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Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party's Promise to the People

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A National Book Award Finalist
A Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor Book
A Michael L. Printz Honor Book
A Walter Dean Myers Honor Book

With passion and precision, Kekla Magoon relays an essential account of the Black Panthers—as militant revolutionaries and as human rights advocates working to defend and protect their community.

In this comprehensive, inspiring, and all-too-relevant history of the Black Panther Party, Kekla Magoon introduces readers to the Panthers’ community activism, grounded in the concept of self-defense, which taught Black Americans how to protect and support themselves in a country that treated them like second-class citizens. For too long the Panthers’ story has been a footnote to the civil rights movement rather than what it was: a revolutionary socialist movement that drew thousands of members—mostly women—and became the target of one of the most sustained repression efforts ever made by the U.S. government against its own citizens.

Revolution in Our Time puts the Panthers in the proper context of Black American history, from the first arrival of enslaved people to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. Kekla Magoon’s eye-opening work invites a new generation of readers grappling with injustices in the United States to learn from the Panthers’ history and courage, inspiring them to take their own place in the ongoing fight for justice.

ISBN-13: 9781536228168

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Candlewick Press

Publication Date: 08-08-2023

Pages: 400

Product Dimensions: 7.50(w) x 10.00(h) x (d)

Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

Kekla Magoon's young adult novel The Rock and the River, which won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award, was the first mainstream novel for young people to feature the Black Panther Party. She is the Margaret A. Edwards Award-winning author of more than a dozen books for young readers, including Fire in the Streets and How It Went Down. She is also the coauthor, with Ilyasah Shabazz, of X: A Novel, which was long-listed for the National Book Award and received an NAACP Image Award and a Coretta Scott King Honor. Kekla Magoon grew up in Indiana and now lives in Vermont, where she serves on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Read an Excerpt

Shattering the Status Quo

Early in the morning on May 2, 1967, a group of thirty Black people piled into cars in Oakland, California, and struck out on the highway, headed for the state capitol in Sacramento. The group was made up of twenty-­four men and six women. Among them were members of the Black Panther Party for Self-­Defense, other community residents, and the family members of Denzil Dowell, a young Black man who had been shot and killed by police officers about a month earlier. The trunks of the cars were filled with pistols, shotguns, and semiautomatic weapons.
Everyone was nervous. But the eighty-­mile drive from Oakland to Sacramento gave them plenty of time to think and to remember why they were going to the capitol: because they did not want what happened to Denzil Dowell to happen to anyone else. Denzil was a Black teen accused of robbing a local liquor store. Police officers shot him multiple times, although he was unarmed and possibly in the act of surrendering. Then they left him to die without even calling an ambulance.
It wasn’t the first time that area police had shot a Black suspect in questionable circumstances. Police officers rarely gave Black citizens the benefit of the doubt. Far beyond Oakland, throughout the nation, Black Americans struggled with similar issues. An entire movement for civil rights was underway, one goal of which was to protect Black people from race-­based violence. Young people led peaceful public protests aimed at calling attention to racism, changing unjust laws, and demanding equal treatment. Unfortunately, those changes hadn’t come in time to save Denzil Dowell. So for the past few months, the Panthers had been leading armed community patrols that monitored police officers at work, in hopes of preventing more senseless violence.
Now they were headed to the state legislature to protest a bill called the Mulford Act, which would make it illegal for citizens to carry guns in public. This piece of legislation had been introduced specifically to prevent the Panthers from carrying the weapons they used to protect citizens from such police brutality. As American citizens, they knew they had a right to protest a law they disagreed with, so they were headed to Sacramento to publicly share their views in front of elected officials.
When they arrived at the state capitol, the Panthers parked their cars right in front of the building. They got out, retrieved their guns, and began loading them with live ammunition. The guns hadn’t been loaded during the long drive because it was illegal to carry loaded weapons (except pistols) in a car. The Panthers had carefully studied California gun laws, and they followed them to the letter. It was still legal to carry unconcealed weapons in public places, and the Panthers planned to do so as part of their protest against the Mulford Act.
At that moment, California governor Ronald Reagan was standing out in front of the capitol, speaking to a group of students and members of the press. The Black Panthers gathering their weapons nearby frightened him. He abruptly ended his talk and left the scene.
The journalists turned around to see what had startled the governor and saw a fresh story coming at them. They turned their microphones and cameras toward the Panthers, capturing their approach on the capitol.
The chairman of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, led the way up the courthouse steps. He had a .45-­caliber pistol holstered at his hip. Right behind him, toting a twelve-­gauge shotgun, was sixteen-­year-­old Lil’ Bobby Hutton, the youngest Panther.
The Panthers knew they might be arrested, even though they were not breaking the law. They knew that police or security guards in the capitol might even shoot at them. They were prepared to shoot back if they had to. They were willing to go to jail if they had to. But no matter what happened, they intended to deliver their message.
The Panthers approached the front doors and came face-­to-­face with a security guard standing at the entrance. The guard may have been uncomfortable at the sight of the Panthers, but he knew the law, too. “Well, you aren’t violating anything with your gun, so if you want to, you can go inside,” he said.
The Panthers entered the capitol rotunda, a high-­ceilinged, clean, and shiny space. People turned to stare at them. In their black leather jackets and berets, with guns boldly displayed, the Panthers seemed shockingly out of place in the halls of government. Most of the group had never set foot in a legislative building before. Bobby Seale looked around, trying to figure out which way led to the visitors’ gallery, where citizens could go to watch the state assembly proceedings. “Anybody here know where you go in and observe the Assembly making these laws?” he called out.
“Upstairs on the next floor,” someone answered. So the Panthers went upstairs, looking for the visitors’ room. The reporters surrounded them the whole way, shouting questions and jockeying to get in the best camera position to document the Panthers walking through the capitol.
Following signs for the Assembly Chambers, Bobby Seale walked through a door on the second floor — ​and found himself standing not in the visitors’ gallery, but right on the Assembly floor! Members of the press — ​on purpose or not — ​had misdirected the Panthers, and they had ended up somewhere regular citizens weren’t supposed to be.
Frightened legislators began shouting for the Panthers to leave the room. Security guards approached the Panthers in the doorway. One reached out and took Lil’ Bobby Hutton’s shotgun away from him. Lil’ Bobby cried out in protest, “Am I under arrest? What the hell you got my gun for? If I’m not under arrest you give me my gun back!” He knew he wasn’t breaking the law by carrying the weapon and was within his rights to ask for it back.
The security guards escorted the Panthers out of the Assembly Chambers. They went willingly. The Panthers had not come to the state capitol to shoot anyone. They had come to read a statement, which Bobby Seale presented on the capitol steps, amid the chaos created by frightened politicians and journalists:

