr. Robyn Spencer to the podcast. Dr. Spencer is not just my academic comrade, my sister in academic struggle, but she's also my homegirl from the NYC. I don't often get to welcome fellow New Yorkers, folk with roots in the city to the podcast. So Robyn, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Robyn Spencer: I'm happy to be here. Brooklyn in the house, currently residing in the Bronx.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There we go, the BK strong, BK strong. So I wanted you to join us, I wanted you to share some insights with the Teaching Hard History audience, when we got to this particular moment of the season, where we began to turn towards Black power, transitioning from sort of civil rights era to Black Power era specifically, because I want us to talk about the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Let me ask you this question—and this is a big question—who were the Black Panthers?
Robyn Spencer: Excellent question, and a big question indeed. The Black Panther Party was an organization that was founded by two young men, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, in Oakland, California, in 1966. They were both attendees at Merritt College in Oakland, and they were friends. They both were children of migrants. Their parents had migrated to Oakland, like so many others in the post-World War II period in order to work in defense industries. And when that stream of work declined, they found themselves without. Without adequate housing, without decent education, without economic footholds, without any sort of way to address the rising police violence that was part of their lives as members of an urban community. So Huey Newton and Bobby Seale began to think about how to address the issues that they saw around them, began to think about how to improve the circumstances of their community. And through their efforts, came to be an organization known as the Black Panther Party, one of the leading organizations of the Black Power movement.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Now the Black Panthers, Huey and Bobby, their base of operations will be Oakland, California, but the Black Panther Party doesn't stay in Oakland, California, does it?
Robyn Spencer: It does not. It grows nationwide. It becomes a vehicle of struggle that so many people want to connect themselves to, that they want to build. So the Panthers spread to Los Angeles, to Seattle. They spread in the east coast, throughout the South. There's nowhere the Black Panther Party did not spread. And they reflected the local conditions, but there were things that united those chapters, things like adherence and understanding of the 10-point platform and program. So these two young men, the first thing they did was create a 10-point platform and program, which set out the wants and needs of the community that they wanted to serve. And everything was on there, from housing to criminal justice to the economics of poverty and challenging that, to military service. And they took that 10-point platform and program and they attracted the people who would become the Panthers. They attracted people who were new to political struggle and veterans of political movements.
Robyn Spencer: One of the key ways that I teach the Black Panther Party's 10-point platform and program is to have students look at the different versions of it: the original version, the updated version and then the final version in 1972, and to have them think about how the Panthers' demands changed over time. How can we look at these three versions and understand that they reflect a changing set of ideas, a changing view of the world, as well as a changing set of concerns? Another strategy that I use is to look at other political treatises that were modeled after the Panthers' 10-point platform and program. So there was a 10-point student program, the Panthers modeled themselves off of a Nation of Islam 10 points as well. Just to look at how different groups have articulated their needs in this particular framework. And then, of course, the invitation to the students at the end to create their own framework to the contemporary conditions that they find themselves in today.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I asked Jakobi Williams how he teaches the 10-point platform, and this is what he had to say. Let's take a listen.
Jakobi Williams: Well, I've taught a course on the Black Panther Party every year since 2002, and an examination of the 10-point platform is by far the most lively, debated and honestly emotional encounter I have with students during the course. So students find almost every aspect of the platform to be controversial or radical. So we have open, honest, robust discussions about these issues.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Is there one or two points that you feel are absolutely essential that teachers hit in order to understand the Panthers?
Jakobi Williams: The point about reparations. Folks being exempt from military service is another. We could spend half a class just talking about reparations, what that means, historical context, what are they asking for? Once we jump into reparations, we have to talk about the rest of these points just to deal with reparations, because that's what they're arguing. We don't have a fair shake, that we've been deprived of education, deprived of employment, police brutality. And the list goes on. And then folks are being drafted to the war. So point number six, being exempt from military service. I can't get a decent house, I can't get a decent education and I can't get a job, and now you want to go fight in this war? And then I ask them, "How do you relate this to freedom and citizenship? What does it mean to be a citizen?" Because citizens should be able to go fight in a war. If I had all these things, it probably wouldn't be an issue.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah, I think that is so important, the way you frame that. Because what you're doing is getting the students to sort of get that, yes, this was radical, but it wasn't crazy. And as long as they think the Panthers were crazy, they cannot connect. But if they see this as like, oh, wait a minute, these are logical responses to the problems that Black folk were facing, then you can start to have sort of critical analysis and critical understanding of what it is that this organization was doing, and why it resonated so much with Black folk. So you go through the 10-point platform, you get the students engaged. Where do you go from there?
Jakobi Williams: I let them debate, because I just want to make sure that they have a clear understanding of what the arguments are. I divide the class in half, and one side believes what the Panthers are saying and the others defend the government. I force people to divide in half whether they believe what they believe or not, just to use the exercise to make the case. So you don't have to believe this, but just defend the state and the state's position. Now let's defend the Panthers' position. And then we have a robust understanding at the end because we've had some real critical debate and positions about this. So I have a vocabulary list that I provide students: institutional racism, binary opposition, hegemonic discourse, social location, so we have some concepts that they can apply when they're articulating their positions.
Jakobi Williams: I believe the classroom is the only space where we as a society can have these hard and oftentimes emotional discussions about race and other emotionally-charged topics without repercussions. Students are already having such discussions, but in their own separate safe silos, right? Black folks over here, Latino folks over there, whites over here, LGBTQ-plus folks there. But together, we can come and have an open, honest, informed conversation about this without repercussion. And the 10-point platform brings all of that every single time. At the end of this, there's an exercise. I ask students to think about the platform and to write 10 issues about society today, 10 issues happening now today that fit the platform. Black folks are more segregated now than they were then, the schools are more dilapidated now than they were then. Police brutality, mass incarceration, the list goes on. The issues still exist. But then there's new concerns, right? LGBTQ-plus issues and others come up. And then what will you do to solve them? What do you think the Black Panther Party would outline for equitable justice now? And so that’s the fun part. How would you implement this? Because for every point the Panthers outlined, they had the community service program to deal with it. So what would you do to implement a more equitable and just society? So don't just complain about it. What are you going to do about it?
Jakobi Williams: So the exercise forces students to think critically about what freedom means, what equality means, and how can we as Americans make the two concepts real?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This season of Teaching Hard History is based on the book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, recipient of the 2020 James Harvey Robinson prize for the most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history, from the American Historical Association. And this podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of this collection of essays—which I edited. From now until the end of April, they are offering a 30 percent discount to listeners who order this collection. You'll find a link to purchase the book at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Just use the promotional code: CIVILRIGHTS—all one word. Let's return now to my conversation with Robyn Spencer.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What were some of the driving ideological beliefs of the Black Panther Party?
