Black Lives Matter is a controversial concept in today's political landscape. But back in 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded as an emphatic right on to black life — with their fists raised proudly in the air.
The Black Panthers were controversial from the get go. The idea that African-Americans would actually stand up to white power and entitlement, indeed have the right to do so, is always met with opposition — often violent opposition.
And that opposition is why there is very little to clearly assess what the Panthers actually did and what the impact of the political party has been. Not a lot gets said about them. People have a general idea of guns and violence and angry black men that was most often portrayed in the media during the decade of the Panthers from 1966 to 1976. However, it's necessary to get way past that to see and understand the Panthers some 50 years after the party's founding.
That's what's going to happen at 3 p.m. Saturday when the Charles Wright Museum's Liberation Film series features The Black Panther Party: Vanguard of the Revolution. In addition to screening this special 75-minute cut of the film, Kathleen Cleaver, former communications secretary for the party and ex-wife of Eldridge Cleaver, will be there to discuss her "Report from the Black Liberation Struggle." Professor Errol Henderson from Pennsylvania State University will moderate a follow-up question and answer session with Cleaver. There will also be a tribute to recently deceased former Panthers Ahmad Rahman and Ron Scott.
This 50-year anniversary look at the Panthers is incredibly relevant now in view of the rise in black activism in the wake of numerous filmed and documented incidents of police killing unarmed black people. It's also relevant in view of the Flint water crisis in which the predominantly minority community with a 40 percent poverty rate has been delivered lead-poisoned water after a state takeover of the city.
"It seems like it's a new wave," Cleaver says of the current activist climate in a phone interview. "There are activists we haven't heard much from until they rose up over the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson. They need to understand that it doesn't end. My father was an organizer. People who worked with the NAACP were risking their lives. There are generations of black activists. The generation during the Vietnam War was the most explosive. We were coming of age when civil rights was very dynamic. ... It was a very exciting time. There were liberation movements in Africa, here, liberation protests all over the world. It goes in waves. There's a rise and fall; the point is that it keeps rising."
That rise is among young people who were under 10 when 9/11 changed their worldview are at an age where activism beckons them. In the years since 9/11 the nation has been in two wars and seen its first black president. And we've also seen an awful, nakedly racist response against a black president. We know what right-wing presidential candidates mean when they say they want to "take our country back."
Taking what we rightfully deserve was what the Panthers were about. They weren't waiting for anything to be given to them.
The Black Panthers came to light shortly after their founding when they asserted their legal right to carry guns while legally observing police stops. Huey Newton, who cofounded the Panthers with Bobby Seale, was a law student who knew it was legal to openly carry loaded weapons in California where they began operating. The tactic was aggressive and intimidating — just as intimidating as police now find being observed by the cameras on phones that seem to be everywhere.
Panthers in Oakland, Calif., in 1966 knew what most folks in black communities know today: Police are terrorizing and killing unarmed blacks across the country. They've been doing this pretty much since the country was founded. It's just that today video technology (and the surveillance society) has captured them with undeniable proof of the crime. That seems to be one point helping to heat up activism in 2016. Having the cold proof of police wrongdoing on video has taken many off the sidelines.
"We have a time now when older generations and younger generations can see the same thing," says Cleaver. "They may respond in different ways. But there is a new breath of activism among certain young people. The black community has been horrendously destabilized through prison and control programs from the Nixon era until now. The response to that has not been as successful as the attacks."
The Panther response was multifaceted. Most people only saw the black-men-with-guns depiction of them. But the Panther also carried law books and tape recorders to these standoffs to assert their rights and record what was happening. It was about community empowerment. The Panthers also ran free breakfast programs for schoolchildren, managed food banks, ran health clinics, and supported education programs. They unsuccessfully ran for elected political office.
The wide vision and legal acumen of the party was alarming to government leaders, right up to the federal level. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had launched COINTELPRO (a euphemism for counterintelligence program) with a series of covert, sometimes illegal, actions to undermine organizations considered subversive. In fighting against the Panthers, tactics included infiltrating the organizations and agitating to create confrontations with the police.
"Agents flooded into the party, provocateurs," says Cleaver. "The Panthers were destroyed as an organization, but destroying the organization did not destroy the members. Most people who were committed to the Panthers got into things they were committed to."
That would include someone like Ron Scott, who dedicated much of his last few decades steering the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality. There are several former Panthers around town who, despite becoming gray haired, are working in education and community empowerment programs.
"The kind of activists I'm familiar with are people of my generation who've made a lifetime commitment," says Cleaver.
Cleaver is a senior lecturer at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. She followed her commitment to the party by earning a law degree from Yale Law School and working in the legal world, including clerking at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. Not bad for someone who was once targeted for assassination by the FBI.
The Black Panther Party: Vanguard of the Revolution premieres in its longer, complete version on public television starting Feb. 16.
"The film is intense, complex, international, and personal," says Cleaver of filmmaker Stanley Nelson's documentary. "It's a gorgeous film, with beautiful photos and a wonderful soundtrack."
And it's right on time in an era when forces such as Black Lives Matter and the Occupy movement are taking on the same issues that another generation fought and died over.
Marcus matters too
The Charles Wright Museum will host another event that ties together generations on March 10.
The late jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave was known for mentoring and developing young jazz musicians during his half-century in Detroit. Belgrave taught students who later became international superstars such as pianist Geri Allen and saxophonist James Carter, as well as other stellar figures of the jazz firmament, at his Jazz Development Workshop over the years. Belgrave's legacy of teaching will be extended with the premiere of the Marcus Belgrave Scholarship Concert, featuring Allen, Carter, drummers Gayelynn McKinney and Karriem Riggins, bassist Marion Hayden, trumpeters Rayse Biggs and Dwight Adams, vocalist Joan Belgrave, and many more.
"This is my idea of keeping the legacy going," says Joan Belgrave.
Saxophonist Kasan Belgrave, Marcus' son, will open the program with his own group.
Proceeds from the event will go to scholarships for young musicians who are going on to college to study music. In 2009 Marcus Belgrave was named an Eminent Artist by the Kresge Foundation, which is also a supporter of this concert.