Origins of the Black Panther Party: The Untold Story by Baba Lumumba, aka, Donald Freeman

The Untold Story of the Origins of the Black Panther Party

by Baba Lumumba                              


The modern Black Freedom movement began to take shape in the mid-fifties; about the time Ghana fought for and achieved its independence and the Supreme Court in the USA integrated the public school system in the South.  There were many other circumstances, in addition to these two important developments, that came together and encouraged the development of what…has become known as the modern Black Freedom movement of the sixties and beyond.

Those involved in this period are sometimes called the Black Power generation.  One aspect of this period of Black History that has not been widely discussed involves the interplay of the two movements that made up the Black Freedom struggle of the era: the assimilation focused Civil Rights Movement and the independence focused Black Nationalist Movements.

It is important to understand that these two distinctly different movements, although separated by end goals, were and are also deeply intertwined.  Trying to understand the Black Freedom Movement in North America requires that you know and understand the differences between these two movements as well as the influence that they had on each other. The true history of the modern Freedom Movement of today cannot truly be comprehended without understanding the interplay of the two separate strains of the Black Freedom struggles. The gun-toting story of the BPP has become legendary in the tales of the Black Freedom struggle. But do we know the real story? Do we really know how the BPP came to be? What actually came together to produce the phenomenon we know as the BPP?

The Three Versions of the BPP’s Beginning
In one version of the story, the party started with a voter registration drive during the Civil Rights Movement.  In this version, the slate of political candidates put forth by a voter registration drive in Lowndes County Alabama is where the BPP started. In another version, the BPP began as a vanguard political party established by Bobby Seal and Huey Newton in Oakland, California in 1966. The third version, is a much more accurate version of the parties beginning. The BPP started as a vanguard political party created by a national underground organization calling itself The Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), as an attempt to build an over ground organization that could work to prepare Black people for an upcoming revolution that RAM felt at the time was eminent and necessary.   

Without an accurate historical record of how and why the party came into being, it’s impossible to understand and thus assess its outcomes and the consequences for today. An accurate understanding of the BPP’s origins are important in the development of contemporary tactics and strategies that are much likely to be successful in the future. In the development of effective approaches to the problems that confront Black people today, we need to know what worked and what did not work in the past. Lies, distortions and even honest mistakes in the historical record, constitute real barriers to understanding and planning for the future. Inaccuracy can inhibit or even stymie the effective development of successful approaches going forward. The simple truth is that we cannot learn from our mistakes if we don’t know what they were.

The Roots of our Historical Revisionism   
There are many reasons why the historical record is often distorted: one is simply the need of individuals involved wishing to present themselves to the world and history in the best possible light, be it factual or not.   The personal concerns of the individual, are often of greater importance to the individual than historical accuracy.

The other important reason that we often end up not knowing what really happened is that those that have the most power in society are able to use that power to reinforce the distortions of individuals to serve their propaganda interests. In the case of the BPP story, the most important reason that the real story has never been accurately presented is that the establishment desires to squelch the truths about the important role that the independence (Black Nationalist) wing played in the Black Freedom struggle. The powers-that-be seek to place all inspirational Black struggles in the modern era into a “civil rights” context, not in a “struggle for independence” context. The establishment seeks to control the frame-of-reference of the Black Freedom movement as one aspect of attempting to control the movement. They want the Black public to understand the Black freedom struggle solely in the context of Black people seeking to be a part of their system. They dare not present a people who desire to create their own system.  The powers-that-be will do everything they can to delegitimize independence as a valid option in the minds of Black people. Information is simply not presented about this very influential segment of the Black Freedom struggle; so for many, independence is never really an option considered by most. 

The Real Story
The BPP emerged from the need of RAM to create an over-ground formation that could help develop the capacity of Black people to execute a successful revolution that would replace the system, not join it. The BPP was not formed by the student wing of the Civil Rights Movement’s voter registration drive in Alabama, nor was it a creation from the minds of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.

The constructs that came together to form The BPP, came from an underground organization calling itself The RAM.  RAM was an underground organization created by Robert Williams and a close associate, after his escape to Cuba that was made necessary by an attempt to frame him for the kidnapping of a white couple in Monroe, North Carolina. Robert Williams came to the conclusion that armed revolution was the direction that Black people should seek.

Williams was at one point, the head of the NAACP in Monroe, North Carolina. He was removed from his position by Roy Wilkins, the national chairman, because of his expressed belief in self-defense.    Williams and his wife escaped to Cuba and began to publish The Crusader Newsletter which presented his proposition that armed struggle was the only answer for the liberation of Black people. They also began to broadcast in the Southern United States, over what was called at the time Radio Free Dixie. Robert Williams had become the champion of the self-defense wing of the movement, in large part due to his book, Negroes with Guns, in which he proposed that Black people not only had the right, but also the obligation, to defend ourselves against the violence that was directed against us while trying to win our freedom. This was a position that ran contrary to the prevailing thought of the Civil Rights Movement.