Robyn Spencer: The Black Panther Party really came out of a confluence of influences. They were very influenced by Malcolm X, his strong political beliefs, his style of communication, his growing critique of political economy, and his embrace of radicalism towards the end of his life. They were very invested in nationalist interpretations of the Black struggle, centered on Black unity, Black pride, Black self-determination. And they moved from that nationalism to what they called "revolutionary nationalism," which was a deep critique of the political economy. They were critical of capitalism. And this was key because they were, of course, in the throes of the Cold War that was raging between the United States and the Soviet Union and their proxies around the world. There were also international influences. They were influenced by the many anti-colonial struggles that they saw unfolding around the world, whether it be the Algerians, whether it be the Vietnamese in the US war in Vietnam. They were very influenced by this idea of struggle and of armed self-defense as a key mechanism to bring about social change.
Robyn Spencer: They were also very influenced by particular thinkers. People like Frantz Fanon, Fidel Castro, people who had a strong critique about political economy and a different way of organizing politics. So they were very much influenced by a broad variety of thinkers. And one of their hallmarks is to take those theoretical ideas and to translate them into actionable items that can be unfolded on the streets.
Robyn Spencer: So to take an ideal about socialism, and translate that into the idea of making people question the commodified relationship between themselves and their medical providers. They did that by giving people a chance to have free medical care. So they took the big ideas and they brought them down to the street level.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What were some of the other activities that they brought down to the street level, as you say?
Robyn Spencer: Their free breakfast program was one of their community programs that was very successful. They partnered with local churches and community organizations, they got donations from local merchants. And through their own will and people power, they would wake up early in the morning and provide free breakfast for schoolchildren before they went off to school, really challenging the pervasive hunger, really using that program as a way of building goodwill, as a way of teaching the next generation about their politics, and also as a way of getting people to question why the federal government, for example, was not providing that type of support for people in need.
Robyn Spencer: I think it's important to teach about the scale of the community programs, the fact that the Panthers had 50-plus community programs, and how those programs provided resources and services to poor Black and oppressed communities, from nutrition to child care, transportation, legal, etc. To look at the array of community programs I think would be a way to have the students understand the social and political context of the times.
Robyn Spencer: There's so many assignments that can come out of thinking through the role that the Black Panther Party's community survival program played in the late 1960s and 1970s. Students could be assigned to an individual program. There's so many of them, that if you have a class of 30-some odd students, each one of them could be assigned to a program, and they could be assigned to think through and do research on why the program was needed.
Robyn Spencer: Another assignment that I do sometimes is to look at the internationalization of some of those programs. For example, the Polynesian Panthers adopted several Black Panther Party community programs. So having students look at how these programs unfolded in context outside of the United States, I think can speak to the internationalization of the movement. There's lots of fliers and other ephemera around the programs that students could be given as primary documents. And the programs could be used as a way of talking about the Panthers' alliance strategy. So looking at the way that the Panthers and the Young Lords in New York, for example, worked together on health advocacy.
Robyn Spencer: I also like to ensure that students understand the stature of these programs. So when they see things like the fact that Rosa Parks and Maya Angelou visited the Oakland Community School, and the Oakland Community School won awards for its educational philosophy and mission, it takes it to another level. It has them think about the way that education could be restructured, especially in a student-centered way.
Robyn Spencer: There's a great clip with LeVar Burton where he takes you inside of the Oakland Community School. And it's a wonderful thing to show the students, because it has examples of the students themselves talking about what the school means to them, how the school has been a community for them, and how some of the non-hierarchical elements of the school, like the role of the students in determining discipline, and the fact that classes were oftentimes not separated by age, but by ability. There's some of those unique things about the school, which are now so common in progressive education, can be actually witnessed by that clip.
[TV CLIP, LeVar Burton: Well, our first visit will be to California, where we'll go to the Oakland Community Learning Center. This is a school that was started by a political organization in the Black community of Oakland. Back in the '60s, a man named Huey Newton started a group called the Black Panthers. They were a very controversial outfit back then, because they were critical of the way in which the local police behaved in their community. Many of their members, including Huey, were arrested, and some even served time in jail for their activities. Many people know of the Panthers because of their run-ins with the police, but there's another side to this organization. In Oakland, in many ways a poor community, the Panthers are also known for their projects like the Breakfast Program for Schoolchildren and for the Community Learning Center. When we visited the Center, we saw that they had a different approach to teaching and learning. We're going to be meeting a student at the Learning Center, a young lady named Kelita. And when the film opens, Kelita is interviewing Huey Newton, founder of the Black Panthers.]
[TV CLIP, Kelita Smith: Where did you come from?]
[TV CLIP, Huey Newton: Well, I was born in Louisiana in the South, in Monroe, Louisiana. And I came, my family came to Oakland when I was about one and a half. So I've been here about, what, 34 years. I'm 35 now. I'm an old man. [laughs] But I went to about every school in Oakland. We moved a lot.]
[TV CLIP, Kelita Smith: What was it like in your school?]
[TV CLIP, Huey Newton: Well, we were being taught mostly about white people. We didn't have any books of our own. So it wasn't—we didn't feel that the school was teaching us anything about ourselves. So it was a great problem in school for me and for the teachers. And that's why, as I grew older I always felt that—as I grew older and learned about our true history, that Africa before its conquest was a beautiful, cultured country and we had great universities in Timbuktu. And I started to look at myself and get a new interest in education. And so that's one of the reasons that I'm so proud of your school.]
[TV CLIP, Kelita Smith: My name is Kelita Smith. I'm eight-and-a-half years old. I live in Oakland, California. I go to school at the Oakland Community Learning Center. Our school was started by the Black Panther Party. The earliest age we start going to this school is when you're two. We don't have grades in our school, we have levels. They put us in different levels based on what we can do.]
Robyn Spencer: One of the things I do would be to have them to think about that curriculum in relationship to the freedom schools, and in relationship to some of the educational initiatives that are talked about in scholarship like Russell Rickford's work on education in this period, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power and the Radical Imagination.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The Black Panther survival programs are one of the critical activities that the Panthers undertake. I asked Jakobi are there particular programs that you would recommend teachers focus on, if they can't dive into all of them? This is what he had to say.
