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Williams: Beyond Beyoncé, a Black History Month lesson on the Black Panthers

Black Panthers from Sacramento at a Free Huey Rally at Bobby Hutton Memorial Park in Oakland, Calif., in 1969.
Black Panthers from Sacramento at a Free Huey Rally at Bobby Hutton Memorial Park in Oakland, Calif., in 1969. Courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch

It’s almost the end of February and I’ve managed not to engage in the annual Black History Month observance.

It’s not that I have no interest in the history of black folk. I’m a serious student of American and world history and particularly the role of the peoples of the African diaspora in shaping our world. But what started as a necessary observance of a neglected part of American history has turned into too much of a perfunctory listing of facts – some trivial (did you know that a black woman supposedly designed the Playboy bunny suit?) – about notable people and events. Such is often presented without much context and put back on the shelf until the next February.

I reconsidered my plan to sit this one out in light of Rudy Giuliani’s Fox News’ criticism and some police unions freaking out about Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance. They describe the pop diva’s 50th anniversary salute to the Black Panthers as anti-police propaganda. Raleigh’s police union this week declined to join police elsewhere in refusing to work security for Beyoncé concerts.

For fans of the 2nd Amendment, let me offer a Black History Moment. In May of 1967, armed members of the group founded to protect against police violence in Oakland, Calif.’s black community marched into the California state legislature. Before cellphone cameras, armed Panthers monitored police street interactions to discourage abuses. The sight of black men with guns had caused the California legislature, supported by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, to move to repeal a state law allowing the carrying of loaded weapons in public.

Some would argue that the Panthers’ armed protest at the legislature was the beginning of the modern gun rights movement. But as the California politicians signaled 50 years ago, we now know that blacks’ gun rights are not always accepted. Just Google John Crawford III and Walmart shooting.

My next Black History Moment concerns COINTELPRO. The workings of this FBI initiative show that the Panthers, although the group’s rhetoric about police was harsh and a few members were egomaniacs and psychopaths, were not much of a threat to police. They were, however, a major target of law enforcement constitutional violations, including assassination.

COINTELPRO was a secret “counterintelligence program” begun by the FBI in the 1950s ostensibly to go after communist spies. In the 1960s, the program began to serve the whims of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who detested protest groups he deemed “radicals.” Hoover had a particular ire for civil rights groups, as demonstrated by the FBI’s well-documented harassment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Black groups, including the Panthers, were the dominant target of COINTELPRO.

COINTELPRO was exposed in 1971, when secret files were removed from the FBI and given to the news media. Further Freedom of Information requests unearthed files that showed how the operation met its goals to undermine domestic groups by planting in their midst police informants, deception– including bogus publications, malicious anonymous phone calls and forged letters – vandalism and false arrests.

By the time the Panthers were targeted by the FBI, the group was gaining more national attention for its well-regarded children’s breakfast program and tutoring programs. The documentary film “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” that recently aired on PBS includes descriptions of the FBI’s use of misinformation to get local police to conduct heavily armed raids on Panthers offices and its unconstitutional use of the courts to imprison Panthers.

The most difficult part of the documentary is the real-time footage in the aftermath of the 1969 killing of Panthers leader Fred Hampton and group member Mark Clark in a Chicago police raid. Hampton, 21, was a particularly charismatic leader who was under FBI surveillance, including by an informant planted by the FBI. The police’s explanation that they were first fired upon by heavily armed people in the apartment was undermined by film taken in the apartment shortly after the raid and by ballistics. A grand jury declined to indict anyone for the raid it called “ill conceived,” and an official reconstruction of events was riddled with errors. Some blacks and others have described the killing as a “northern lynching,” an “assassination.”

A lawsuit by the Hampton and Clark families years later resulted in a $1.8 million settlement paid by local, state and federal enforcement agencies.

It’s a history that many who express shock and disgust at Beyoncé’s dynamic performance are ignorant of or in denial about in connection to today’s troubling relationships between police and many black communities. The path toward improving that relationship is to acknowledge the context from which it springs.

The Panthers’ essential complaint about the police was poor service to the black community. That complaint resonates today. When the police’s first reaction when met with a community complaint or when they feel a slight – either real or imagined – is to withdraw service, then the relationship fractures anew.