California Black Nationalist History
The modern Black Nationalist history in California starts with the Afro-American Association (AAA).  The AAA was a Black Nationalist organization that sprang from the union of college students and community activists that developed from the refusal of the University of California to allow Malcolm X to speak on campus in 1961. The principal organizers were Black students from the UC: Donald Warden, Henry Ramsey and Donald Hopkins.  The AAA was the political starting point of almost all the Black individuals in California that would later go on and distinguish themselves in California across the political spectrum.  

The AAA took a page from the Black Nationalist movement based in Harlem and began to connect the poor Black community with the college student movement by carrying out regular street corner rallies inviting all to participate under a Black independence and pride theme.  At these rallies individual members would take turns speaking to gathered crowds of neighborhood people about the need to create an independent Black community that is proud of its African origins.  The narrative at the time was that Black people needed to reestablish our independent communities much like we had in the past, but with the additional element of pride in our African origins, and [unified] economic strength; to do so, the groups asserted, required strong educational achievement on the part of Black people. The theme was taken directly from the ideas of Marcus Garvey.  The fundamental idea was that we needed to be ourselves and do for ourselves before we could truly move forward.   An African identity, business acumen and educational achievement were themes of the AAA. The AAA was much more economic and culturally focused than internationally, politically focused. This fact was at the center of many disputes that would later split the organization into the divisions that resulted in the formation of Kwanzaa and the BPP in later years.

The reasons that the Afro-American Association were so important is because it laid the ground work for the two most important Black power developments to come out of California including the BPP and Kwanzaa. Membership and connection to the AAA included almost everyone of modern Black historical significance. In order to understand the two principal developments that emerged from California during this period: the BPP and the development of Kwanzaa (the only internationally recognized Pan African holiday) you must understand their origins and how their development depended on and related to each other.

The Split in the Afro-American Association
The AAA was composed of many different intellectual/ideological influences of the time, chief among them was E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, Robert Williams and his fight with Roy Wilkins, and such books as Myth of the Negro Past, The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson, the novel Invisible Man, as well as the book Black Moses (the story of the life and times of Marcus Garvey). All of these influenced the direction and the conflicts within the organization.

The AAA was principally made up of college students at several institutions in California. The most important of which at the time was UC Berkeley. A second important reality at the time was the fact that Northern California, and Berkeley in particular, were the region of free-thinking and home of the free speech movement.  The fact that California in general, and Northern California in particular, were openly liberal communities, played an important role both in AAA’s development and demise.  For Black college students trying to understand how to play a role in fighting against the system, while preparing to join it, was one of the most ongoing and obvious contradictions that contributed to both the creation of the AAA and it’s later fractionalizing.  This dilemma plagues all student based movements, but it was particularly problematic for the AAA because of its Black Nationalist framework in the ultra-liberal community in which it was born.   

The AAA was overtly critical of integration focused organizations such as the NAACP as well as the Black middle-class’ inability to relate to and advocate for the interest of poor Blacks as well as the thrust of the integration minded Civil Rights Movement based in the south.  There was conflict…regarding the degree to which they’d oppose the USA’s imperialistic establishment.  These issues based in international developments, conflicts going on in the Black movement, and factors peculiar to California, made the AAA possible and at the same time produced the contradictions that tore it apart and led both to the development of Kwanzaa and the BPP.

The students that made up the AAA were in a unique position to attack the contradictions of the Civil Rights Movement; but there was no clear way of resolving these contradictions even among themselves. At the time, California was the bastion of liberalism. It was in the midst of the Free Speech Movement, the Free Love Movement, the Psychedelic Movement and the Marxists Class Based analysis/Communist and Socialist Movements, the Labor Movement, as well as the soon to come Farm Workers’ Movement.  As students, many of AAA’s members were deeply ambivalent about a Black Nationalist movement centered on Black concerns that excluded whites and others even though Black Nationalism formed the bases of the stance that they were taking. These issues went unresolved and formed the basis for many divisions and conflicts within the organization. Unlike other cities in the North, East and South, the California Black Nationalist movement represented by the AAA had a very deep level of ambivalence which was amplified by the very liberal community out of which it developed.

The first two and most important splits in the AAA took place almost simultaneously in Northern and Southern California.  International developments also began to have an impact on the AAA and Black Nationalist solidarity in general in the state. In addition to the stresses created by the values of the community, it’s leadership seemed to want to keep the organization away from positions that could be interpreted as being overtly anti-American and thus anti-business while the strong Liberal/Marxist oriented influence so prevalent in the Bay Area fought against any form of racial exclusion in any organization that wanted to be seen as being progressive in that community.  Others focused on the need to incorporate the world wide revolutionary struggle of non-white peoples against colonialism rather than just a local, community based understanding and strategy to address the problem.   California became the place that all of these influences collided to produce the explosive mix that became its two biggest Black legacies: The Black Panther Party and Kwanzaa.

