Historians are supposed to help us make sense of the world, by illuminating the forces and trends that shape the lives and destinies of ordinary people. But historians in the service of power do something else. Whether carelessly or carefully, they omit and distort to come up with histories that justify today’s establishment as the inheritors of a noble tradition of struggle on the part of ordinary people. It’s time for more people’s histories of our movement, and of the historic Black Panther Party. Regrettably, this is not one of them.
For all of 1969 and most of 1970 I was a rank and file member of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. For many young people like me, the BPP, or as we still call it, “the party” was a personally and politically formative experience, a challenging graduate level introduction to the practical politics of black, and of human liberation, full of many more lessons than our heads could absorb at the time. These lessons came at a great cost to many of our families and comrades, including decades of imprisonment for some of us, exile and early deaths for others.
It’s the job of peoples’ historians to and interpret and share those lessons, to nail them up where everyone can debate and discuss them, so that ordinary people can better understand the forces that shape our lives. Unfortunately, the peoples history of the Black Panther Party and the movement in Chicago hasn’t been written yet.
“From the Bullet to the Ballot:” Dr. Jakobi Williams 2013 book for which the author says he interviewed a number of my own comrades and accessed Chicago Police Red Squad files at some personal risk to himself, falls well short of helping us understand the party in Chicago, the context from which it emerged, why it flourished and eventually folded, or what its lasting impacts were. Though Dr. Williams denies that his book draws a direct and causal link between the efforts of the party in Chicago and the current crop of black faces in high corporate, military and government places, with President Barack Obama at the top of that heap, there can be no doubt that his title alone does precisely that.
Establishment historians have a different sort of gig than peoples historians. The establishment historian has to justify, to legitimize the forces currently in power, to depict their rule as the inevitable outcome of just and meritorious struggle. The black misleadership class needs its historians to tie it firmly to the Freedom Movement, the Black Power movement, and even to the Black Panther Party because even when power flows from the top down, legitimacy flows from the people, from the bottom up, from the streets to the suites.
Henry Louis Gates and Peniel Joseph are the best examples of black establishment historians, spinning tales of black history whose happy ending is always the election of Barack Obama in 2008, omitting, bending and distorting inconvenient facts as needed along the way, and swapping marketing constructs for explanations of social forces to achieve their happy ending. In the final chapter of Gates’ PBS series, Many Rivers To Cross, they ascribed the success of the Black Panther Party mostly due to the romantic appeal of big naturals and black people with guns.
To his credit, Dr. Williams’ history does quite a bit better than this, but still lands squarely in bed with Skip Gates, Peniel Joseph and the lazy establishment historians on these four points:
- In “From the Bullet to the Ballot,” all mention of socialism, class struggle and explicit opposition to capitalism, every one of which were prominently featured in Chicago and national BPP speeches, publications and political education classes, is made to disappear.
- All or nearly all mention of opposition to US empire, and the wars in Vietnam and colonial Africa as part of the motivation of the BPP, is also erased, and the broad current of black opposition to the Vietnam war fed by the experience of black vets, among others, goes unexplored. To hear Dr. Williams tell it, black Americans of my generation didn’t get excited about much of anything overseas until maybe the anti-apartheid movements of the 1980s.
- In place of the BPP’s opposition to capitalist economic oppression at home and the draft and imperial war overseas, Gates and Joseph explain the BPP’s wide popular appeal to the sheer coolness of big naturals and black people with guns. Dr. Williams goes a different way and says the success and historic impact of the BPP in Chicago was its successful interracial “coalition building.” Curiously, he then assigns the BPP to what they all call the “Black Power Movement,” something not especially well known for coalitions across racial lines.
- Authors don’t choose their book titles lightly. Williams is a smart guy. He knew that casting the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the ultimate happy ending of black history was in demand when he chose his title “From the Bullet to the Ballot: the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party & Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago.” The notion that he really meant something else kind of fails the laugh test.
Here’s how the 4 points above play out in Williams’ book:
1. “From the Bullet to the Ballot” totally erases the party’s anti-capitalist bent and its socialist rhetoric.
Although the BPP in Illinois wasn’t a strictly socialist or Marxist organization, those influences were very strong and unmistakable, even from 40 years distance. All one has to do is look at the movie, The Murder of Fred Hampton, which is available on YouTube.
