Yohuru R. Williams. Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Panthers

Yohuru R. Williams. Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Panthers – Book Review

Jama Lazerow

Yohuru R. Williams. Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Panthers. St. James, NY: Brandywine Press, 2000. 190 pp.

While the public remains fascinated by the Black Panther Party (BPP–1966-1982), their interest reflected in the popularity of Panther lore and imagery in movies, music, and memoir, professional historians are dismissive at best, downright hostile at worst. The state of the historiography could be glimpsed in a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review (16 January 2000) by Times editorialist Brent Staples, who described the Panthers as “a former California street gang that informants have told us was routinely involved in murder and the protect racket.” Echoing journalist Hugh Pearson’s relentlessly hostile account of the Panthers, glowingly reviewed in the pages of the Book Review five years earlier, the reviewer’s intent here is to counter by egregious example what he perceives as the too-rosy picture of 1960s radicalism painted in the book under review (Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s). But, Staples seems unaware of these historians’ actual treatment of the Panthers in their new book. In some 300 pages of text, the Panthers receive brief mention exactly three times, each time to ridicule their activities: first as romantic Third Worldists, next as secular millennialists, and finally as coked-up gangsters. Tellingly, Isserman and Kazin cite only one source for their commentary–the journalist Hugh Pearson. And no wonder because in a very real sense, there has been no Panther history.

Until now. Finally, thirty years on, the Black Panthers have attracted the attention of a small, but growing, cadre of young historians. Among the first to publish his research is Yohuru Williams. His book is, of course, about much more than the Black Panther Party. Urban historians will be interested in his finely-textured treatment of the rise and demise of this “Model City,” especially for the light that story sheds on big city Democratic mayors and the fate of postwar liberalism. Historians of the modern Civil Rights Movement will find useful his close attention to the internal dynamics of mainstream civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the countervailing emergence by the mid-1960s of an indigenous Black Power militancy. But the real strength–and historiographical significance–of Black Politics/White Power is its treatment of the Black Panthers, which takes up the last two-fifths of the book. Indeed, in constructing a narrative that not only examines the Panther story in detail at the community level but carefully establishes the national and local background to that story–that is, he takes the Panthers seriously–Williams is virtually alone among professional historians. Of the half-dozen or so local histories of the BPP (all unpublished), only Daniel Crowe’s study of Oakland (“The Origins of the Black Revolution: The Transformation of San Francisco Bay Area Black Communities, 1945-69,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Kentucky, 1998) treats the background with comparable sophistication, but he is less insightful on the Panther story itself. Moreover, Williams provides the first serious historical response to Hugh Pearson’s Panthers, who now dominate the historiography.

As Williams tells it, New Haven was never a haven for African Americans. The state of Connecticut had one of the worst records of racial discrimination in all of the antebellum North (slavery was not completely abolished until 1848), while white New Haven’s support for the Amistad mutineers, for example, seems explicable at least in part by the fact that these black people, once freed, would be going back to Africa. And in fact, New Haven was not home to very many blacks until the post-World War II period. Their percentage of the population in1930, about 2 percent, was essentially what it had been over a century earlier. By 1950, that proportion had tripled; by 1960, it had nearly tripled again, and would continue to climb during the 1960s. These numbers helped produce an institutional civil rights presence in the city, dominated in the late 1950s and early 1960s by a re-energized local NAACP, whose local chapter was founded in 1917.

The story of the rise and demise of that organization in New Haven, according to Williams, is inextricably bound up with the machinations of the city’s “progressive” Democratic mayor, Richard C. Lee (1953-69). Paralleling postwar developments in other northern cities, Lee managed to pursue a program of urban renewal and, at the same time, to gain significant control over the local Civil Rights Movement. In the late 1950s, he began inserting himself into NAACP factional politics through the use of patronage, red-baiting, and demagoguery, and eventually established his own antipoverty agency–the Community Progress, Incorporated (CPI)–which got much of the credit for what civil rights activists had started. There were other reasons for the eclipse of the NAACP in New Haven by the early 1960s, of course, including meddling by its own national office and the fact of its internal factionalism, though both seem to have been rendered debilitating in this story by Lee’s manipulation. In any case, one unforeseen byproduct of his work was a groundswell in the black community for more independent and militant leadership.

