PBS aired the Stanley Nelson-directed documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution Tuesday, which put a positive spin on the sordid history of one of America’s most infamous radical black nationalist groups.
“We were making history and it wasn’t nice and clean,” said former Black Panther Party member Kathleen Cleaver. “The rage was in the streets. It was everywhere.”
The documentary starts in the place were the Panthers were formed in Oakland, California, in 1966.
We were “ready to thrown down if necessary,” a former member said as footage showed Black Panthers patrolling the streets, stopping wherever police patrol officers were committing traffic stops on black people.
“We were setting an example for a new course that we wanted the entire community to follow,” one former member recounted.
The rising number of Panthers carrying guns forced local law enforcement officials to lobby the California legislature to pass a law making it illegal to carry loaded firearms in public. The film showed Panthers who traveled to Sacramento and stormed into the California State Assembly Chamber.
In response, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan told local press, in 1967, that he did not think the problems the Panthers raised would be solved with men marching into the state assembly with loaded guns.
The stunt in Sacramento led to hundreds of budding “revolutionaries,” as far away as New York, dropping everything and fleeing to California to join the Party.
The documentary flashes papers with the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Plan handwritten on them.
Former member Phyllis Jackson recalls that the Panthers’ “plan wasn’t just to attack racism, but the entire capitalist system.”
“So you have to get rid of that system,” said former Black Panther Elaine Brown.
“There was no screening process,” another former organizer recalled. “The downside was, we didn’t know who any of these people are.”
Author and political activist Eldridge Cleaver pledged allegiance to the Black Panthers. He quickly became the “intellectual” face of the movement. The PBS special showed a famous interview between Cleaver and National Review founder, William F. Buckley.
In October 1967, Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton was charged with the shooting death of Oakland police officer John Fry.
With Newton behind bars, Cleaver was the only Party leader available to the press.
Known for his bombast, Cleaver demanded that if Newton was not set free, there would be no avoiding an “open armed war.” This led to the “Free Huey” movement, complete with marches and rallies.
Noted civil rights activist Julian Bond was interviewed and quoted as saying that as a black person growing and seeing the Panthers, “You wanted to dress like this. You wanted talk like this. You wanted to be this.”
“The bulk of the Panthers were young,” Bond said at the time.
“I think the Black Panthers understood the media; they knew what we were after,” said a former news broadcaster. You might say that we exploited the Black Panthers.”
The documentary showed footage of black people praising the Panthers for feeding the hungry through its breakfast program, feeding thousands of people in “19 different communities.”
At this time, the documentary explains, John Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, commissioned COINTELPRO, the counter intelligence program, to neutralize black nationalist groups.
“The FBI wanted to destroy the Panthers,” a former Black Panther member said. “They absolutely wanted this organization to be destroyed.”
“You can say we abandoned our family for the Black Panther Party,” another member said. “Panther Pads” gave us “a sense of community that we created,” where “10-15” people would sleep and stay in one house.
“The paper was the lifeblood of the Party. It’s how we survived,” one former member recalled.
One political cartoon drawing, by Panther member Elaine Brown, depicted in the Panther’s newspaper shows a “pig” police officer in his uniform.
The documentary shows students and even small children yelling, “Power to the people! Off the pig!”
After Martin Luther King’s assignation, one member recalled feeling like “they killed whatever hope we had in the system.”
Cleaver began to promote the idea of actively attacking the police. He recruited 17-year-old Black Panther member Bobby Hutton. Hutton followed Cleaver into battle and was shot and killed by police two days after King’s death, April 6, 1968.
Cleaver refused to turn himself into the police. He and his wife fled to Algeria and started an International Section of the Black Panther Party in Algeria and North Korea.
It was then that David Hilliard became the leader of the Black Panther Party. It was said that “he kept the shop in order” while Newton was in jail and Cleaver was in exile.
By January 1969, Richard Nixon had been elected president with a mandate to crack down on the Black Panthers.