Listen to Fred Hampton’s own words, which were pretty much in keeping with those of the rest of us. We said the words “rainbow coalition” a lot. But we said the words capitalism, socialism pretty often too, perhaps more often. As Fred does in the movie, we spoke of the free breakfast programs and the medical clinic as examples of socialism in action that ordinary folks could appreciate and would defend. How historians like Dr. Williams can read and hear us talking up socialism and proletarian internationalism, and never bother to ask where any of that came from is beyond me, unless they are simply observing the traditional American taboo over the s word.
For historians like Mr. Williams, that line of inquiry is unpromising because it leads away from where they need to go, to the happy endings of electing black mayors and congressmen, to black generals and corporate functionaries and to Barack Obama.
A real historian would listen to Fred’s speechifying, his denunciation of black capitalism, and note that he and many others were wearing badges with Mao on their hats. A real historian would ask what material the party members covered in the mandatory political education classes Fred talks about more than once. I taught many of those classes in 1969 and 1970 at Madison St. and a couple other places.
We studied the Communist Manifesto, and Lenin’s “The State” along with the autobiography of Malcolm X, and Soul on Ice? We read from Basil Davidson, Daniel Mannix and Malcolm Cowley on the transAtlantic trade in the same sessions with parts of Mao’s old red book. We covered Che Guevara and Amilcar Cabral and Franz Fanon. We debated more than once whether slavery gave birth to racism or the other way around, and whether socialism would eliminate racism. Probably not, we decided, but it would be a good start.
A real historian would note that one of the BPP’s ten points was changed from “We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our black communities” to “We want an end to the robbery by the capitalist of our black communities?” and ask why. Not Peniel Joseph. Not Skip Gates. And not Dr. Jakobi Williams either. All Williams has to say about our party’s anti-capitalist and pro-socialist stand is the flat out lie that we didn’t much care for it. Dr. Williams will utter the words “socialist” and “class struggle” when those interviewing him utter them first. But his book and its omissions on this score speak volumes.
Maybe this is what passes for “scholarship” these days. But as history goes, it’s far from the facts.
2. “From the Bullet to the Ballot” disappears the role of international consciousness among African Americans of that era as well as the role of white disaffection with the war in Vietnam.
If you were a young black man stopped by Chicago police in 1967 and 68 in Chicago they asked you for your draft card. If you did not have one, they often held you till the next weekday morning and delivered you to the US Armed Forces Induction Center at the time on 615 W. Van Buren St. The US Army of that era was a draftee army and the frontline troops, the combat arms in Vietnam, where the war raged in those years, were disproportionately black. It’s really difficult to imagine how a serious historian could miss this context.
Everybody on every ghetto corner in 67, 68, 69 was drinking with guys who had just got back from Vietnam. You had to be energetically NOT listening to avoid the stories of atrocities committed by US troops in Vietnam, or the tales of how the VC (VietCong) used to call to black Americans in English asking “Black man why are you fighting here?” and such. The examples of Muhammad Ali and Dr. King and SNCC denouncing the war were on everyone’s mind, especially young men who faced the draft themselves. Those hooked into the movement were also keenly aware of the anti-colonial wars in Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique as well, and the fact that the US supported the ring of white settler states across the southern third of the continent at permanent war with their African populations.
But to read Dr. Williams’ book, consciousness among black folks stopped at the waters edge, and the motivations of the BPP with it. Perhaps Williams imagines black people never took an interest in Africa till until the anti-apartheid movement of the late 70s and 80s. If so, he could not be more wrong. These themes were prominently depicted in the art of Emory Douglas, as well as the mix of articles a you would see in the newspaper of the BPP and even of Muhammad Speaks in those days, all of which is accessible to the historian, if his or her eyes and ears are open.
But in “From the Bullet to the Ballot” this entire context too, is absent. It never happened.
3. Gates and Joseph don’t even bother to come up with rational or scholarly explanations of the BPP’s wide appeal. They chalk it up to the romantic appeal of big naturals, black folks with guns and black being beautiful, explaining away the “Black Panthers,” whom they rarely call the Black Panther Party, as pop culture phenomena. That’s what passes for historical scholarship nowadays. Williams doesn’t dive quite that deep, but contradicts himself with the claim that the BPP were part of “the Black Power Movement”, but that their innovation was interracial coalition building.
