This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we celebrate centuries past and present civil rights leaders’ dedication to forging racial equality. Although we often associate the Civil Rights Movement with non-violent actions, not all its leaders championed civil disobedience. Some believed that the only way to end violent, institutionalized racial oppression was through armed resistance. Among these groups was the Black Panther Party that fought police brutality against blacks at home, while linking their struggle to a global fight against imperialism abroad. We sat down with Dr. Joshua Bloom, Fellow at the Ralph J. Bunche Center at UCLA and co-author of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, to discuss his formative text on the controversial yet pivotal moment in American history.
The Black Panthers’ political posters were at once violent and rousing. What was the role of revolutionary art in the Party, and how did the Panther leadership leverage art to curate its public image?
The Black Panther Party leadership carefully managed its public image. The Party sought to portray itself as a viable revolutionary organization to its constituents, on the one hand, and as worthy of support in the face of brutal repression to a broader public. Black Panther political artwork was crucial to this endeavor, inspiring revolutionary commitment without alienating supporters. Accompanying the “Free Huey!” campaign, the iconic image of Party leader Huey Newton in a wicker throne suggested that Newton was the legitimate representative of not only the Party, but black America generally, and that United States government efforts to penalize him constituted imperialist acts.
You wrote that in 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover publicly declared: “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” You also wrote that the federal government “was secretly developing what would become its most intensive program to repress any black political organizations.” How successful was the government’s publicity war against the Party and its leaders? Were these effects lasting? How has the government’s campaign shaped the Panthers’ legacy nearly half a century later?
Hoover’s actions were central to a broad federal effort to destroy not only the Black Panther Party as an organization, but the political possibility it represented. In Hoover’s words, the overall goal was to prevent the Party and similar political efforts from “gaining respectability, by discrediting them.” When the Special Agent in Charge of the counterintelligence effort against the Black Panther Party in San Francisco challenged Hoover on the wisdom of repressing the Party’s free breakfast for children program, Hoover responded:
One of our primary aims in counterintelligence as it concerns the [Black Panther Party] is to keep this group isolated from the moderate black and white community which may support it. This is most emphatically pointed out in their Breakfast for Children Program, where they are actively soliciting and receiving support from uninformed whites and moderate blacks…You state that the Bureau under the [Counterintelligence Program] should not attack programs of community interest such as the [Black Panther Party] ‘Breakfast for Children.’ You state that this is because many prominent ‘humanitarians,’ both white and black, are interested in the program, as well as churches which are actively supporting it. You have obviously missed the point.
The vast repressive effort targeting the Black Panther Party eventually worked, but only when coupled with far reaching concessions to the broader constituencies that supported the Party in the face of repression. Ironically, so long as black people were virtually excluded from police departments, political representation, elite education, and middle class jobs—and so long as the military draft persisted—the Party appeared invulnerable to repression. Through 1969 and into 1970, the period of greatest repression of the Black Panther Party, the party continued to rapidly expand in membership and influence. Ultimately, the politics of the Black Panther Party have to be understood as one important factor, amongst many complex historical causes, contributing to black political access, expansion of the black middle class, and elimination of the draft.
Black Against Empire is a formative text that reconsiders the historical significance of the Black Panther Party. Above all, what do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Neat caricatures of what democratic politics are supposed to look like will never deliver far reaching social transformation. Historical change is messy, and often revolves around novel insurgent practices—ways of acting and thinking that make business as usual impossible, yet draw broad allied support in the face of repression by authorities. For example, if Black Lives Matter mobilizations are to dismantle the New Jim Crow, they must find new ways of challenging authority. In specific, what is needed are disruptive practices the repression of which expose the myth of colorblind racism just as powerfully as have the videos of police killing unarmed black people. Otherwise authorities will drive the response to the recently available video evidence of the longstanding practice of brutal policing of black people, and the reforms will barely scratch the surface.
What are you reading right now?
Aldon D. Morris, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology (California 2015).