Jakobi Williams: The Free Breakfast for Children program and the free clinics. Students are surprised to find out that free breakfasts wasn't initiated in schools, and I have to explain to them it was not until the party did this work that you get the Child Nutrition Act in 1966 as the government's response to the kind of impact that these programs were having. And then the Panthers created free clinics. And then the Panthers would go out and began to do sickle-cell testing, which was not a critical issue at that time, which is highly studied today. In fact, the Panthers tested 5,000 people in a matter of days in Chicago, to demonstrate that the work that these kids—and I can't emphasize this enough, these are young adults, these are not yet 21 year olds who are doing all of this community service, this community work for free.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What source material do you use to teach the community service programs/survival programs?
Jakobi Williams: A number of things. I use a lot of photos, so they can see the clinics in operation. Short film clips. For instance, The Murder of Fred Hampton has some film clips of the free breakfast program. But you can find this in a number of party documentaries. They really focus on their service programs, and this is their way of trying to control their narrative, because you have a lot of mainstream media at the time trying to paint them as a gang or as a terrorist organization. So the party was very adamant in making sure most of what's covered is not just their speeches, but their community service programs. So there's a lot of film clips out there just seeing this work in action.
Jakobi Williams: I try to give them primary sources to use, so I use a lot of newspapers. In the back of one of their newspapers, you'll have 10 clippings that you could cut out for free food programs, that gives you an address where you can clip these things off, take them to the office and get you a free bag of groceries. But also in the Black Panther newspaper, you can find other neat incentives like schedules for their free busing to prison programs.
Jakobi Williams: I like the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation work, the Black Panther Party's Service to the People programs. It's about 90 pages long. I use that because it breaks down each Black Panther Party program that was developed. Basically, it's a how-to guide that could be adopted. This is what we did, this is our purpose for the program, its functions, operations, its funding, its fundraising, but most importantly, how poor people can take their own destiny to their own hands, which is the whole point of this. The whole point of those survival programs was to eliminate the profit incentive from the daily human necessities that people needed to survive.
Jakobi Williams: And then we read some FBI files, because the FBI's taken very good notes following these folks around because they are so successful. The FBI dubbed the Panthers the greatest threat to the internal security of the nation. It had nothing to do with these young men carrying guns and young ladies advocating revolution. It was the impact of these survival programs, because this is very much an anti-capitalist-driven incentive, and it's empowering people and there's self empowerment at its core and it's a socialist agenda. And they take good records, so you can see what the FBI tells you they do, they go in and destroy food, they go in and destroy equipment to try to dismantle and disrupt these programs.
Jakobi Williams: And then I force students to do what I called a primary source review project, which they are forced to use the HistoryMakers database, but also alternative press newspapers, Ethnic NewsWatch, to search for newspaper articles, primary sources about this organization and the kind of work that they're doing to find their own documentation in various cities of what's taking place here. You'd be surprised how much information is in the record.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned the HistoryMakers database. For those who aren't familiar with that, could you just give us a brief summary of what's included in that collection?
Jakobi Williams: So the HistoryMakers database is a collection of oral histories of almost every, what they would call a history maker, a person who's made history, who's African American. So you can find any civil rights group or event or organization or person or time period or location and search it. And you'd be surprised what you find. They're putting a microphone and a camera in front of everybody. There's interviews in the HistoryMaker database, for example, that documents the students or the youth, I should say, who benefited from the clinics, who benefited from the free breakfast program. So you can use interviews with people who actually participated in those encounters, or as former members of the party or just people who were in the community. So you have all these folks who are giving these primary source oral histories of the ways in which they were impacted by these programs.
Jakobi Williams: It's searchable, meaning if you type "Fred Hampton," for example, into HistoryMakers, you might get 5,000 clips, so now you have to narrow the search. And in doing so, you find a clip that you want, you open it up, and instead of seeing the two-hour interview, it's relegated just to those 12 seconds or 30 seconds that person is talking about Fred Hampton. And it's transcribed. If you don't want to listen to it, you can just look at the transcript or scroll down to the highlighted sections where the name appears to see if it's useful. So it does a lot of work for you, which I'm quite jealous of students because I'm from the old school. We had to smell the mold and mildew in a card catalog, and get your fingers cut with paper cuts and so forth. But not today. These kids can sit at home in their underwear and do all this work. So I'm quite jealous of them.
Jakobi Williams: Byt these primary source review projects are very important because it teaches them how to do primary source research, but also I can indirectly teach them critical thinking skills. So don't just take what you read at face value. You have to do a little bit more questioning. So I force them to do this with these primary source review projects, even as they read the Black Panther newspaper. Question everything. Question those FBI files, the Panther papers, question documentaries that I show. You must be asking questions or you're not doing your job.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Music was vital to the civil rights movement, and continues to be critical to global freedom struggles today. In this installment of “Movement Music,” historian Charles Hughes introduces us to the symbiotic relationship between the Black Power Movement and the music of that era. Here’s Charles.
Charles Hughes: Popular music didn't just reflect the Black Power Movement—it was part of the struggle, a crucial terrain for Black control and independence.
Charles Hughes: The Black Power years produced a new renaissance of soul, rock, and jazz, a period of deepening funk polyrhythms, Afro-diasporic arrangements, and other musical markers of an expansive sonic Blackness.
Charles Hughes: Lyrically, even mainstream artists felt freer to invoke Black Nationalist ideologies and Black-is-Beautiful reclamations. Behind the scenes, African Americans asserted greater control over the direction of record companies, radio stations, and the larger music industry. No one was more deeply connected to the music of the movement than The Staple Singers. Longtime veterans of the gospel highway, and supporters of Dr. King and movement campaigns, the group signed to Stax Records in 1967 and produced a string of hits that amplified a soul-drenched sound with politicized lyrics that accentuated Black Power's cultural program.
Charles Hughes: Many Staples' songs echoed the moment's assertions, but perhaps none as specifically as "When Will We Be Paid?" The Staples, led as usual, by youngest daughter Mavis, lay out the argument for economic reckoning and Black self-determination. A crucial component of Black Power activism across its wide political spectrum, this insistence on Black autonomy after a legacy of white thievery connected Black Power to its nationalist predecessors.
Charles Hughes: The song outlines the history of American expropriation of Black labor. Mavis Staples recounts the multiple intersecting ways that Black work created white wealth—from the fields to the factories, before demanding—with her family's trademark support—that Black people be justly compensated. It's about what we would now call reparations, but it also imagines a future when such economic dependence won’t be necessary. To borrow a term from another musical cornerstone of the Black Power era—and longtime friend of the Staple Singers—it's about respect.
