The Shadow of the Panther by Hugh Pearson is one of my favorite books that we read in our civil rights class. It gives a concise overview of the civil rights movement and was a helpful review of the people, places and events that we studied from the beginning of the class. It also gives an in-depth look into the life of the Black Panther Party and helped me work through the enduring questions - “How should we as human beings confront evil?” – “Does the end ever justify the means?” – “Does power corrupt?” I think Pearson tried to give readers an objective look at Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party so we will be able to think clearly as we try to answer these questions.
As we have learned in our study of the civil rights movement, the dehumanization and oppression of black people particularly in the American south but generally in all of America was/is evil. The dehumanization Melba Patillo Beals and the other eight children who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas experienced by the words and actions of rabid, white segregationists; the oppression so many black people experienced from the hearts and hands of white people; and the complicity of local governments, state governments, and the federal government (especially through the FBI) was morally reprehensible. After reading about and discussing this dehumanization and oppression, I understand why Huey Newton desired to build an organization like the Black Panther Party for Self Defense for the purpose of preserving the black race.
I remember when I began serving children and youth in the Clarksdale Housing Project in Louisville, Kentucky in the early 1990’s. I was from the white, middle class of upstate South Carolina and piedmont North Carolina and thought of policemen as helps to my community and even as friends. I was shocked when I learned that many black, poor people thought of policemen as threats to their communities and even as enemies. A mother of one of the teenagers I served in Clarksdale told me one evening, “If you are standing on the corner with a group of your white friends and see police officers approaching then you say hello and take no thought as they pass. But if my son is standing on the corner with a group of his black friends and they see police officers approaching they keep their heads down and hope they don’t hurt them. You see and experience the police in a different way than we see and experience them.” After learning how black people see and experience the police through my time in Louisville and through my reading for our class I understand why Newton wanted to arm the Black Panthers with guns and law books and send them out on the streets to “police” the police.
I was touched by the social services that the Black Panthers provided for poor children in their communities. The breakfast program and the school were noble endeavors that could provide hope to children – a hope that could open windows for them to reach their full potentials. I know there are poor children all over the world who could help the world in many ways if only someone cared for their basic needs. I can understand why there were so many people who were ready to support these social services with finances and with hands–on work. (What an interesting story about the children, hot chocolate, “reds”, and vitamins – sometimes it takes hard work to put our best intentions to work)
I was amazed by the community organizing efforts of the Black Panthers. It would take deep commitment and sacrifice to do all of the things necessary to mobilize people to work for a better life through boycotts and through the political process. The organization seemed to be able to touch that kind of commitment and sacrifice within people.
As I worked through this book I wondered if my fellow students had some of the same thoughts I did about Newton and the Black Panther Party. Newton and the Black Panthers were the antithesis of some of the white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan that we have encountered in our reading, but I could see some similarities between them. They both used harsh rhetoric and violence to bend people to their wills. They both escaped judgment from the criminal justice system even though they were guilty of the offenses with which they were charged. They both relied on powerful people (politicians, actors, wealthy patrons) for financial support. They both acted as if their respective ends – the preservation of black people and the preservation of the white race should be accomplished by any means necessary. (I see a difference in these two ends – preservation of the black race was an attempt to stop a perceived genocide while the preservation of white society was an attempt to preserve racial purity – to stop genocide is a moral necessity while to preserve racial purity is not.)
I was interested in the story about Elaine Brown. I often wonder if women would be better leaders than men – if their understanding and use of power would be more about service and building up than about being served and tearing down. It appears that Brown eventually used her power as the leader of the Black Panther Party in the “being served”, “tearing down” way – especially in the implication of her involvement in the death of Betty Van Patter – though at times she seemed more conscious of using her power for “serving” and “building up” – especially in her political organizing.
As I learned about Huey Newton himself – his genius (his communication skills, his academic achievement) balanced with stupidity (his destructive lifestyle, both toward himself and others) – I was reminded of something James Meredith said when he was criticized for making a poor grade in one of his classes at Ole Miss – that people should realize that just because he was a black person involved in the civil rights movement did not mean that he was somehow super human. It seems that many white radicals on the left saw Newton as super human – above the foibles and failures of human beings. I think Newton was certainly a product of his times.
I see that the civil rights movement turned from a “turn the other cheek” – touch the humanity of your oppressor – movement toward an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” – punish the inhumanity of your oppressor – movement and am understanding why this turning took place. People hope for the life found in the platform of the Black Panther Party – a life of land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace. And people realize that they must work to fulfill this hope and realize this life. The civil rights movement teaches us that life was in the hands of one group of people, a group that was unwilling to share life with another group of people. It teaches us the different ways dehumanized, oppressed people struggle for life against their oppressors – through non-violent direct action, through political organization, through violent struggle. After thinking through this hope for life and this struggle for life as we have read and discussed the civil rights movement in America I believe that we can work together – black and white, rich and poor, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual – to build a more human world for all people. The work will be hard. As a teacher and a writer, I will be in a good place to work mind to mind and heart to heart with my students, their families, and our community to build a more human world. As I teach and as I write I will always hope for and always struggle for the beloved community.