by Payton Bodecker
The flimsy reels of film denoting the choppy marches and spray of hoses express the violent reaction from the white mainstream that exploded during the Civil Rights Movement, but even more shocking is the quick rise and implosion of the Black Panther Party in the 1960’s. The militant tactics of a quasi-political movement spanning a short period was the negative result of a peaceful African American movement. This goes against the current mindset that paints the movement as white versus black, when it can also be seen as black versus black, ideals clashing with ideals. Peniel Joseph writes in his book Black Power Movement, “understanding the Black Arts and Black Power Movements requires a deep, substantive appreciation of the history of black radicalism” (12). The revolutionary socialist group that called itself the Black Panther Party drew influence from Marxism and Islam and left much to review to truly understand its trajectory. To understand it even further it is important to look at the peaceful movement they collectively loathed, rejected, and used to fuel their fire. While social programs were a forefront of their cause, guerilla-like warfare against the white symbol of authority cut a sharp division between the violent and non-violent movements concerning the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960’s.
Considering the generically stale rhetoric of the common Civil Rights Movement of peaceful protest and drawn-out compromise points to how many African Americans would choose to pick guns over pens. While the movement of people such as Martin Luther King, Jr. cannot be discredited, it can be seen as slow and too accommodating to whites who didn’t exchange respect. It can be deduced that there were only two paths for African Americans to choose, the radical Black Panther Party or the accepted peaceful movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. A way to explain this further is to imagine black America with two exclusive political parties working towards what they believe are the same goals, but the means to achieve them greatly affecting the outcome. That statement alone shows how almighty the white majority was, and how African Americans had to be strategic in their way towards equal rights. Knowing how this piece of history plays out is crucial, so while it is necessary to look at all the facts and determine exactly what happened, it can also be useful to project the many paths this timeline could have potentially have taken. A note from a Nigerian civil servant who regularly visited America during this time predicted clearly, “We have a voice, a black voice….The naiveté and fashion of the soul brother should wear off. But we need them” (Astrachan A24).
Instead of records illustrating the triumphant rise of compromise, there would have been evidence of uprising and death. The Black Panther Movement placed emphasis on the murder of cops to get their point across that the limits had been pushed and there would be no more compromising. Ross Baker in the Washington Post writes, “The wings of Panther self-defense, however, extend beyond the Panthers themselves to cover the entire black community. The Panthers claim that police activities within the ghetto are usually repressive and aimed at persecution rather than protection. The black man is the target of law enforcement rather than its beneficiary” (37). Had this train of thought been confined to those who chose to join the Black Panther Movement it might not have been seen as destructive, but the inclusion of those who had little political and social voice was predatory. Whites had tried to keep those minorities down, the Black Panthers were trying to simply force impoverished African Americans to sweep into their ideals rather than allow them a choice.
Even more important to understand is the difference in whom the two groups were working against. The Black Panthers were actively fighting against policemen who followed parameters they established and openly used to discriminate with, yet this would never get to the source, only fuel the fire of color clashing. The writing of Martin Luther King, Jr. points to the methods deployed by the peaceful movement to effect monotonous, in regards to the Panther movement, change. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”King emphasizes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea” (Historical Text Archive). This may seem like a wakeup call to whites, but it speaks directly to those endangering the future of African Americans most, the Black Panther Movement. Their injustices directed towards authority might feel vindictive laced with justice, but it wouldn’t correct the troubles their community faced. The blatant disrespect for law on the Panther side only dug them deeper into a hole of counterculture that washed out their ideals and made their movement lose power and support. What started as a focused group to protect social rights of black citizens morphed into an angry gang of misguided African Americans. Essentially, the Panthers became the losing side of the Civil Rights Movement, even behind the whites who were against equal rights.
Ultimately what pushed the Black Panthers to this disregard for evolution can be seen as the lack of spirit in actively fighting against the buildup of years of injustice. There were no fireworks or large displays from the peaceful movement, only steady marches and white Christian-derived religious speeches. Thomas Johnson in the New York Times notes, “The basic fermenting agent in the civil rights cauldron is the lack of meaningful progress” (1). This restlessness can be seen as an activator, and pushed the Panthers to not only rebel against popular white culture but ultimately their own people. The disagreement over how to seek civil rights clearly divided the two into either exceedingly violent or peaceful movements to the point of what seemed like reaching for radically different ideals. At the end of the day, the Panthers were fighting not for civil rights, but for the thrill of it. To fight simply to be recognized and because they realized they could.
“The black civil rights activist who stood motionless as a policeman beat him for attempting to register to vote received sympathy from many in white America. His contemporary who fought the police in response to discriminatory treatment was looked upon with more suspicion; an angry black man, and a possible danger to society” (Henderson 90). This is what African Americans would face no matter what. No matter how hard the Black Panther Movement fought and struggled against this, using violence to show they should be respected, it would never help them reach a viable end goal. The peaceful movement wasn’t cowardly, but it required throwing pride away for the hope of eventual justice, a slow-burning idea that could turn away those inflamed youth who were caught up in the tempestuous times of the 1960’s. It can be gleaned that perhaps they weren’t caught up in the times but just glazed in it, forever stuck and never able to move on, losing their vision of civil rights. The idea of battle was more tempting than resolve, but brandishing before whites what they could potentially be rather than embodying it would be the death of their movement. The internal dissolution from shifting morals ignited the popular but short-lived life of the Panthers. Killing a cop on a corner where you promised to keep the downtrodden community safe doesn’t foster a sense of togetherness, only blatantly uses a group to further a radical agenda. Wallace Turner exposes the mindset of Panther members when he quotes Huey Newton in the New York Times as explaining, “We do not believe in passive and nonviolent tactics. They haven’t worked for us black people. They are bankrupt” (66). The accumulation of discrimination towards African Americans brought forth this deviance that was so different it could only call attention to itself.
Above all, they both began with ideals to work towards equality and civil rights in an ever-changing America, but change wasn’t fast enough for one group. The togetherness of the peaceful movement fostered a bond between African Americans that inspired change while instilling values of slow and steady progress. However, the militaristic and stark disrespect for law as demonstrated by the Black Panther Movement acted as a solvent for many African Americans, pushing them to hide from their own people and choosing to not act at all. The unfocused and counterculture dependence of the movement served to make the Panthers relevant for only a moment in time, stuck in history as an attempt to rebel.
Astrachan, Anthony. “Africans Back Negro Militancy, to a Point.” The Washington Post 5 May 1969. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post (1877-1995). Web. 2 Nov. 2012.
Baker, Ross K. “A New Breed of Panther.” The Washington Post 2 Mar 1969. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post (1877-1995). Web. 2 Nov. 2012.
Henderson, Simon. “‘Nasty Demonstrations By Negroes:’ The Place of the Smith–Carlos Podium Salute in the Civil Rights Movement.” Bulletin Of Latin American Research 29 (2010): 78-92. Historical Abstracts. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.
Johnson, Thomas A. “Civil Rights Movement Facing Revolution within a Revolution.” New York Times 21 Jul 1968. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008). Web. 2 Nov. 2012.
Joseph, Peniel E, ed. Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era. New York: Routledge, 2006.
King, Martin L., Jr. “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources. Web. 05 Nov. 2012.
Turner, Wallace. “A Gun is Power, Black Panther Says.” New York Times 21 May 1967. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008). Web. 2 Nov. 2012.