Charles Hughes: Aretha Franklin also began in the gospel church before ultimately becoming the “Queen of Soul” in the late-1960s, with a series of recordings that embodied Black Power. Franklin’s anthems ranged from her cover of Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black” to the diasporic dance party of “Rock Steady,” to her enduring version of “Respect.” Released in 1967, Franklin reworked (and gender-flipped) a song by fallen soul-hero Otis Redding.
Charles Hughes: Beyond the change in perspective, Franklin turns Redding's pleading blues into a strutting demand, a call for respect, not only at home but also societally.
Charles Hughes: Franklin’s call was not only Black Power, but also an emerging Black feminist and womanist consciousness that insisted on redefining gender roles and sexual politics. As Black women have done throughout history, Franklin reflected and remixed the conversation, pushing the challenge forward while celebrating its progress.
Charles Hughes: Franklin literally spells out the word that is, in some sense, the core of the Black Power movement and the larger African-American freedom struggle.
Charles Hughes: Like the Staple Singers, Nina Simone, and so many other musicians of the Black power era, the "Queen of Soul" was part of the Movement, proclaiming its victories and challenges. We can hear the legacies of these artists in the Black Power Movement and beyond. All we need to do is keep listening.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you haven't figured it out by now, when you listen to the Staples Singers or to Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, or any of the other artists of the Black Power era, it should be clear that music was the struggle and the struggle was the music.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Be sure to check out our latest Spotify playlist. Dr. Hughes has curated dozens of songs that amplify even more of the ideas raised in this episode. Just follow the link in the show notes at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Now let’s return to Dr. Spencer.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the earliest activities that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense gets involved in are the police patrols. Could you say a little bit about what those were, what their purpose was, and then why they eventually moved away from them?
Robyn Spencer: The police patrols were one of the Panthers' first activities. They really were trying to address the pervasive police violence that defined Black life in Oakland, California, from traffic stops to routine harassment to police brutality to even murder of Black people. That was the reality for Oakland residents at the time. Before the Panthers began in 1966, there had been a lot of protests around police brutality. So they created these police patrols. They were influenced by examples of successful patrols from Los Angeles. The patrols involved the Black Panthers with legally-carried weapons. They did a lot of research to see under what circumstances their membership could carry weapons. So they would carry weapons, they would carry law books, they would carry tape recorders, and they would patrol the police.
Robyn Spencer: They knew what the legal distance was from which they could observe police activity, and they would show up at events when people were being arrested or cars were being stopped, and they would stand at a legal distance with their weapons. At this point, they would sometimes be wearing their uniforms, which were the leather jackets, black pants and a powder blue shirt or turtleneck. And they would hand out copies of their 10-point platform and program. They would read people their rights. They would really be there as a force to allow people to understand that the police could not just run rampant over their existence.
Robyn Spencer: Their goal was to demonstrate that an organized, disciplined cadre of people could challenge the activities of the police. And because they were within the law in their actions, they were able to successfully carry out these police programs. And they became street theater. I mean, people came out of their houses. They passed around those fliers, and it put them on the map. And it gave them a reputation for discipline, for addressing a real community need. And it was just really key to their initial wave of success. Now over time, what happened is that the laws that were put into place to protect open carry were challenged. The laws shifted and changed because of the Panthers' ability to use those laws to protect the Black community. So soon enough, the Mulford Bill was passed, and it was no longer legal to do that. And so their police patrols changed. Now they continued to, in some places, patrol the police—minus the weapons—with the law books and the tape recorders, so it wasn't the end of the patrols, but the patrols shifted when the law shifted to prevent them from really modeling the type of armed self-defense that they wanted to use as part of that street theater.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Certainly, the armed patrols of the police garnered the attention of the police, and not just local police, but of course, state police and the federal government. But it seems that the security apparatus of the state was concerned, not just about the police patrols, but perhaps maybe even more about the community survival programs. Why would those programs, those street-level activities worry the security state so much?
Robyn Spencer: The street level programs were actually one of the ways that the Panthers threatened the status quo. They threatened the status quo because they were a demonstration of the power of collective organizing. They threatened the status quo because it took radical ideas and ideologies. And remember, I said earlier, we're during the Cold War. It took socialist and communist ideas, and it brought them to the general public in ways that were appealing and demonstrative. It took this idea of socialism and it made it into a questioning of commodification and understanding that some things can be free, a sense of collective good. And they really transformed how people began to think about their relationship to the state, what they could demand from the federal government and expect. And even thinking about reframing the government, not just reforming, but a total revolution in values, in how society worked, in how the economy worked, a shift towards people power. The Panthers were very successful in raising those very real issues.
Robyn Spencer: One of the things they did successfully was they held a Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention, where they got people together to rewrite the Constitution. Things like that, where people came together to really talk about and move towards in an actionable way redefining American values, really contributed to them being understood as a threat. Because it made them popular, it made them palatable to an increasing mainstream. So the Panthers, as they grew in popularity because of their community programs, the pace of political repression against them quickened as well.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In what ways do we see the state—broadly defined—police forces from local to the federal level, take action? And what were some of those actions against the Panthers?
Robyn Spencer: So first of all, there were lots of arrests of Panthers, even as people were doing police patrols. For example, their cars might be stopped, they may be arrested, they may face bail. There was a constant ensnaring of the Panthers into the carceral system on the local police level. It's important to note that in this time period, the local police forces were developing these special units that were aimed at taking some of the apparatus that was typically used for militaristic purposes in international conflict, and turning those same strategies and tactics onto what they began to see as urban guerrilla warfare.
Robyn Spencer: The way that the Panthers and the police clashed went beyond street arrests and harassment. It was literally warfare that was going on, with many Panther offices being fortified by sandbags, with Panthers doing watch duty 24 hours in their offices around the country. They faced mass arrests, they faced raids. That was one key way that the state responded. Of course, we have the counterintelligence program as well that was created by the FBI in the 1950s aimed at the Communist Party. The Black Panther Party became the major target of the counterintelligence program by the FBI, known as COINTELPRO. As part of that program, in addition to the infiltration of Panther chapters and branches, in addition to the attack on things like their newspapers, having the newspapers not arrive where they needed to arrive, messing with the mail system, everything from things like that to fomenting violence and even murder.
