Tag Archives: Black Panthers

Black [Panthers] Against Empire

Sociologist Joshua Bloom and historian Waldo E. Martin Jr. wrote a long (55-page) analytic history of the rapid rise (1967-70) and almost as rapid fall (1970-71) of the Black Panthers as advocates of black self-defense and as part of a global resistance to US hegemony. They are more willing than I to accept the frame of alliance with very repressive authoritarian regimes (North Korea, North Vietnam, the PRC during the “cultural revolution,” Cuba, and Algeria) as “anti-imperialist.” They ignore the move from the vanguard of world liberation from colonialism of Algeria, which long-harbored Eldridge Cleaner) to increasingly Islamism.


The Panthers also enjoyed the admiration and measures of fiscal support from Old and New Leftists in the United States, mot (in)famously Leonard Bernstein’s “radical chic” fund-raiser.

Bloom and Martin contend that white allies were placated by policies of Richard Nixon, including ending military conscription (the draft), along with the election of black officials, and affirmative action. The latter phrase was coined by John Kennedy 1961 and expanded by a 1965 executive order signed by his successor, Lyndon Johnson. The first black mayor of a major US city was Carl Stokes in 1967, before the rise to national prominence of the Panthers. And the growth of a black middle class primarily occurred after the decline of the Panthers.

The Panthers imploded (with Huey Newton on the ground in the US realizing armed insurrection was not feasible, while Eldridge Cleaver advocated it from the safety of Algiers) in 1970. The ending of the draft could not have been a factor in either the internal or the external loss of influence of the Panthers, since it continued through the end of 1972. And the anti-war movement, far from backing off was radicalizing. The revelation of secret bombing in Cambodia led to a nationwide college student strike in May 1970 (ineffectual as it was in ending US military action in Southeast Asia). There was a subsequent break between armed revolutionary wannabes (the Weather Underground) and the nonviolent anti-war activists. But the anti-war movement was most definitely growing, not contracting in 1970.

(Algeria, which had broken diplomatic relations with the US following the 1967 Arab-Israel war, re-established them in 1974, while Richard Nixon was still president and after the Panthers had returned to being a community organization in Oakland, California. Nixon went to the PRC in 1972, though diplomatic relations were not established until 1978. There are still not diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea. None of these changes in US foreign relations was in time to marginalize the Panthers with black or white allies.)


Bloom and Walsh establish that repression is not a sufficient explanation for the devolution of the Black Panthers and the loss of white New Left allies.  (They stress that the peak of police and FBI repression and outright murder was the time of most robust growth in membership and external support.) But chronology of what the authors consider the all-important “political context” does not fit with the loss of white support. Insofar as this was “radical chic,” fashion’s constant fluctuation probably has some explanatory power in moving on. The Black Panther personalities, especially clashing egos, of the leaders of factions also seems to me to matter, though as a sociologist I well understand the wish to look elsewhere for explanations (we are suspicious of “great man” history, more inclined to look at “social forces,” or on a more micro-level, patterns of group dynamics).

It seems to me that the counter-intelligence operations spearheaded by J. Edgar Hoover, who fits the category “white supremacist” and had long-running campaigns against black leaders (not just black nationalists, but, infamously, Martin Luther King, Jr.), had special hatred of Stokely Carmichael, and claimed the Panthers were the greatest domestic danger to the US, had some slow-poison effects, too. (Hoover died on 2 May 1972, btw, his work of disruption of black power advocates and the Black Panther appeal to white liberals and radicals largely accomplished, along with discrediting Stokely Carmichael, who had been an early influence and, for a time, Panther member., and then decamped to Guinea, serving another very repressive dictator, Sékou Touré)

I find the chronology of political context unconvincing, and the authors eschew consideration of any sociological theories of social movements other than a passing mention of “political process” (more commonly known as “political opportunity theory”). The phrase “resource mobilization (the name of the dominant sociological theory about social movements) does not occur in the detailed index, nor, I am pretty sure, in the text. Where the authors think the case they exhaustively detail fits in theorizing sociopolitical movements is avoided

(At a One City, One Book event at the San Francisco Public Library, I tried to ask about the chronology of events they associate with the decline of the Panthers, but the moderator, “Davey D” Cook, more given to making speeches than moderating, insisted on collecting another question so that mine was forgotten. Nonetheless, Professor Bloom had interesting things to say about the roots of the draft resistance movement in SNCC/Carmichael… and Muhammed Ali—before David Harris and Noam Chomsky pressed and organized it for white students.)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray



Black Panther Minister of Culture and Prime Designer of their Graphics Comes to SFPL

In commemoration of a half century after the rise of the Black Panthers (and the selection of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party for One City/One Book), the San Francisco Public Library  hosted what was supposed to be a panel discussion on the art and activism of Emory Douglas (born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1943), the Panther Minister of Culture, who illustrated the Black Panther paper and was one of the panthers who traveled to Algiers, He didn’t talk about that summit or about working with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, starting with the third issue of The Black Panther Community News Serice in 1967. Confident that he understood their anti-imperialist politics, they did not supervise his work, but left him to do whatever graphics he wanted.

Emory_Douglas (Amber Douglas 2014).jpg

(2014 Creative Commons photo by Amber Gregory)

Asked about influences on his art, he denied there were any, citing only the craft of two-color commercial illustration he learned at San Francisco City College. He went on for more than two hours reading any text in the illustrations, talking about the political background of some. He has not forgiven Barack Obama for running for Congress (unsuccessfully) against ex-Panther leader Bobby Rush and is appalled that someone going through a weekly kill list won the Nobel Peace Prize (as did one of his targets, Henry Kissinger). There were few weapons, few guns in his powerpoint presentation (lots of pigs, lots of children), but there are many in his book. Next week, political scientists Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. will talk about the San Francisco Reads current choice, Black Against Empire. I was given a copy and will at least dip into it It has a thorough index. There are images I like, even some with guns, though not the grotesque pigs.


Douglas reported that the icon came out of SNCC work in Lowndes County, Alabama (the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, led by Stokely Carmichael had been using a black panther logo, Carmichael keynoted a Black Power conference in Berkeley 29 October 1966). He worked at the San Francisco Sun Reporter for 30+ years after publication of The Black Panther ceased, and has collaborated with Sandinistas, UFW, Australian aborigine, and Maori activists. He showed some of this later work.

In “The Revolution Will Be Visualized,” Colette Gaiter wrote: “Douglas was the Norman Rockwell of the ghetto, concentrating on the poor and oppressed. Departing from the WPA/social realist style of portraying poor people, which can be perceived as voyeuristic and patronizing, Douglas’s energetic drawings showed respect and affection. He maintained poor people’s dignity while graphically illustrating harsh situations.”

Douglas said that the paper stopped using profanity after Newton communicated from prison that Malcolm X got his message across without it. He denied any influence from Mao, though they sold copies of the little red book to finance their programs.


I doubt that I was the only audience member who would have preferred some reminisces of working with Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver to reading what was on his graphics. I’d have liked to ask him if he thinks Cleaver was always a con-man from Soul on Ice to his Moonie and Mormon conversions. I’m sure there was at least one person who’d have liked to ask his opinion (or knowledge!) of whether Newton became a drug dealer in later years. In contrast with them, Douglas is “keeping the [anti-imperialist, police-monitoring faith of the original Panthers.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray