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Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party

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This timely special edition, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, features a new preface by the authors that places the Party in a contemporary political landscape, especially as it relates to Black Lives Matter and other struggles to fight police brutality against black communities.

In Oakland, California, in 1966, community college students Bobby Seale and Huey Newton armed themselves, began patrolling the police, and promised to prevent police brutality. Unlike the Civil Rights Movement that called for full citizenship rights for blacks within the United States, the Black Panther Party rejected the legitimacy of the U.S. government and positioned itself as part of a global struggle against American imperialism. In the face of intense repression, the Party flourished, becoming the center of a revolutionary movement with offices in sixty-eight U.S. cities and powerful allies around the world.

Black against Empire is the first comprehensive overview and analysis of the history and politics of the Black Panther Party. The authors analyze key political questions, such as why so many young black people across the country risked their lives for the revolution, why the Party grew most rapidly during the height of repression, and why allies abandoned the Party at its peak of influence. Bold, engrossing, and richly detailed, this book cuts through the mythology and obfuscation, revealing the political dynamics that drove the explosive growth of this revolutionary movement and its disastrous unraveling. Informed by twelve years of meticulous archival research, as well as familiarity with most of the former Party leadership and many rank-and-file members, this book is the definitive history of one of the greatest challenges ever posed to American state power.

ISBN-13: 9780520293281

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: University of California Press

Publication Date: 10-25-2016

Pages: 568

Product Dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.40(d)

Joshua Bloom is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the coeditor of Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy. His articles have been published in American Sociological Review and other venues. Waldo E. Martin, Jr., is Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of History and Citizenship at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of No Coward Soldiers: Black Cultural Politics in Postwar America, Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents, and The Mind of Frederick Douglass.

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Black against Empire

The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party

By Joshua Bloom, Waldo E. Martin Jr.


Copyright © 2016 Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96645-1


Huey and Bobby

On February 17, 1942, in Monroe, Louisiana, Huey P. Newton was born, the seventh and youngest child of Walter and Armelia Newton. Walter Newton was a paragon of responsibility. He held down two jobs at any given time, working in the gravel pit, the carbon plant, sugarcane mills, sawmills, and eventually as a brakeman for the Union Saw Mill Company. On Sundays, he served as the minister at the Bethel Baptist Church in Monroe, where he and his family lived. He preached as the spirit moved him, often promising to address his parishioners on a particular topic, then improvising an inspirational sermon salient to the moment. The rest of the time he spent with his family, the joy and purpose of his life.

Armelia Johnson liked to say that she married young and finished growing up with her children. She was only seventeen when she gave birth to her first child. The others soon followed. Unlike most black women in the South in the 1930s and 1940s, Armelia stayed at home, raising her children, seeing them through life's challenges, and relishing life's humor. The Newton family saw Armelia's not working as a domestic servant for whites as an act of rebellion.

Walter Newton often used to say, "You can take a killing but you can't take a beating." On one occasion, Walter Newton got into an argument with a younger white man for whom he worked about a detail of the job. The white man told him that when a "colored" disputed his word, he whipped him. Walter Newton replied that no man whipped him unless he was a better man, and he doubted that the white man qualified. The man was shocked at this uncharacteristic response and backed down.

This was just one of many times that Walter Newton defied whites in ways that often got blacks in the South lynched. He developed a reputation for being "crazy," so whites steered clear of him, gaining him powerful respect among blacks. Newton's ability to challenge whites and stay alive is something of a mystery. One factor, according to Huey Newton, may have been his mixed race. Walter Newton's father was a white man who had raped his black mother. Thus, local whites knew his father, cousins, aunts, and blood relatives, and while they might not have hesitated to kill a black person, they may have been reluctant to shed his white family's blood.

The Newtons moved to Oakland in 1945, following the path of many black families migrating from the South to the cities of the North and West to fill the jobs in the shipyards and industries that opened up with the onset of World War II. When the war ended, many blacks were laid off as wartime industry waned, and soldiers returning from the war created a labor surplus. Both new and expanded black communities in cities across the country rapidly sank into poverty. While the Newtons were better off than many of the black families they knew, they were poor, with seven children to feed, and often ate cush, a dish made of fried cornbread, several times a day. Making payments on the family's bills became Walter Newton's constant preoccupation.

The Newton family was on the edge, and Huey looked to his older brothers for survival strategies. Each coped with ghetto life in a different way. Walter Newton Jr., the oldest, became a hustler, working outside legal channels to keep poverty at bay. He always dressed sharp, and he drove a nice car. Everyone in the neighborhood called him "Sonny Man." Lee Edward gained a reputation as a street fighter before joining the military. He knew how "to persist in the face of bad odds, always to look an adversary straight in the eye, and to keep moving forward." Melvin Newton took a different path. He became a bookworm, went to college, and eventually taught sociology at Oakland's Merritt College.

Huey P. Newton became all of these things—hustler, fighter, and scholar. From his oldest brothers, Lee Edward and "Sonny Man," he mastered the ways of the street and learned how to fight. Through his teen years, Huey fought constantly. Unlike Melvin, Huey was not a bookworm. For years he rebelled at school. By the time he entered the eleventh grade, he still could not read, and his teachers often told him he was unintelligent. But outside of school, he had been learning how to think. With Melvin, he memorized and analyzed poetry. When a counselor in his high school told him he was "not college material," Huey decided to prove him wrong. Over the next two years, through intense focus and will, he taught himself to read, graduated high school, and in 1959, enrolled in Merritt College.

By the time Huey Newton became involved in the Afro-American Association at Merritt, he could debate theory as well as any of his peers. Yet he had a side that most of the budding intellectuals around him lacked; he knew the street. He could understand and relate to the plight of the swelling ranks of unemployed, the "brothers on the block" who lived outside the law. Newton's street knowledge helped put him through college, as he covered his bills through theft and fraud. But when Newton was caught, he used his book knowledge to study the law and defend himself in court, impressing the jury and defeating several misdemeanor charges.

In 1962, at a rally at Merritt College opposing the U.S. blockade of Cuba, Newton's political life took a leap forward: there, he met fellow student Bobby Seale, with whom he would eventually found the Black Panther Party. The rally featured Donald Warden, leader of the Afro-American Association. Warden praised Cuba's Fidel Castro and voiced opposition to domestic civil rights organizations. After the speeches, an informal debate began among the students, during which Newton convinced Seale that the U.S. policy in Cuba was wrong and also made him question mainstream civil rights organizations. Newton impressed Seale with his command of the argument presented by E. Franklin Frazier in Black Bourgeoisie, a scathing critique of the black middle class that he had read with Warden. Seale soon joined Warden's group.

More than five years older than Newton, Bobby Seale was born in Dallas, Texas, on October 22, 1936, the oldest of three siblings, and raised in Oakland. His father worked as a carpenter, and his mother also worked, sometimes as a caterer. Besides teaching Bobby how to build things and how to hunt and fish, Bobby's father also taught him about injustice, often beating him badly for no apparent reason.

The arbitrary beatings filled Bobby with a rage for which he had few outlets. They also meant he had little to fear from fights; he had already tasted the worst. Rather than become a bully himself, from an early age, Bobby started to stand up for the little guy. When his family first moved to Oakland, a local bully pushed his little sister Betty off the swing. Despite being outnumbered in new territory, Bobby knocked the bully out of the swing and then told all the kids they could share the swing. Bobby had a penchant for taking on bullies, even when he had little hope of winning, once challenging a neighborhood kid twice his size who was cheating the smaller kids in marbles, and was often beaten to the ground.

When he was fifteen, Bobby became close to a loner named Steve Brumfield. Steve told Bobby that the white man had stolen the land from the American Indians. The two of them escaped the pettiness and injustices at school and home by emulating Lakota warriors, running through the Berkeley hills for hours every day, dressed in moccasins and beads, and fighting each other for sport. Bobby used metalworking skills he learned in a vocational program at Berkeley High School to make large knives and tomahawks that the two carried wherever they went. When they were not practicing fighting, they climbed trees and dreamed of moving to South Dakota, marrying American Indian women, and living off the land. Bobby had never felt happier. He quickly became fast and strong, and soon the bullies tried to stay out of his way.

But after high school, Steve joined the military and Bobby, lonely once again, drifted from city to city, job to job, and woman to woman. When things got hard, he ended up back at home with his parents. No longer willing to be pushed around by his father—and now perfectly able to defend himself—he joined the U.S. Air Force. While further developing his metalworking skills and mastering the use of firearms, he learned to contain and channel his rage, turning his explosive temper into cold calculation. When three soldiers refused to pay back a debt and threatened to beat Bobby if he mentioned the matter again, he suppressed his instinct to fight and bade his time. Later that week, Bobby attacked the main perpetrator when his defenses were down, nearly killing him with a pipe.

Huey and Bobby both had their first serious political experiences with Donald Warden in the Afro-American Association. Warden had founded the all-black study group while he was a student at Boalt Law School at the University of California, Berkeley, creating a space for in-depth discussion of books by black authors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Booker T. Washington, and James Baldwin. Warden asserted a black nationalist perspective inspired by Malcolm X, emphasizing racial pride and embracing a transcontinental black identity rooted in Africa. Warden believed in the virtues of black capitalism, arguing that black people "must develop our own planned businesses where efficiency, thrift and sacrifice are stressed." Feisty and charismatic, Warden challenged students and professors alike, debated groups such as the Young Socialist Alliance, and gave public lectures on black history and culture. Willing to debate anyone, Warden made a strong impression on fellow students, and became an important intellectual influence on many of the future leaders of the Black Liberation Movement.

In addition to Newton and Seale, association members included Leslie and Jim Lacy, Cedric Robinson, Richard Thorne, Ernest Allen, and Ron Everett, who later changed his name to Ron Karenga, founded the black cultural nationalist organization US, and created the holiday Kwanza. Warden also became a mentor to James Brown in 1964, and through him, helped influence the politicization of soul music.

The Afro-American Association produced local radio shows debating the concerns of Black America, regularly mobilized street-corner rallies preaching racial consciousness to unemployed blacks, and sponsored conferences entitled Mind of the Ghetto. At a September 1963 conference at McClymonds High School in Oakland, Cassius Clay, the future heavyweight boxing champion who would change his name to Muhammad Ali and have his title stripped for resisting the draft, was the featured speaker.

But Newton was a man of action, and he grew dissatisfied with Warden's teaching. Newton felt that Warden was heavy on the talk but ultimately could not be counted on. In Newton's view, Warden "offered the community solutions that solved nothing," and he also doubted that much could be accomplished through black capitalism. Soon he split from Warden in search of a new path.


When Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, Bobby's rage overflowed. He gathered six bricks from his mother's garden, broke them in half, and stood in wait at the corner, hurling bricks at the cars of any whites he saw passing by. "I'll make my own self into a motherfucking Malcolm X," he swore, "and if they want to kill me, they'll have to kill me."

By then the civil rights juggernaut had run its course. Throughout the early 1960s, in campaign after campaign, the Civil Rights Movement successfully tore down the Jim Crow system of legal segregation. Activists crossed the color line with their bodies, drawing brutal repression from local white authorities and forcing the federal government to intervene—politically, legally, and militarily. But by the summer of 1964, the limits of civil rights political practice were becoming clear, particularly at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.

As late as 1964, the Democratic Party in Mississippi excluded blacks, all too often doling out violence or death to blacks who attempted to register to vote. In the Freedom Summer campaign that year, leading civil rights organizations developed a parallel political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), that included blacks as well as nonblacks and began registering blacks to vote. Three of the Freedom Summer activists—James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—were kidnapped, mutilated, and killed. Undaunted, the campaign continued. The MFDP held a state convention in Jackson in early August and selected sixty-eight delegates to attend the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

President Johnson was determined to maintain white southern support and worked to undermine the MFDP. On August 12, Mississippi's Democratic governor, Paul B. Johnson, told the all-white Dixiecrat delegation that President Johnson had personally promised him not to seat the MFDP. The president refused to discuss the MFDP with civil rights leaders and instructed FBI director Hoover to monitor the renegade party closely and provide regular updates on its activities to the White House.

It became clear by the start of the convention that the MFDP would not win outright support in the Credentials Committee to seat its delegation in Atlantic City. But MFDP leaders hoped that a strong minority report from the committee would bring the issue to an open vote on the floor and that, under the pressure of public scrutiny, convention delegates would at least vote to seat both delegations.

On August 22, after intensive one-on-one lobbying of the state delegations, the MFDP presented its case to the Credentials Committee. Fannie Lou Hamer's testimony about the consequences of her efforts with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register Mississippi blacks vote—in which she described how she was fired from her job and beaten in jail by black prisoners under orders of the police—caught the nation's attention:

The first Negro began to beat, and I was beat until I was exhausted.... After the first Negro ... was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack. The second Negro began to beat ... I began to scream, and one white man got up and began to beat me on my head and tell me to "hush." One white man—my dress had worked up high—he walked over and pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back, back up.... All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.

The television audience responded almost instantly. Phones started to ring, and the delegates began receiving telegrams urging them to support the MFDP. Quickly, President Johnson called a press conference, and Hamer's testimony was cut off so that the president's statement could be broadcast.

Behind the scenes, the president's staff twisted the arms of Credentials Committee members while soon-to-be vice president Hubert Humphrey called a meeting at the Pageant Motel across the street from the convention with Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, and the other MFDP leaders to discuss a compromise. Humphrey told them that the MFDP delegation would not be seated but that educated professionals from the delegation—Aaron Henry of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and white minister Ed King—would be given seats alongside the official all-white Mississippi delegation. Ms. Hamer would not be part of any official delegation. "The President will not allow that illiterate woman to speak from the floor of the convention," said Humphrey.

The MFDP had not been consulted in the compromise offer, and the delegates rejected the proposal on the spot. Then someone knocked on the meeting room door and announced, "It's over!" The MFDP leaders turned on the TV to see Minnesota attorney general Walter Mondale, head of the Democratic Party committee appointed to resolve the MFDP challenge, announcing that the MFDP had accepted the "compromise." Apparently, the Democratic Party leadership had timed the introduction of the issue on the convention floor to coincide with the MFDP leaders' meeting with Humphrey across the street so that the leaders could not voice any opposition. Feeling deeply betrayed, SNCC and MFDP leader Bob Moses stormed out of the room, slamming the door in Hubert Humphrey's face.


Excerpted from Black against Empire by Joshua Bloom, Waldo E. Martin Jr.. Copyright © 2016 Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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