Robyn Spencer: In addition to the large and spectacular events that may make it onto the pages of our history books, there were many dozens of daily events where trust was eroded, where people's relationships were broken, where rumor and doubt undermined political trust. There were many, many ways in which the FBI's program had a real impact.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the things I was struck by that you just said was the militarization of the police that's occurring at this time. In 1968, we have Nixon, you know, pursuing Vietnamization, right? The policy of turning the Vietnam War over, withdrawing US troops, and transferring that responsibility to the South Vietnamese. In a way, there's a different kind of Vietnamization going on in the streets of America. It's the militarization, sort of a military approach to combating Black protest and what was perceived as Black radicalism. Is that a fair statement?
Robyn Spencer: That is very fair. There's been a lot of great research on things like the red squads, the ways that the local police forces were increasingly funded, and then they took an approach of warfare to the type of urban rebellions that were there. Also, we can connect it to things like the use of the National Guards on the streets of the United States. It's really a time, I think, where the expansion of police powers, and even our assumptions as to what police should be doing, really undergo a dramatic transformation. And part of that is, of course, the creation of political prisoners, Panthers and supporters who are arrested for their political beliefs, some of whom are still languishing in prison all of these decades later, despite the fact that there were so many irregularities around their trials, oftentimes. Whether it be limited access to lawyers or whether it be a racist jury, etc. So part of the history and the legacy of the Black Panther Party is tied into this idea of carcerality. And from the civil rights movement's strategy of jail no bail, when activists would refuse to come out of prison and stay in in order to swell the ranks of Southern prisons, to the arrests of Panthers, and the use of bail as a way of draining the party's coffers, to the creation of political prisoners and their isolation from the rest of the movement, we can really see that the Black freedom struggle is tied up in the history and growth of the prison-industrial complex in the United States.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mass incarceration is a major issue confronting our society today. I asked Jakobi about the ways in which the Panthers connect to the prison-industrial complex. This is what he had to say.
Jakobi Williams: I just can't teach a class without covering mass incarceration. It's too important. But I do it from an economic point of view. I'm not reinventing the wheel. What is Keynes critiquing? Economic position. What are the Panthers critiquing? The economics. It all begins with economics. Economics commands politics, politics commands society techniques. And so what does this mean? You don't just enslave people because you hate Black people. No, there's an economic incentive. I often ask my white students where are those prisons located? And they are overwhelmingly from the communities in which they are from, because we have a lot of rural students here in Indiana. These prisons are always located in some rural community. And who works in those prisons? People that look like you, they’re working on a livable wage. Most of the time, people working in those prisons have to choose between working for the prison or working for Walmart. Neither one are going to pay you enough to live. So you're being exploited economically.
Jakobi Williams: And then the people who are in those prisons are being exploited economically too, because they're making stuff. All you white students who are paying all those student loans and getting all these degrees, look to your left and look to your right. Two of y'all are going to be unemployed. Go look at the unemployment records, and the ways in which people with degrees are egregious numbers of unemployment. That ain't because Latinos taking your jobs, prisons. Mass incarceration, prisons got your jobs, fool! So it's not a Black issue. This is what the Panthers are trying to articulate with this class struggle. It's a class struggle. Race matters, but it's not the only issue, right? It's the intersectionality of how that matters. And so you think it doesn't affect you, you will see it immediately when you can't find a job.
Jakobi Williams: So I'll always take my students to tour prisons. Now you can interview the people in power, the correctional officers, the warden, the inmates, everybody, and you can see the exploitation in the system we just learned about, and then how you can trace that all the way back to these 10-point platforms we've been talking about. I took them to a federal medical facility, this is a federal prison. This prison had a $43-billion—with a 'B'—billion-dollar defense contract. DynCorp was the name of the company. $43-billion. And so I got all these STEM students, science, technology, engineering, math students. Come on, let's go to prison, y'all white kids. I'll show y'all where your degrees are. And what are they doing in this prison? They're making amphibious vehicles, they're making the brain that go in the unmanned drones. They're making night vision goggles, because that's the defense contract that DynCorp has. So instead of building a factory, utilizing the skills that you STEM students just got from that great who knows how many hundreds of thousands you spent on this degree, they're paying these inmates a dollar a day to do your job, but you don't think this affects you. These economic issues are going to affect you in some way, shape or form as well.
Jakobi Williams: And so you have to get involved in these campaigns. So when you hear Black Lives Matter, it's not talking about Black Lives Matter only. They said Black Lives Matter too. So I do this because I'm no fool. These kids are going to be the next leaders, they're going to be the next gatekeepers, and you got to understand how the issues that we're facing are not these binary issues. They're not just black and white, they're more complicated than that. And so you have to make it personal. And that's what I try to do. I make the issues personal for the students.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hey everybody! We’ve cooked up something new. Educators can earn a certificate—issued by Learning for Justice—for one hour of professional development just by listening to this episode. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/podcastPD—PD for professional development. That's "podcastpd," all one word. Then enter the special code word for this episode: "breakfast"—all lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. Now back to my conversation with Dr. Spencer.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you were in the classroom and you wanted to use an example to explain to your students the nature of police brutality and state violence and its impact on the Panthers, what would be an example that you would use?
Robyn Spencer: Certainly, the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago in December, 1969, is a clear example of the violence that was suffered by members of the Black Panther Party. There's nothing more brutal that one can imagine than being shot down as you sleep. So the story of Fred Hampton really points to those realities. So of course, we have the role of the informant in infiltrating the Chicago branch of the Black Panther Party, where Fred Hampton was a popular and dynamic leader. He went beyond being simply a local leader, although he was a very popular local leader. He had made waves from his speaking skills, his passion, his youth nationwide. As I mentioned, the Black Panther newspaper was a vehicle for sharing information throughout the Black Panther Party network. He was someone who was known outside of Chicago. The FBI paid an informant, William O'Neal, to provide the floor plan of Hampton's apartment. They used this diagram to guide the steps of local police who shot up the apartment, killing Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and wounding others. In the aftermath of the murder, they claimed that it had been a shootout.
Robyn Spencer: And I think it's important to hover there, because so much of what COINTELPRO did had to do with destroying the Panthers' reputation, challenging them, demonizing them. And that demonization has persisted until today. The Panthers are perceived as a group that engaged in violence, initiated violence, etc. So in that moment, they tried to spin that event as a shootout. But later, forensics showed that all of the bullets were coming from the outside in. And in fact, Fred Hampton had been drugged, which prevented him from waking up and responding.
