Advertisement
Share

The Brain and the Heart : THE SHADOW OF THE PANTHER: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America, <i> By Hugh Pearson (Addison-Wesley: $24; 432 pp.)</i>

<i> Leon Forrest is chair of African-American Studies at Northwestern University. His latest works are "Divine Days," a novel, and a collection of essays entitled "Relocations of the Spirit."</i>

An African American man draped out in Black Panther regalia, seated upon a wicker chair, with a spear in one hand, and an animal pelt upon the floor: this is the classic, flamboyant, self-assured image by which most of us remember Black Panther leader Huey Newton.

But in Hugh Pearson’s keenly observed, often brilliant, Panther-busting book, “The Shadow of the Panther,” the party founder gets stripped bare of his accouterments. Pictured here as something of a “nuditas criminalis,” Newton is revealed as a bestial, pagan-punk, who committed not only crimes against the state, but more troubling, crafted miscarriages of the trust his followers had invested in a dream of the mercurial Huey, as their spiritual and secular savior.

Initially these true believers might appear before our eyes, in their stark political innocence, as thousands of trusting, naked children, in a group shot, upon a huge rug, captured for a photographer’s gallery of Americana, circa 1970. Yet according to Pearson’s analysis, the rank and file really was “made up of a cross section of young African Americans, some who were law abiding and sincerely interested in being of value to the black community, others who had no qualms about breaking the law if it could be rationalized as a revolutionary activity, and still others who were just plain ruthless and criminal.”

Perhaps it’s not unfair to say that each of the multiple personalities that Pearson finds in Huey (so much like the Huey Long that Newton was named for) spoke for a kind of character drawn to his movement; it was a movement, in other words, led by Huey Newton’s divided soul.

A man without a central inner core, a wayward wunderkind , full of adolescent extremes and fascinations, spoiled and cruel, Newton’s character prowled within the shadow of large demons worthy of a Dostoevskyan character--a Stavrogin, for example.

Advertisement

His ideas showed that the same Newton who organized clandestine hit squads to engage in wanton murder could lay out strategies as considerate and legitimate as those of our best political and economic consultants.

Hellbent on destroying himself, Newton also seemed determined to plunge the Panthers into the tumultuous flames of his own self-conjured financial destruction. He fed his “severe cocaine and alcohol addictions,” Pearson shows, by siphoning off “much of the funds earmarked for the very Panther programs designed to benefit poor African-Americans--the free health clinics, the free breakfast programs for children, and the free school,” in order to support his habit. Newton hustled prostitution rings for money, savagely beat a fortune teller for dealing in Tarot cards, as she hovered over his future. Apparently Newton’s rampant chauvinism set the tone for the Panther’s treatment of women as mere playthings: often brutalized, and never equals, in an organization that stood for equality.

Pearson, nevertheless, portrays the Panther’s rise as an understandable reaction against the white chauvinism that had been embedded in Oakland’s power structure for nearly half a century. Born and bred in racist Oakland, the Panthers also came to awareness during the years immediately following World War II.

It was during the early years of the war that A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Porters, headed up protests against discrimination in defense industries that led President Roosevelt to issue executive order 8802, outlawing racial discrimination by any wartime industry receiving federal contracts. Randolph had cracked Roosevelt’s initial resistance to opening up jobs for the war effort to blacks by dent of a threat to bring hundreds of thousands of blacks to Washington D.C. “for a great march designed to embarrass the nation that claimed to be preparing for war to make the world safe for democracy.”

After Roosevelt issued his executive order, a flood of about 50,000 black migrants from Louisiana, Arkansas and East Texas, traveling on the trains the porters worked on, came to the Bay Area’s shipyards to construct Navy destroyers and other vessels. Among those migrants would be a man named Walter Newton, who would scout for work before sending for his family, including a little boy named Huey.

In order to suppress the dreams of social justice that grew out of this new black working class’s semblance of economic stability, Oakland’s white power structure looked south for role models of white supremacy, and police-styled vengeance against African Americans. As Pearson shows us, it was at this time that “Oakland police recruiters traveled to the American south and recruited whites to join the police force to keep the Negroes ‘in line.’ ” The hatred of the blacks uprising only grew during Newton’s maturing years. One searing example of white cop corruption reveals the specter of their loathing for blacks, and the conditions that helped fire Huey and others into would-be revolutionaries:

One evening a dramatic spectacle occurred on an Oakland freeway when a black police officer from San Francisco was chased by two white Oakland police officers. One of them pulled a gun and started firing at him. The reason? The two Oakland police officers thought the officer from San Francisco was trying to interfere with the prostitutes they were running (this was an activity the individual officers allegedly ran, not the Oakland police department itself).

