The Dartmouth Observer
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Re-evaluating the Panthers: Was King right and the Black Power movement wrong?
One of the first things you learn in Civil Rights history is that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is the icon of inclusion, tolerance, and the fight for justice. Teachers and historians alike ascribe to his message-- that discrimination and racism are inconsistent with American ideals--the adjective "universal." By that term they mean that King's message was a message for all people in every social position to resist racism and discrimination everywhere they found it. However, we also know that there was at least another message broadcast concurrently with King's: the message of black power.
The Black power movement, unfortunately, always lives in the shadow of King's movement; lacking the "wide appeal" that King's movement had, politicians and pedagogues today encourage us to remember the black power movement as the failed illegitimate side of the struggle for civil rights. Thus, the black power movement, ironically, is marginalized in the civil rights history and discourse. There are two main ways analysts dismiss the movement. The first method is to cast black power as a violent response to the death of King. The civil rights movement, in this story, fragmented without King's unifying touch, and became divided along class and racial lines within and outside the black community. The second way historians remove black power from the scene is to remind audiences of its "particularity." By using this word, analysts distinguish the specificity of black power from the generalness of civil rights. King's movement then becomes the re-presentation of justice for all and malice toward none whereas black power is simply more discrimination from one group to another rather than a break from the cycle. This dichotomy--of the general and the specific--allows the historian to castigate black power's ideology while supposedly continuing the tradition of civil rights. King is everything that black power was not.
Is this the way we want to remember black power: as a failed, illegitimate, twisted shadow created in and by King's light? Surely not; remembering the history in this way prevents us from understanding the motivations of both movements and obscures the hierarchies of race and raced difference that both movements struggled to overturn.
Black power was about black people. It was uncomfortably militant, irredeemably particular, and dominated by young people who wanted revenge for the wrongs that they believed society had heaped upon them. The character of the movement was largely due to the demographic from which black power drew its earliest support: young black men. Whereas King's movement operated from the social position of the black elite with the support of many Protestant churches and Northern white liberals, the black power movement drew together isolated individuals outside of an institutionalized context into a paramilitary organization designed to fight the oppression of blacks. The youth were not only disenfrachised and disaffected, but they were worldless. At times the oppression seemed so thick and all-encompassing that each person believed that it just him alone against the world; black power aggregated those lives of separate resistance into a cohesive movement. The militancy of the movement scared away potential supporters--then as well as now.
King's movement did enjoy larger passive support than the black power movement, especially when it was about southern racism. The southern states, with their redneck culture, have always been the perfect villain for the democratic mind. Southern racism was unapologetically discriminatory; it was as crude as it was callous. The yearning for black power, particularly as manifested in the Black Panther party, tackled racism in the North and West as opposed to the South, starting first in California. The party criticized American racism as a feature endemic to the American institutions of governance and capital; blacks were oppressed not only due to the racist culture of the United States, but also due to the systems of distribution, legitimation, and rule. Unsurprisingly, the Northerners were less willing to sign on to a project that suggest the whole of American society was flawed, a fact that King himself discovered when he turned from civil rights to jobs for the poor.
Nevertheless, like King, black power was never exclusively about the lives of blacks, just primarily about them. The slogan of the Panthers was "all power to the people." They actively encouraged all blacks, minorities, and workers to take up arms against the government and the capitalistic system. Though their message was largely about black people--they wanted to talk about the same subjects the racists found so fascinating--it was for all oppressed. They didn't want to live harmoniously in a society whose very existence required the degradation of some for the enrichment of others. The logic of capitalism, for them, was the logic of slavery: one man's work became another man's dollar. (Women were largely outside of the story.) The history of black power, then, should not be remembered as a call of blacks against whites, but as a call to democracy against capitalism. If King believed that the genuine expression of democratic equality militated against raced difference and the reproduction of racial ideologies, then the Panthers believed that democracy militated against capitalist exploitation.
I want to conclude by listing the ten point program of the Black Panther party.
1. We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine The Destiny Of Our Black Community.
In closing, I will say this: the platform of the Panthers is much less radical today than it was when it was first offered. The Panthers were clearly committed to a non-capitalist democratic system because they believed that a racist market society would not provide for the welfare of its poorest members. This intuition is a common one on the left in America today. The Panthers argued that an all-white jury would not provide justice to black defendants. The Supreme Court stipulated the same thing years ago. The Panthers maintained that police brutality was a problem for black communities. Rodney King made their observation a national question. The Panthers argued that people have a second amendment right to bear arms. So does the Republican party. The Panthers reminded us that education was the key to self-knowledge. Most lawmakers would endorse that statement. Lastly, in point ten, the Panthers quoted the opening statement of the Declaration of Independence to remind us that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. The Founders may have been proud. It seems that we are all Black Panthers now.