Robyn Spencer: So it's a very powerful example, I think, of the nuanced ways that political repression operated. It went from infiltration to coordination between the local police and the federal law enforcement, to propaganda trying to destroy the reputation of the Black Panthers, trying to paint them as a violent group. And I think it speaks to the limbs on which the federal government would go out on in order to stem the tide of the Panthers' success. It's important to think of it that way, that in the late 1960s, although the Panthers were increasingly under attack in this period, they were also growing. They were certainly growing internationally. They developed an international chapter in Algeria in this time frame, and they were increasingly on a global stage where they were communicating with revolutionaries from around the world. And this also heightened the way that the federal government responded to them.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We asked Jakobi about how he approaches teaching and talking about repression and state action, and this is what he said.
Jakobi Williams: So I use a lot of the FBI files. You can also get a lot of information from the HistoryMakers database. You have mainstream and alternative presses. I use a lot of photos. I use a lot of documentaries, because the most recent documentary efforts have been made to interview police as well, and they have no problem telling you the illegal stuff that they did. Wesley Swearingen, for example, he's on record identifying the illegal things that they did in San Diego and a whole host of other places. So I use the interviews he's given from the state perspective to corroborate some of the charges that the Panthers and others are waging against the state.
Jakobi Williams: So in a local setting like Chicago, for example, there'd be the Red Squad local, and then FBI national. So the Red Squad comes out of HUAC, House of Un-American Activities Committee. Every city had one. It was supposed to be set up in police departments to thwart the so-called Communist threat. Mayor Daley used the Red Squad the same way that J. Edgar Hoover used COINTELPRO. So any organization that had any dissent against the Daley machine, he unleashed this Red Squad upon them. I mean, any organization. I mean, Boy Scouts of America, League of Women Voters, Catholic nuns and their book clubs. I mean, any dissent. Because, like, Daley, man, he repressed them with these police. You can't make this stuff up. So you can imagine what kind of stuff he's doing to so-called subversives like the Party.
Jakobi Williams: From the national perspective and COINTELPRO, especially when Nixon takes office, they have been given the ability to take the gloves off. So some people are on trial or some people are exiled, some people are assassinated. So the feds never actually kill anybody. They never actually physically used their office to assassinate anyone. What they do is just set up the atmosphere, and then use the local police or other parties to do the work for them, which the police are happy to do. So 19 Panthers are murdered and assassinated by the state in 1969 alone. The first two are John Huggins and Bunchy Carter, two students on UCLA campus in January of 1969. They're actually fighting for the creation of a Black Studies program. The last person killed in '69 was Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969. So for Daley, the Rainbow Coalition was the greatest threat.
Jakobi Williams: Chicago is the most racially residentially-segregated city in America. These people are not supposed to get along. Then you go downtown on one Panther rally and there's 5,000 people there, and Fred Hampton is speaking there. And who's doing security for them? These Confederate flag Southern whites. You know, this blows people's minds. What are these people doing working together? They're not supposed to work in coalition. So in these Red Squad files, what they argue is is Fred Hampton is more dangerous than Martin Luther King or Malcolm X ever was. 21-year-old kid that they murder in his sleep. Why? Because not even Martin Luther King or Malcolm X can get Confederate flag Southern whites to do security for them and work in coalition with them as brothers of the struggle. Not even they were successful in bringing that kind of group into the fold.
Jakobi Williams: December 8, COINTELPRO will raid the LA chapter office. Each office is different. So Chicago, these are students, they're not versed in how to use arms. And so when Fred Hampton's attacked, there's only two people who's able to use these weapons, which is why Mark Clark and Fred Hampton are assassinated. They're the only two in that house of 16 people who know how to use their firearms. Whereas in Los Angeles, these folks are trained by not one but two Purple Hearts, Geronimo Pratt. So these are Vietnam veterans, man, they know how to use arms. And they fortify that place and dig tunnels, and they defeat the SWAT team handily because they're trained.
Jakobi Williams: So if COINTELPRO couldn't get you through assassination, they'll use a whole host of tactics. And so typically during that period, when you see the Panthers involved in some kind of nefarious activity or something illegal, that's an agent provocateur, that's a paid undercover informant, that's someone who's been paid to infiltrate to do that kind of dirty work, to give that organization a bad name, to discredit them in the eyes of the public.
Jakobi Williams: So a lot of people don't know this. When Fred Hampton was assassinated, there was no Illinois chapter of the party anymore. The police and the FBI infiltrated so many chapters, they purged all the members because there's just so much infiltration taking place. They don't know who these agent provocateurs are. Like, we've got to take everybody out the party so we can reestablish ourselves. So they have an agent provocateur infiltrate the organization, and then take the best, most active member of the organization and accuse them of being an FBI agent. That's the most effective way in which they brought down the organization by snitch jacketing. How do you prove you're not a snitch? You know, call the FBI to say, "Hey, could you come tell people I don't work for you?" Doesn't work, right? So it's very effective in creating discord and discomfort amongst the members themselves. So COINTELPRO was very clever in doing that.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the enduring myths and misconceptions about the Black Panthers is that they were an anti-white organization. And the truth is they formed coalitions with a diverse range of groups, racial, ethnic and other. Robyn, could you say a little bit about the work that they did in bridge-building with other communities?
Robyn Spencer: They created an organization called the National Committee to Combat Fascism. It was a vehicle for white supporters of the Black Panther Party to organize themselves into. And they had supporters who were Asian, who were from the Latinx community, who were from the LGBTQ communities, who were Native American, who were Chicano or Chicanx.
Robyn Spencer: One of the things that I like to emphasize when I talk about the Panthers and their coalition politics is to look at their connections to disability justice activism. The Panthers played a role in supporting a 25-day sit-in in 1977 that was really central to the disability justice movement in the Bay Area. They provided hot meals daily to the protesters. They wrote about it. The protests made the front cover of their newspaper. And it speaks to the way that they were not just interested in a narrow racial understanding of injustice, but they were interested in broader themes of discrimination, and the ways in which they aligned themselves with other groups with the same political thrust.
Robyn Spencer: Another example of this is the connection between the Panthers and the Gay Liberation Movement, especially in providing models that could be used in terms of how to address police brutality. So on the one hand, you have concrete coalitions. When Bobby Seale was running for mayor, he was supported by gay and lesbian liberation organizations. That was one element of support, but there was also the fact that the Panthers provided a model that was taken up by groups who were also facing police brutality, and utilized as a way of fighting back, creating a similar vehicle of resistance.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So I asked Jakobi about the Panthers and coalitions, and he shared this.
