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NPR Podcast 'Throughline' Examines The Real Black Panthers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Academy Awards are this weekend, and the film "Judas And The Black Messiah" is nominated for several Oscars. The movie has generated a lot of new interest in the Black Panther Party, and NPR's Throughline podcast has been exploring the group's history. Here are the hosts, Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah.

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RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Founded in 1966 in Oakland, Calif., the Black Panther Party had an unforgettable image. They were an all-Black organization that argued for armed self-defense and Marxist politics at the height of the Cold War. They called the police pigs and described them as an occupying force. And in the midst of the Vietnam War, the Panthers argued that struggles anywhere were directly tied to struggles everywhere.

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HUEY NEWTON: In America, Black people are treated very much as the Vietnamese people or any other colonized people because we're used, we're brutalized. The police in our community occupy area, our community, as a foreign troop occupies territory.

ABDELFATAH: That was Huey P. Newton.

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DONNA MURCH: They were able to bridge the connections between anti-imperialism, anti-communist foreign policy and then connect and - essentially, to say, you being killed by the police is directly analogous to what's happening in Vietnam with the millions of Vietnamese people that are being killed.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: This is Donna Murch, a professor of history at Rutgers University and author of "Living For The City: Migration, Education And The Rise Of The Black Panther Party In Oakland, California."

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MURCH: So that kind of radical internationalism and anti-communist politics was - it was terrifying, I think, to Cold Warriors...

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MURCH: ...Although maybe that's being too generous.

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MURCH: If you look at the size of the Panthers, at their very largest, they were 5,000 people. These were largely teenagers.

ABDELFATAH: Many of whom were just friends of the founders like Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. And the reality is during the first few years of the Black Panther Party, their numbers were probably in the hundreds. And yet...

MURCH: It's this organization that J. Edgar Hoover says is the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.

ARABLOUEI: (Reading) The Black Panther Party represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.

ABDELFATAH: This is from an actual memo J. Edgar Hoover wrote to FBI agents.

ARABLOUEI: (Reading) Leaders and representatives of the Black Panther Party travel extensively all over the United States, preaching their gospel of hate and violence.

ABDELFATAH: Why was the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, so concerned about this small group of radical Black college students and teenagers? Was it that they were Black and armed? According to Donna Murch, yes. But there was something else.

MURCH: It was their ability, not that they were anti-white - it's that they were able to organize with whites.

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BOBBY SEALE: When the man walks up and says that we were anti-white, he says, well, I mean, you hate white people. I say, me, hate a white person? That's your game. That's the Ku Klux Klan's game.

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SEALE: I say, I wouldn't murder a person or brutalize them because of the color of their skin. I said, yeah, we hate something, all right. We hate the oppression that we live in. We hate cops beating Black people over their heads and murdering them. That's what we hate.

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ARABLOUEI: All power to all people - wasn't that their, like, call?

MURCH: All power to all people, yes. And so the people that they saw as part of their coalition were the Red Guard Party...

ABDELFATAH: Which was a Chinese-American youth radical group.

MURCH: ...The Brown Berets - so kind of radical Chicano leftists and communists.

ABDELFATAH: And in an era where open anti-gay or anti-queer sentiment was common, the Black Panther Party...

MURCH: Really in contrast to many of the other radical organizations of the period, they had an explicit alliance with both the feminist and what were, at that time, called gay radicals.

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NEWTON: Homosexuals are human beings, and they are oppressed because of the bourgeois mentality that tries to legislate sexual activity.

ABDELFATAH: And they had an alliance with a group of white Appalachians who flew the Confederate flag. I'm going to repeat that - the Confederate flag. They were called the Young Patriot Association.

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KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Everybody knows that all the people don't have liberties, all the people don't have freedom, and all the people don't have power, so that means none of us do.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) No more pigs in our community - off the pigs.

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ABDELFATAH: Even though today the Black Panther Party is largely remembered in the popular imagination as gun-toting militants, in the late 1960s, that's not the reason the FBI targeted them. Donna Murch says it was the fact that they had a vision to organize workers across all racial and ethnic groups in the same way Marxists had done in Cuba or China or Vietnam. Even though there had been labor organizing and socialist parties in the United States, the Black Panthers had a unique vision.

MURCH: I think the thing that made them the most dangerous was the way that they wed cross-racial organizing with explicit anti-imperialist Marxist politics.

ABDELFATAH: And there was one more thing. Remember that quote from J. Edgar Hoover about the Black Panther Party being the biggest threat to U.S. internal security?

MURCH: It happens at just the moment that the Panthers begin to start creating liberation schools and free breakfast programs. They created liberation schools so that the children could be instructed during the day, and they started inviting neighborhood children. And they realized that many of the children were hungry. And in response to that, they started breakfast programs where they essentially would invite any and all children to come to Panther headquarters, and they would provide their children with free breakfast. And if you go back and you look at the FBI documents, one of the things they were most afraid of is that they were going to create kind of self-perpetuating institutions that could have a much larger base in community. So the hammer came down on them very, very quickly.

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ABDELFATAH: That hammer came in the form of the FBI program COINTELPRO, or Counterintelligence Program. The program started in 1956. And after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the program focused its attention on stopping the Black Panther Party. The FBI's own documents, which you can easily find online, show that of the 295 direct actions taken against Black radical groups, 233 were directed at the Black Panther Party.

MURCH: One of the lessons I learned as a Panther historian is that repression works. We can kid ourselves and say that it doesn't, but repression does work.

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MARTIN: Donna Murch speaking with Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can listen to the whole episode wherever you listen to podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.