“The Nixon administration gave Hoover more of a sense that he can oppress,” one former said. “Vigorous law enforcement” is how Hoover described it.
January 1969 also saw the arrest of the Panther 21, a group of Panthers who were charged with bombing New York City police stations. The documentary showed that Black Panthers members who were fighting for the freedom of the Panther 21 were offered free housing by radical leftist activist Jane Fonda. After 14 months in jail, including an eighth-month trial proceeding, the Panther 21 (which was then 13) were found innocent of all 156 charges.
Bombastic Black Panther founder Bobby Seale was then invited to speak in Chicago. “I challenge Ronald Reagan to a duel to the death because Reagan is a punk, a sissy, and a coward,” Cleaver said at Stanford University, one scene showed. “He can fight me with a gun, a knife, or a baseball bat. I’ll beat him to death with a marshmallow.”
Seale was arrested on the advice of FBI and indicted for that speech and represented himself. He was tied to a chair and gagged during the court proceedings. Rallies were held outside the federal court building where crowds of young people yelled, “Stop the trial.”
A 20-year-old Black Panther named Fred Hampton addressed the crowd outside the court, yelling, “I am a revolutionary,” the film showed. By the time he was 17, Hampton was head of the Illinois NAACP Youth branch. By 20, he was a leader in the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Hampton built a branch based in Chicago. “It was a political assassination,” one former member said of the move.
During a raid, police killed Hampton. The narrator explained that Hoover thought Hampton was the “black Messiah,” who was to come and create a dangerous uprising.
PBS claims the FBI privately bragged about killing Hampton, but the documentary never revealed a single fact to substantiate the claim.
Eventually, the “Free Newton” propaganda movement provided the public pressure that led to his release. This resulted in Newton’s obtaining iconic status, and that was deemed dangerous.
“The Black Panther Party is for overthrowing the United States government,” Eldridge Cleaver said after Newton was freed and began focusing on food services and other community programs.
Rumors about nefarious misuse of monies led to the shunning of the Panther 21 members.
Cleaver supported the Panther 21. Newton did not. A split in the Black Panther Party ensued.
PBS promoted an FBI memo that encouraged a rift between Newton and Cleaver.
Black Panther rank and file members began to feel betrayed by their leaders, according to the film. This led to fights and shootings between Black Panthers.
Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland. He came in second, but forced a runoff. Panthers helped register more black voters, from the “dope houses” to the churches. Bobby would hold stump speeches on city buses. After registering more than 20,000 people to vote, he lost the runoff election and Mayor John Redding was reelected.
After Seale’s loss, “there was a void,” a former member said. “The Panthers as a national endeavor ceased.”
Huey Newton began to spiral out of control, the film said. “We had created a cult of personality around a fucking maniac,” said one former member.
Huey Newton had began to lead a new force of Panthers whom he wanted to take over the underground aspects of Oakland, sticking up drug dealers.
One former member said Newton would beat people and rape women.
Bobby Seale left the very Black Panther Party he had started. Other members followed suit and began leaving in droves, especially women.
The film ends with former members reciting the demands of the Party, which included guaranteed jobs, housing, and education.
Cleaver became a born again Christian, endorsed Ronald Reagan for president, and died of a heart attack in 1998.
Twenty Black Panthers remain in prison, according to the documentary.
Huey Newton was killed in 1989. Seale and seven others (now known as the Chicago Seven) were arrested at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Seale was then sentenced to four years in prison for contempt of court and now lives and works with young political activists in Oakland, California.
The Hampton family won a $1.8 million settlement from Chicago police and the FBI.
Many progressive in the media are praising Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which fueled the hashtag #BlackPanthersPBS, now trending in America and around the world on Twitter and Instagram.
The Huffington Post Black Voices described the documentary as “absolutely phenomenal”:
— HuffPost BlackVoices (@blackvoices) February 17, 2016