Jakobi Williams: What I do is keep one photo on the board, this photo by Stephen Shames, where you see a Confederate flag-wearing on the back of his jacket, Southern white migrant member of the Young Patriots standing with a brother in the Black Panther Party with his beret on and his leather jacket. So you got this unapologetically Black Power image: sunglasses, leather jacket, beret, Black fist, and standing right next to him like friends is this white male with his sunglasses on with this racist Confederate flag on the back. And folks want to know what the heck is going on when they walk in a room and see this. So what makes the Rainbow Coalition so unique and so important is it happens in Chicago, which then and still is today the most racially residentially-segregated city in America. So you have the Black migration taking place, Fred Hampton's people from Louisiana, for example. And then the largest slum in the city is in uptown on the north side Chicago, and this is where these poor Appalachian white migrants have moved to Chicago. So it's very much a migration history. So everyone's moving to Chicago looking for opportunity, only to find that there's deep segregation and entrenched institutional racism run by the Daley Democratic machine. Police abuse their authority in quite violent ways. And overwhelmingly, they do that against the Black community as a way of controlling folks.
Jakobi Williams: Most of these other poor communities will have these same experiences, whether they're poor whites being called hillbillies or trash, or Puerto Ricans and Native Americans and others will form coalitions with the party, primarily because of their interactions with police and police brutality. I use quotes when I talk about this aspect from the Young Patriots, talking about police brutality and being knocked upside the head and abused, treated less than an honest human being. And then I ask students, who do you think this is from? And they overwhelmingly say the Black Panther Party. And I show the photo and this is the Confederate flag-wearing Southern white person in Chicago to demonstrate that this is a class issue, not just a race issue. That police are abusing people of color in numerous ways, but they're also policing poor people and using these same tactics.
Jakobi Williams: Can I say something about Bob Lee? Because he's the real mover and shaker that makes this coalition work. He's an organizer from Houston, Texas, he migrated to Chicago like most people, and he was the first one to organize these Young Patriots. And it was actually his idea of bringing this kind of coalition to bear. So Fred Hampton gets a lot of credit, but you can't divorce Bob Lee from the work that he was doing in bringing these groups together. So Fred Hampton brings in the Young Lords led by Jose Cha Cha Jimenez, Bob Lee brings in the Young Patriots. Together they make up the Rainbow Coalition. And so this coalition, its purpose is to oppose the Daley Democratic machine under the auspices of transcending this so-called racial divide. Uniting together under class solidarity. And so on April 4, 1969, they held a press conference to announce to the world, no longer are they going to let the capitalist forces divide and conquer them by race.
Jakobi Williams: It doesn't work without the survival programs. They go around and train all these poor people, Latino, poor whites and others, how to run their own programs in their communities. And so this is one of the reasons why the Chicago Police Department, state attorney's office in particular, wanted to get rid of Fred Hampton because of that kind of coalition building and the ways in which they saw it as a threat to the Daley administration—which it was. They began to run people for office and win. One of the legacies we take for granted is we had a Black man for president. The Panthers' goal was not to put a Black man in the White House, but that's subsequently what happened with change over time. You can trace the Rainbow Coalition all the way to Obama. That's a legacy of the work that the Panthers do in Chicago. It's not by accident the first Black president comes out of Chicago talking about racial coalition politics and using the slogans of the Rainbow Coalition: got to have hope to create change. This is not new. This is not an accident. You can trace those lineages.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm your host Hasan Kwame Jeffries. To continue making this podcast a valuable resource, we need your input. You can help us by taking a few minutes to complete our brief listener survey. Just click on the link in the show notes, or visit LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. It's only 10 questions, and your feedback will help us make each episode even more impactful for educators just like you. Now let's learn more about the history of the Black Panther Party with Robyn Spencer and Jakobi Williams.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: As you alluded to earlier, the Panthers were an international organization. Could you say something about their international reach, but then also their international appeal?
Robyn Spencer: So the Panthers appealed to people around the world who were victims of systemic racism and discrimination and even colonization. So the Panthers appealed to Aborigines in Australia. They appealed to the Untouchables in India. The Panthers empowered different groups, not just in an identity politic way, but they empowered people to think about how they could remake their worlds, how they could bring more justice, how they can align with other people in similar circumstances.
Robyn Spencer: Their ideas were very appealing to people. The idea of self-determination, the focus on socialist politics, a critique of capitalism was key. A focus on the collective and community-based organizing was also key. The Panthers also had a legitimate stake in their international section in Algeria. They had an actual embassy there in Algeria. People who were in exile from the Panthers in the US clustered in Algeria. And in Algeria, they communed with the Vietnamese, with other people who were involved in liberation struggles. And it was those contacts that allowed them to grow and develop themselves as an organization with international stature. Because now you're just not in the United States talking about aligning with the Vietnamese, you're actually now meeting Vietnamese who are coming from the battlefield. You're having a different level of conversation.
Robyn Spencer: The analysis that you're able to develop from those interactions really, I think, put the Panthers on a different level. And they're even doing things like sharing art. They were involved in the Pan-African Festival in Algeria, where Emory Douglas' art played a pivotal role in modeling the type of resistance that was coming out of Black America. And it's important to note that this was a time period where the sense that global change could happen was very, very real. People very much felt like we can reframe what American society does. And they were inspired by newly-created African nations under free African rulers, countries that had thrown off the yoke of colonialism and had fought in the battlefields to self-rule and to get their own self-determination. There was a sense that this was a global moment, and the Black Panther Party could play a role in it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That makes me think of the title of your book, The Revolution Has Come. If you think that revolution not only is possible, but that it had arrived, that this was the moment of revolution, that certainly influences the kinds of actions that you will take on the ground. Is it safe to say that, for members of the Black Panther Party, they saw certainly the global revolution having arrived in Africa, in Latin America and Asia, but that revolution had come to the United States, and this is what they were in the midst of as well?
Robyn Spencer: Yes. That is the thing that is so important to impart to people. And this was not unique to the Black Panthers. People who went off on Freedom Rides did their wills. There was this sense that people were willing to give their lives to transform America, whether that meant challenging segregation in 1960 and '61, or challenging capitalism in 1968 or '69. There was the strong sense that the sacrifice that they may have to make might be the ultimate sacrifice. And they were very hopeful, right? It wasn't that they wanted to die. It wasn't like that. It was a sense of the stakes were high, and the hopes were also very high.
