Black Panther Reunion Looks Back 40 Years

Earlier this year, former Black Panthers gathered in Oakland, Calif., for a 40th anniversary reunion.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Four decades ago, two friends in Oakland started the Black Panther Party for self-defense. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were inspired by revolutionary movements around the world. They were also fed up with police brutality.

They drafted a plan for a self-determination, community service and armed self-defense. Panther Party chapters opened around the country but the party collapsed in the late 1970s.

Earlier this year, former panthers gathered from around the world for the party's 40th anniversary reunion. NPR's Christopher Johnson was there.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: It was just the first night of a weekend-long celebration, but inside a community center in Oakland, California, the reunion was already feeling like a full-on rally.

Unidentified Man #1: More power to the people!

(Soundbite of applause)

JOHNSON: Dozens of former Panthers send out some of the party's trademark rallying cries as they welcome speakers from across the U.S.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, come on, who else is with me? You think that's (unintelligible).

JOHNSON: This year's reunion was focused on the Panther Party's influence on communities across the country. Speakers from Winston-Salem, Milwaukee, Cleveland and many other cities described how the Oakland Panthers inspired them to start their own local chapters. Aaron Dixon was a student at the University of Washington when he helped start the Panther's Seattle chapter in 1968. Within a month, he helped sign up more than 300 potential members. Dixon and the young Seattle Panthers hit the streets immediately.

Mr. AARON DIXON (Former Member, Black Panther Party): And we began setting up our community patrols and addressing a lot of the issues of African-American people in the community. In that first month we got all kinds of phone calls. We got phone calls from sisters who were getting brutalized by their husbands and boyfriends, and we'd send a squad of Panthers over there armed to the teeth and there would be no more brutality after our visit.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman: That's right.

JOHNSON: The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense believes strongly in the right to keep, bear and use arms. They marched on court houses strapped with rifles and had deadly shootouts with the police. Today, the popular memory of the Panthers is almost inexplicably linked with guns. But at this reunion, most former Panthers like Dixon seemed more proud of their community work than the weapons that they carried.

Mr. DIXON: When we started a free medical clinic, and we started busting the prisons program. We started sickle-cell anemia testing program and, you know, wherever there was a problem in the community, we built a program around that problem. So as Panthers, we worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day.

Ms. CHARLOTTE O'NEAL(ph) (Former Member, Black Panther Party,): The thing that drew me to the party was not just the fact that they were these black men with the berets and the leather jackets and marching in the street. It wasn't just that.

JOHNSON: Charlotte O'Neal was a teenager in Kansas City when she first saw the Panthers. She was quickly impressed by the party's community service ethic.

Ms. O'NEAL: I realized in my heart that these brothers and sisters were about something, and I wanted to be a part of that.

JOHNSON: O'Neal skipped school to attend Black Panther events. She joined the Kansas City chapter in 1969. She remembers how she and her fellow Panthers supported the party's free breakfast program as it rapidly expanded across the country.

Ms. O'NEAL: What we would do, brother, we would go to these businesses in the community. And we would go there and demand that they supply us with bread, sausage or vitamins, or any of that, you know.

JOHNSON: The Black Panthers paid a heavy price for their militant activism. From the party's inception, members were in regular and sometimes deadly confrontation with the law. Police sacked and shot up Panther offices. Federal agents killed party leaders. And some of those who survived shootouts with the police went to prison or went into hiding.

Yvonne King, an early member of the party's Illinois chapter, says the federal government's now publicly known campaign to destroy the party raised the stakes for many panthers.

Ms. YVONNE KING (Former Member, Black Panther Party,): And then you see your, you know, comrades die. It's very real. Some left because of that. Because it wasn't romantic and the sacrifices were real. The threat was real.

JOHNSON: So why join the Black Panther Party, an organization so plainly marked for death. Why quit your job, as many Panthers did, and live communally with other party members working seven long days a week while your group is under steady fire?

Ms. KING: Because of this common commitment to serve the people, to be revolutionaries, to make a better life for our people. It was the best five years of my life, and I've had some experience since.

JOHNSON: The Black Panthers call themselves revolutionaries who are committed to self-defense. Out in the crammed community center lobby, it was clear that the Black Panther Party was also a family and this was truly their family reunion. Former Panthers who hadn't seen each other for decades found room to jump into each other's arms.

Ms. SHIRLEY HUEY(ph) (Former Member, Black Panther Party): Shirley. I'm Shirley Huey(ph). Shirley, Shirley, Shirley, Shirley.

JOHNSON: Doug Miranda(ph) and Johnny Viera(ph) hadn't seen their fellow ex-Panther Ragitha Rackman(ph) since the ‘80s. After a long hug, Ragitha stepped back and gently smacked Viera on his belly.

Ms. RAGITHA RACKMAN (Former Member, Black Panther Party): Hey, what's up, homey?

Mr. JOHNNY VIERA (Former Member, Black Panther Party): I know, I know.

Ms. RACKMAN: You must be getting some good food. They must be feeding your (beep) too much.

Mr. VIERA: Too much.

Ms. RACKMAN: Fish and…

Mr. VIERA: Too much.

Ms. RACKMAN: …chicken…

Mr. VIERA: Too much.

Ms. RACKMAN: …and rice.

Mr. VIERA: Too much.

JOHNSON: Like a lot of families, ex-Panthers admit their organization had its inner conflicts and personality clashes. But 40 years after the party was founded, Viera and Rackman say much of that has been squashed.

Ms. RACKMAN: Everybody has been greeting everybody with love. That's what I like.

Mr. VIERA: That's exactly.

Ms. RACKMAN: Even though some of us may have some little issues with each other, that went out the window. Everybody just…

Mr. VIERA: We're just citizen now.

Ms. RACKMAN: Now how - what are we going to fight?

Mr. VIERA: We're going to let that go.

Ms. RACKMAN: I mean, who are we going to fight? Who we're going to fight?

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

JOHNSON: No family reunion is complete until the whole family has been corralled for a big group picture. More than a hundred former Panthers from all over the world huddled up for a Sunday morning photo with a big piece of party history right in the background.

Mr. BILLY X JENNINGS (Member, It's About Time): We're standing at the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse.

JOHNSON: Billy X Jennings is a member of It's About Time, a group of former Panthers that helped organize the reunion. They chose the courthouse as a backdrop because it's where Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and other Panthers stood trial for charges associated with their party activism.

Mr. JENNINGS: This court is like - it's part of our legacy because we came here to fight for our rights here.

JOHNSON: It was in front of this courthouse that some of the most popular images of Panther rallies were shot during the 1960s and ‘70s. Back then, Jennings was a teenager going to school right around the corner.

Mr. JENNINGS: I was at Laney College and I heard the Panthers saying Free Huey. It was full of with Panthers just like it is now. It was a happening. And when I'm seeing this, I broke out into a cold sweat and immediately I became a party member.

JOHNSON: Since the days of those early rallies, Panthers have scattered to new places all over the map. Some have sought exile in Latin America. Others started youth programs in Tanzania modeled after party principles. But on this day, on the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse, they all stood together reminiscing and reunited as a family of Black Panthers.

Christopher Johnson, NPR News.

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