Conversely, once Newton and the ego-maniacal Eldridge Soul on Ice Cleaver, were no longer in the Panther’s local power loop, the remnant of the Panthers bent on solid routes to progress developed important voter registration campaigns. Lionel Wilson’s election as Oakland’s first African American mayor can be attributed in large measure to the hard-driving voter recruitment efforts energized by the more solid branch members of the Panthers, in 1977.

At the opposite end of the black uplift spectrum, the Nation of Islam offered real programs devoted to retraining the lost and dishonored within the African American community that nobody in the black nor white Bourgeois cared about. The Panthers may have claimed a love for people, “all power to the people,” Stokley Carmichael of SNCC may have coined the phrase concerning his “undying love for black people,” but it was the Muslims who attempted to match racial devotion with action, in a set of far reaching elevation programs, designed for, ironically enough, “the least of these.” Indeed, the Panthers one successful program was a kind of Muslim-style version of mom-and-pop self-help variety--the breakfast program for kids.

And for all of their failures, and male chauvinism, the Nation of Islam at least attempted to retrain the large criminal element within their proselytizing sphere or fishing expeditions for lost/found souls. The Panthers played up to the criminal element within the community, as the vanguard of revolution, saw no need to redeem them, but (like the White Weathermen) celebrated their outlawry as the underpinnings for the consciousness raising necessary to the revolution; thereby unleashing and legitimizing a renegade, undisciplined criminal element within the black community, as the way to go in order to express one’s manhood.

The battle cry from the young, fiercely courageous freedom fighters had been “Have you been to jail?” in peaceful protest confronting a racist legal system, putting your body on the line, and using soul-force, the Panthers saw their main-line of criminal recruits as wearing a red badge of courage for being prisoners, no matter the charge . . . for blacks were prisoners within an evil state the argument ran. Pearson offers a penetrating overview in terms of the lawless license the Party and Newton, as architect, operated from:

From the beginning of the party, Newton was working out a deal with the black criminal elements of Oakland, couching the deal in revolutionary rhetoric--quid pro quo, the Panthers were saying. We’ll undermine the police, making it easier for you to engage in your criminal activities, in exchange for a fee.

Philosophically Newton saw exploitation as fundamental to the constitution of contemporary black consciousness, and that a collusion with the criminal element was incremental to his design for fostering the Panthers and creating the overthrow of an evil system. Of the Party’s genesis Newton wrote:

“Black consciousness had generally reached the point where a man felt guilty about exploiting the black community. However, if his daily activities for survival could be integrated with actions that undermined the established order, he felt good about it. In order to survive, they still had to sell their hot goods. But at the same time they would pass some of their cash on to us. That way, ripping off became more than just an individual thing.”

Pearson estimates that there were 30 black militant groups involved in the Black Power effort and that Carmichael made the Bay Area one of his main stops, “before militant groups, as he pursued SNCC’s policy of seeding new organizations to cry on the work SNCC had started.” Because they saw themselves as the most courageous and militant of the Civil Rights groups, and closer to the spirit of the younger, more militant African Americans, Carmichael and other SNCC members attempted to forge allegiances with the true fire-brand brothers within the Panther party; but soon enough, according to Pearson and his informants, the SNCC members in New York City realized that these Panthers were a new breed of cat. Mae Jackson remembers:

“SNCC people could go up against an entire town of Ku Klux Klanners, but they didn’t have that ‘nigga I’m gonna kick yo ass’ about them, the way the Panthers did. In the beginning I think SNCC thought: We’ll be the brain and they’ll be the heart. And maybe the Panthers thought we’ll be the heart and they’ll be the brain except when you deal with a lot of street people they always have another agenda. It’s like not only will I be the heart, but one day I’ll take over the brain.”

According to his afterword, Pearson himself was instructed by his research into the Panther movement. His discovery of the duplicity and brutality within the group was something of a revelation for the younger author. He has achieved a fine degree of detachment and analysis over his materials. Pearson provides us with something of a cautionary tale about leadership and radical movements.


Advertisement