Robyn Spencer: And if you look at how they tended to the children, how so many of their programs had to do with children, whether it be the Breakfast for School Children program, whether it be the fact that people within the organization started having children, and the way that they created structures within the organization to support people who were now mothers and fathers. They—they had a hope in the future that was very, very real.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the questions that I am asked all the time by students whenever we talk about the Panthers is: why aren't they still around? How do you answer that question?
Robyn Spencer: Why aren't the Black Panthers still around? Many, many reasons. First of all, we have to say that the impact of state political repression on the organization was tremendous. The infiltration, the harassment, the false letters, the destruction of relationships, the fomenting violence, the cutting off their support system in those churches and those community centers where they ran their community programs, down to murders like the murder of Fred Hampton, those had a tremendous impact on the Black Panther Party's evolution.
Robyn Spencer: It eroded the trust, and it took political disagreements that might have been resolvable under other and better circumstances, and turned them into hard and fixed disagreements that could not be resolved. So the Panthers had a real period of political repression that was instrumental in fostering the political divisions that were there within the organization about which way forward. The second thing to look at, of course, is how it evolved. The Panthers very much continued until 1982, which was the end of their last program, which was the Oakland Community School. And in the 1970s, they very much focused on this ideal of community control and centering their political work. That had some successes as well as some failures.
Robyn Spencer: The reality was that as the organization evolved into less of a movement and more of an institution, their ability to bring on new members, to attract people who needed to make that 24-hour day, seven-day a week sacrifice dissipated. People's understanding of what was possible politically had transformed. The same hope and optimism that was possible in '69 was not possible by '79. The third reality I want to point to is the changing social and political context, the rising conservatism, the introduction of drugs into the Black communities, which has been well documented, and the impact of that on the social fabric of those communities, and even members of the organization itself has been well documented. So the soil around the Panthers' roots had shifted such that they were easier to uproot. It was easier for the organization to falter in the face of all of these challenges. And it's not a surprise that it was the Oakland Community School that became a beacon for the possibilities and for the Panthers' history and legacy in terms of its ability to educate children. And the closure of the Oakland Community School in 1982 is really seen as representative of the death knell of the organization. But they had been dying for a while, right? They had been dying for a while.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The community school closes its doors, the Panthers as an organization will cease to exist, but a legacy lives on. What are some of those legacies of the organization that we should be highlighting as teachers and even just as concerned citizens?
Robyn Spencer: The Black Panther Party leaves behind many tremendous legacies. One is their model of political organization by young people, by visionaries. I love to tell people that, while the Panthers are well known for their stance on armed self-defense and their uncompromising rhetoric, the Panthers also read a lot. They encouraged other people to read. They were very much part of a grassroots intellectualism, a curiosity about the world, a willingness to learn and to take from global struggle, and to incorporate what worked into the realities of life in the United States. And I think that that is one of their legacies. Their ideals, the political vehicle that they created and its ability to bring people together at a time where the potential for transformation was so, so high.
Robyn Spencer: The second part of their legacy, I think, is this determination to serve the people. Community programs were not about trying to feed as many children as possible, trying to make sure that everyone had free medical care. They didn't have the capacity for that. They understood that. But the role of those programs was to have people question why things were the way they were, why they needed all sorts of paperwork and cards to get simple medical care. We ask those questions today.
Robyn Spencer: And finally, I think that their legacy speaks to the intractability of political repression, of Black radicalism. Contemporary movements have to understand the resistance that they face and understand the history of that resistance.
Robyn Spencer: For educators who want to connect the events of the summer of 2020 with the history of the Black Panthers, I would point them to the Panthers' organizational history. When we think about Black Lives Matter and the upsurge that we saw on the streets that made it seem like something new was happening that hadn't been seen before—the response, not the brutality, which had been unfortunately seen many times before, but the actual collective, organized response, the boots on the ground, the people marching in the streets, it's important to note that, within that wave of people were long-standing organizations, were political tendencies that stretch back for decades, if not longer. Same thing with the Black Panthers. When the Panthers emerged, they may have seemed like something new, but they were themselves connected to the SNCC Lowndes County Freedom Organization. They saw themselves connected to even the legacy of the Marcus Garvey movement in the 1920s. They contained the history that was longer than what was possibly visible when people just saw these young men with their leather jackets and their berets and their powder blue shirts standing up and doing police patrols. There was a long history of organization that went on behind that.
Robyn Spencer: So that is one way, I think, of thinking about how to connect what seemed like a spontaneous emergence in the streets in summer 2020, some of which it was for sure, but also to think about the longstanding organizations. You can look at Minnesota, for example, and look and see how longstanding activist groups responded to the murder, the taking of that life, and how they connected to some of the longstanding work that they had done. Important to think about the ground that was laid before people hit the streets. It's important to note that those grassroots organizations are still there. They're still struggling, they're still fundraising, they're still doing the type of spadework that it takes to build a movement for change.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Robyn Spencer, thank you so much for sharing your insights, knowledge, wisdom, observations with us about the Black Panthers, providing us with a foundation and a framework for not only making sense of the Black Panthers and the transition from civil rights to the Black Power era, but really pointing us in the direction for being able to teach the Panthers and the Black Power era more accurately and effectively. Thanks so much, Robyn.
Robyn Spencer: Thank you so much, it's a pleasure to be on. I'm so excited that more people are going to be teaching this important history, this hard history, but this necessary history.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Robyn C. Spencer is an Associate Professor of History at Lehman College, City University of New York. She is the author of The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland from Duke University Press and is currently writing a biography of Angela Davis. Dr. Spencer is also working on a book about the movement against the US war in Vietnam as a Residential Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Jakobi Williams is an Associate Professor of History and African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago from UNC Press. Dr. Williams is a Mellon Foundation Black Metropolitan Research Consortium fellow, working on a project called “Neighborhoods First: The Black Panther Party’s Impact on Grassroots Community Organizations.”
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery and the civil rights movement that include award-winning films and classroom-ready texts. You can find these online at LearningForJustice.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. We began by talking about slavery for two seasons. And now we’re tracing that legacy of oppression—and resistance—into the present.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Williams and Dr. Spencer for sharing their insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. “Movement Music” is produced by Barrett Golding. And Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Our managing producer is Miranda LaFond. And Kate Shuster is our executive producer.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our theme song is “The Colors That You Bring” by Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is from their album Where Future Unfolds. And from Wendel Patrick's JDWP Tribute.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you’ve heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University—and your host for Teaching Hard History
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- Robyn Spencer, History, Lehman College
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