Many scholars claim the BPP was part of what they call “the Black Power Movement.” The claim is tenuous at best.
Lynn French and I asked Williams in Chicago last weekend just how we got to be a “black power” outfit. In the movie, the Murder of Fred Hampton, as in just about every recorded speech of Fred Hampton and other Illinois party members of the time, whenever one uttered the words “black power” in that movie, those words are preceded by the following litany”
“All power to all people
brown power to brown people
yellow power to yellow people
brown power to brown people
white power to white people…”
before concluding with “…black power to black people and panther power to the vanguard party.”
Seriously, what “black power” folks say anything like THAT? The same scholars who scrub the BPP clean of socialism and internationalism eagerly include the BPP in their “Black Power Movement” alongside unrepentant tools of the FBI like Ron Karenga, who was responsible for the murder of California BPP members in their “Black Power Movement.” This again, does not pass a laugh test. It seems a lot more like an effort to scrub our legacy clean of socialism and internationalism and appropriate the left over good vibes to smear upon those other folks.
It’s the scholarly way. Nowadays as ever, black nationalism is a lot safer than black people involved in class struggle, This is truly history in the service of the present. The BPP was pretty much outside your “Black Power Movement,” however you define that.
4. You can’t call a book about the Illinois chapter of the BPP “From the Bullet to the Ballot.” and claim you’re not drawing a direct line between the BPP and the current crop of elected and appointed corporate, military, and government officials who make up our black misleadership class.
No matter what Bobby Seale says these days, putting black faces in high places is not why I was there, it’s not why most of us were there. If you bother to listen to Fred Hampton’s patter in the movie about Papa Doc and others, you can see it’s not why he was there, it’s certainly not why the Illinois Chapter of the BPP was there. It’s not what our martyrs were slain for, or what some of our comrades did decades in prison for, or why some of them are still serving time. We were fighting for the end of oppression of men (and women) by man, something a little broader and deeper than many of those who pass for “black power” advocates did then or do today.
In an email exchange among a few comrades and friends Dr. Williams claimed the line he draws between the BPP and the campaigns of Harold Washington and Barack Obama is one of appropriation, not causation. But even that dissolves in the sunshine of inquiry.
Dr. Williams claims that the Illinois BPP’s breakthrough innovation was organizing the “rainbow coalition” as we called it back in 1969. He says it was appropriated by Harold Washington in 83, Jesse Jackson in 84 and 88, and most recently by Barack Obama. This is not history, this is foolishness.
Comparing community organizing with electoral campaigns is comparing apples with lawn furniture. The BPP was engaged in something like community organizing, in which you pull people together around common issues and help them to invent a process they can participate in and take ownership of and use to struggle for what they want, and often to set their own rules for how they want to conduct their struggle. Electoral campaign organizing is a wholly different animal, because electoral campaigns are short-term mobilizations constrained by thickets of laws and regulation and the whims of media, aimed at turning out a vote on election day. In electoral campaigns, the people don’t choose or own the candidate or the issues. They are presented with your candidate, and after the election the campaign dissolves because of course the candidate rarely needs the people or the organization again till the next election years down the road.
Dr. Williams also claims that there are persons, ideologies and “organizational techniques” traceable from the BPP straight through the electoral campaigns of Harold Washington and Barack Obama. No way. The truth is, you can trace persons a few of them. I was in two of those three places, and Obama was my immediate supervisor on his first foray into electoral politics, the 1992 voter registration campaign of Project VOTE Illinois. But you cannot trace “ideologies,” cause these change over the years. And Dr. Williams, when challenged repeatedly to define these “organizational techniques” has failed to do so.
No wonder. They don’t exist, and without them, the premise – that there is any kind of line, either causal or or of appropriation, between the Black Panther Party and today’s black misleadership class, crumbles and collapses. The only reason to draw such a line is to claim a kind of legitimacy by inheritance, the same way that black politicians ceaselessly celebrate the Freedom Movement and the zombie “Dreamer” version of Dr. King which they have made safe for corporate sponsorship.
As history, From the Bullet to the Ballot is severely flawed. It conceals more than it reveals. It tries to re-cast the legacy of the Black Panther Party as leading and contributing to the happy ending of black faces in high places, while little changes for those of us down here on the ground.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a state committee member of the Georgia Green Party. He lives and works in Marietta GA and can be reached via this site’s contact page or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendarport.com