Tag Archives: Stokely Carmichael

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.

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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.)

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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