Fairfield University Black Studies professor examines image of the Black Panther Party
The Black Panther Party regrettably remains one of the most maligned and misunderstood groups in American history, says Yohuru R. Williams, Ph. D., associate professor of history and co-director of the Black Studies Program in the College of Arts & Sciences at Fairfield University. In fact, the Bridgeport native feels that they were one of the great social motivators of the 20th century. He explores the group in a collection of essays in a new book entitled, "In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspectives on a Revolutionary Movement," co-edited with Jama Lazerow, a history professor at Wheelock College. (It was published by Duke University Press with support from Duke University and Fairfield's College of Arts & Sciences.)
The essays track the group from its origins as it attempted to address issues of economic, social and political inequality in America. Written by professionals and scholars of history, literature, sociology, law and politics, the essays offer insights into the Panthers' impact on the social and political changes of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Black Panthers tried to inspire a wave of "rainbow radicalism," that is political and social activism among poor whites, Asian immigrants, Native Americans and Latinos. Their successes included starting a Head Start-like program and increasing social services, many of which, such as free health care, the Panthers provided themselves in conjunction with various organizations such as Yale University in New Haven. In New Haven, the Panthers had a thriving chapter. (Dr. Williams also wrote the book, "Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Black Panthers in New Haven.")
But the Black Panther Party is still widely regarded as a "reverse Ku Klux Klan" that promoted a message of racial hatred and violence.
Dr. Williams said, "Nothing could be further from the truth in the sense that the Black Panthers actively reached out in efforts to build coalitions with other oppressed groups and sought to engage issues of race, class and gender head-on long after the Government proclaimed victory with the legislation, the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) made possible through earlier Civil Rights protests. Emerging in the aftermath of those protests, the Panthers came to see politics as only a small part of the larger problems plaguing Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities throughout the nation. They created a program that sought to address these issues in new and creative ways that eventually helped to inspire government action and some reform."
How did the wrong image emanate? According to Dr. Williams, the media helped spread a negative attitude inspired by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He branded the Panthers the "number one threat to the nation's internal security" in 1968. The group's penchant for provocative language, political theater, and the Panther uniform of powder blue shorts, berets and leather jackets, along with their early decision to conduct armed patrols of the police, contributed to this image as well. "While most agree that Hoover's estimation of the threat posed by the Party was overblown, the Black Panthers remain fixed in the popular imagination of the 1960s as angry Black radicals who embraced violence as the only means of achieving political redress for racial injustice."
Ultimately, the Panthers proved to be an important agent for community growth and development, making significant inroads at the community level to promote social justice and change. While national coverage of the Panthers often perpetuated the negative view of the party, at the local level they were acknowledged for creating innovative programs that addressed issues such of poverty, welfare reform, and teen violence. In New Haven, for instance, they worked with Yale medical students to provide healthcare to area residents and built a thriving chapter in the Elm City. Another great achievement was their celebrated breakfast for school children program, which inspired the federal Head Start program.
Dr. Williams, a Shelton resident, was inspired by Columbia University Professor of African American Studies Dr. Manning Marable, who reasons that Black Studies scholarship should be descriptive, prescriptive and corrective. Dr. Williams felt compelled to uncover the true legacy of the Panthers. "Excavating the history of the Black Panther Party has allowed me to do all three by way of engaging the history, correcting the historical record and engaging the meaning of that history for a whole new generation."
Dr. Williams earned a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Scranton and a Ph.D. from Howard University.
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Posted on February 27, 2007
Vol. 39, No. 155