The Black Panther Party for Self-­Defense calls upon the American people in general and the Black people in particular to take careful note of the racist California Legislature which is now considering legislation aimed at keeping the Black People disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder and repression of Black People.

He launched into reading Executive Mandate #1, a brief summary of the Panthers’ beliefs and goals, which included demands for equal treatment:

Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetrated against Black people. . . . The Black Panther Party for Self-­Defense believes that the time has come for Black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late. . . . A people who have suffered so much for so long at the hands of a racist society must draw the line somewhere. We believe that the Black communities of America must rise up as one man to halt the progression of a trend that leads inevitably to their total destruction.

The event made news far beyond Sacramento. It had been an honest mistake, barging directly into the legislative session, but it worked out just fine for the Panthers. After all, they had wanted to be noticed and to have their message heard. Networks all over the country aired Bobby Seale’s statement. But the greater impact came from the sight of those rows of Black people with guns, dressed like a small army behind him as he spoke such fiery words. People around the country wondered, Who are these Panthers?
The powerful image of Black men with guns on the steps of the California legislature put the Panthers on the map. For most of white America, that image defined the Black Panther Party. But to freeze the Panthers in this moment is to do them a disservice — ​it is to overlook the fact that the Panthers went to Sacramento that day not to commit violence but to speak a difficult truth about racism directly to the power structure of the government. They went as law-­abiding citizens and yet were treated as an inherent threat because of the color of their skin. Twenty-­three Panthers were arrested that day, despite not having broken the law.
Black Americans watching from around the country recognized the deeper promise of social transformation that the Panthers offered. In Seattle, eighteen-­year-­old Aaron Dixon felt “a tinge of pride and amazement” at the sight of the Panthers on television. “The image stayed in the back of my mind,” he said. And fifteen-­year-­old Jamal Joseph, looking on from the Bronx, in New York City, thought, “Look at those dudes. . . . They’ve got black leather coats and berets, carrying guns, scaring white people. . . . I [want] to join.”
Soon he would have the opportunity. After their march on the state capitol, the Black Panther Party for Self-­Defense would not remain a small Oakland-­based organization much longer.
May 2, 1967, marked a significant turning point — ​the moment when the Black Panthers’ posture of armed self-­defense became a matter of national awareness. This new militancy rolled across the American landscape like an earthquake, trembling the foundation of the republic.
On the surface, such an earthquake seems quite sudden. It catches people off guard. The ground begins to roll, and it is all too easy to lose footing. Solid things, things designed to be immovable, tilt suddenly, casting all confidence askew.
In moments of nervousness and fear, when the ground is shaking and it feels as if the world might come crashing down, sometimes people forget that earthquakes are, in fact, not sudden. Nor do serious political movements arise in one fell swoop. Nothing happens overnight. The major turning points of history are seismic, born of eons of slightly shifting geologic plates. They do not emerge from nowhere. They are born of deep unrest.

Table of Contents

Preface viii

Spark: May 2, 1967 1

1 Shattering the Status Quo 3

Kindling: 1619-1965 11

2 The Dark Past 13

3 Separate but Equal 27

4 Shall We Overcome? 39

5 The Aggressive Alternative 55

Blaze: 1966-1982 71

6 Picking Up the Gun 73

7 A Cold Reception 89

8 Filling the Ranks 97

9 Off the Pigs! 115

10 Death of the King 133

11 Going National 143

12 Life in the Party 155

13 Survival Pending Revolution 173

14 All Power to the People 185

15 The Wrath of COINTELPRO 197

16 Traitors in the Ranks 213

17 Political Prisoners 225

18 The Split 239

19 Last Gasp 257

Embers: 1982-Present 273

20 The Post-Panther Decades 275

21 Legacy 299

Authors Note Revolution in Our Time 309

Acknowledgments 317

Key People 318

Time Line 324

Glossary 326

Further Reading 329

Source Notes 333

Bibliography 365

Image Credits 376

Copyright Acknowledgments 382

Index 383