Study Groups 
This mix of influences began to play out in the study groups that developed on the campuses of several colleges in the Bay Area.  World conflicts that involved armed struggle/revolution against colonial powers (that were generally supported by the USA foreign policy) began to be discussed in the many different college based study groups that developed on the campuses in California. Such campuses as Merritt College in Oakland, San Francisco State and UC Berkley were associated with the AAA or its members. These groups began to take a much more militant anti-American stance that developed and then widened the rift in the AAA and those associated with it.  Others wanted whites, some of which they were either married to, or were dating at the time, to participate in the organization or they wanted an ideological organizational framework that would incorporate people other than just Black people. The independent minded study groups made up of both active students and community activists proved to be one of the most significant forces that shaped the future direction of the California Black Liberation movement.

One of the first revolt’s in the AAA was led by Ken Freeman (my brother) a University of San Francisco graduate from East Oakland that was with the AAA from the beginning. Freeman was influenced largely because of contact that he had made with Cubans associated with the successful Cuban Revolution, his desire to link the Black struggle with the anti-colonialist struggle of the entire nonwhite colonialized world, and his desire to take a much more aggressive anti-American posture. This eventually led to a breakaway group that was formed and initially became RAM in Northern California and eventually what we now know as the original BPP of Northern California.   This group went on to begin to develop their own publication SOULBOOK that helped to define this new ideological construct that became known as Revolutionary Black Nationalism. This development began to attract others who began to see themselves following a new path. This group began to link revolution, self-defense and Black identity through African culture as the formula for Black Liberation and taking a far more militant stance against what was seen as American Imperialism. This breakaway group can be thought of as the SOULBOOK group and went on to establish the House of Umoja, and The New School of Afro-American Thought in Washington DC.

The SOULBOOK group combined all of these ideas into a political/cultural perspective that came to be known as Revolutionary Black Nationalism. One of the things that should be known about this breakaway contingent of the AAA was that it very much retained one of the AAA’s most important perspectives, that of the importance of African culture to the Black freedom construct. This is important because the distorted propaganda that later developed from the breakaway Bobby and Huey group about the RAM/SOULBOOK group that it was a Black cultural nationalist organization afraid of armed struggle, not a Black Revolutionary Nationalist group, of their origins, that was preparing for armed struggle.

The idea of taking up arms struggle against the system, was considered by some to be something that individuals involved with African ways of life, were not willing to participate in or even consider. Some declared them to be groups that used culture to escape from a fight. This alleged dichotomy between the Black Revolutionary Nationalist and the Black Cultural Nationalist is fundamentally a contrivance designed to create a false impression that reinforces an inaccurate distinction created to smear the true originators of the original BPP in Northern California. This seminal organization embraced both African identity through African cultural practices and armed struggle. If this were not true there would never have been a BPP. The group of brothers and sisters that constituted the breakaway group of the AAA that became RAM in Northern California and established the initial BPP of Northern California embraced both armed struggle and the need for a strong African cultural identity.   

The South/West Coast Connections
The connection between the Southern movement and the SOULBOOK breakaway group happened when a member of the SOULBOOK group travelled to Cuba and met Robert Williams, the disaffected NAACP head of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter.

In Cuba, Robert Williams teamed up with a Philadelphia member of SNCC to form RAM. They focused on establishing an organization committed to executing a successful arm struggle by Black people in North America. He began to publish the Crusader Newsletter that was distributed throughout the south and broadcast something called Radio Free Dixie from Cuba. The broadcast urged Black people to replace the system rather than try to reform the system. The call was to prepare for revolution. The ideas of Robert Williams, his connection with the disaffected AAA members who sought to establish a more comprehensive, revolutionary, Black international approach to the Black struggle in the USA (The SOULBOOK group), laid the fundamental ground work for the Black Panther Party and the idea that would come to be called the Revolutionary Black Nationalist Movement which included the practice of African culture with Garveyite influences, rooted in Black Nationalist thinking.  

This was important because it signaled the birth of the idea that the Black Freedom struggle should include links to the anti-colonialist struggles in Latin America, Asia and most importantly on the continent of Africa. Employing armed struggle, self-defense and working with indigenous populations, created the construct that produced what the BPP came to represent.

Robert Williams’ self-defense movement and the fact that he was being protected and supported by the successful Cuban Revolution are the true origins of the ideas that formed the BPP. These basic elements of the BPP were not a part of the Lowndes County Alabama slate of candidates for public office that called itself the BPP or the constructs of the minds of Bobby Seale or Huey Newton. This is the true origin of the ideas that came together to form the BPP in California. The ideas that formed the BPP came from the need that the organization calling itself RAM (founded by Robert Williams and friend) needing a public face under which armed struggle development could be carried out is the real story. The coming together of these elements produced the BPP.

The SOULBOOK break-away faction of the AAA, became affiliated with RAM through the direct connect of one of our members visiting Cuba.  This individual returned from California at the same time that I came home after my sophomore year at Howard University.  The message that he brought back was that the Revolution was on! The breakaway AAA group had joined RAM and the revolution would be jumping off in a matter of months.   He urged us to begin to prepare for that revolution immediately!

Marvin X. Jackmon

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