That came in 1965 with the formation of the Hill Parents Association (HPA), spontaneously organized by two local residents as a committee to fight for better schools. During the next three years, it evolved into a popular community organization agitating around a range of issues from teen violence to welfare reform–precisely why the need for a direct action-oriented, indigenous black leadership was not answered four years earlier by the establishment of a local branch of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) is not entirely clear in Williams’s account. As it sought its constituency in the grassroots, the hallmark of the HPA was its independence from both City Hall and the traditional civil rights leadership. In the pungent imagery of BPP founder Huey Newton, it represented the third element in the “triangle of death” (“the oppressor, the `endorsed spokesmen’, and the implacables”) that haunted the mid-1960s black freedom movement (“In Defense of Self-Defense,” July 1967). And die it did with the August 1967 riot in New Haven: having promised to prevent just such a “civil disturbance” in exchange for a grant from Lee’s CPI. In the aftermath the HPA faced the wrath of the mayor and his police in the form of surveillance, informants, and agents provocateur, while losing popular support for having taken money from the city. In the process, too, Lee’s liberal pretensions died, and the civil rights mayor became the law and order man and dirty trickster, “permanently shatter[ing] the image of New Haven as the nation’s model city” (80).

Into this breach stepped the Black Panther Party, a fiercely independent group with national resources and a direct action, community-based program–in a sense, a synthesis of the civil rights groups that had preceded them in New Haven, except that these militants were socialist revolutionaries by the time they arrived here in the spring of 1969. They were also going through a period of national reorganization as a result of their dramatic growth in 1968, including sweeping purges of those who deviated from Party ideology and discipline. Already targeted for destruction by the FBI and other police forces, whose infiltration of the BPP in part prompted such measures, the Panthers in places like New Haven thus worked in “a general atmosphere of fear and distrust” (132). According to Williams, this is the necessary background to understand the tragic torture and murder in May 1969 of a suspected informant named Alex Rackley, which led to one of the most spectacular Panther cases of the era. The arrests of local Panthers for the murder, and a subsequent raid, effectively destroyed the New Haven chapter almost at its birth. With the death knell sounding, the BPP leadership sent members from other cities to rebuild the chapter, which continued to survive for more than a decade.

The great virtue of Williams’s treatment of the Panthers here is his evidence–gleaned from a judicious use of newspapers, government documents, personal papers, and especially oral histories–that they were a diverse group engaged in a range of activities; that they developed over time; and, perhaps most important, that they constituted “a true community organization at the local level” (161). All this is a necessary corrective to Pearson’s one-dimensional and essentially ahistorical perspective. And, though sympathetic, Williams resists taking the side of either the celebrators or the detractors in the on-going public debate about the BPP. He does not flinch before the violence, sometimes directed inward, in which the Panthers engaged. At the same time, he paints a damning portrait of state repression, especially the criminal campaign mounted by New Haven’s police chief, James Ahern, another “progressive.”

As with all such scholarly work, this one has its weaknesses. His explication of the Panthers’ putative evolution from racialism to humanism, a topic badly in need of scholarly investigation, is ill-defined. Thus, too, he misses the irony that when the Panthers broadened their appeal by establishing “survival programs” in part as a way of gaining legitimacy in the face of state attacks, they were perceived as a greater threat by their enemies, and thus became subject to increased repression. Moreover, for all his close attention to the personnel and short-lived activities of the original New Haven Panthers, he gives little attention to what was essentially a new Party that arose there in the wake of Rackley’s murder. Indeed, given his emphasis on local people as the principal subjects of this history, one might have hoped for as much about the day-to-day activities of the men and women who devoted their lives to the cause of revolution as about the more sensational trials of certain leaders. But, these are quibbles, really. With the publication of Black Politics/White Power, we finally have a history that begins to make sense of one of the most important radical movements of modern American history.

Reviewed by Jama Lazerow, Ph.D,, Associate Professor of History Wheelock College (Boston, Massachusetts)

COPYRIGHT 2001 Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, Inc.

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