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Rage and Ruin: On the Black Panthers | The Nation

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Rage and Ruin: On the Black Panthers

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In the early morning hours of April 1, 1967, in North Richmond, California, a small, impoverished, all-black town near Oakland, Denzil Dowell lay dead in the street. The police said that Dowell, a 22-year-old construction worker, had been killed by a single shotgun blast to the back and head; they claimed that he had been caught burglarizing a liquor store and, when ordered to halt, had failed to do so. The coroner’s report told a different story. His body bore six bullet holes, and there was reason to believe Dowell had been shot while surrendering with his hands raised high. His mother said, “I believe the police murdered my son.” An all-white jury found that Dowell’s death was “justifiable homicide.” Many people in North Richmond didn’t agree.

Black Against Empire
The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party.
By Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr.
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Steve Wasserman
Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, served as editorial director of Times Books and...

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Only six months before, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, brash upstarts from Oakland, had established the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. They had quickly garnered a reputation for their willingness to stand up to police harassment and worse. They’d made a practice of shadowing the cops, California Penal Code in one hand, twelve-gauge shotgun in the other. Soon they were meeting with the Dowell family, investigating the facts of the case, holding street-corner rallies, confronting officials, arguing that only by taking up arms could the black community put a stop to police brutality. Newton and Seale were fearless and cocky—even reckless, some felt—and itching for a fight. One Sunday, the police came knocking on Mrs. Dowell’s door while Newton was there. When she opened the door, Newton later recalled, “a policeman pushed his way in, asking questions. I grabbed my shotgun and stepped in front of her, telling him either to produce a search warrant or leave. He stood for a minute, shocked, then ran out to his car and drove off.” Emboldened, Newton and Seale planned a rally that, in the event, would prove unforgettable.

A new history of the Black Panther Party, Black Against Empire, tells what happened next:

The Panthers showed up armed and in uniform and closed off the street. Word had spread and almost four hundred people of all ages came. Many working-class and poor black people from North Richmond were there. They wanted to know how to get some measure of justice for Denzil Dowell and in turn how to protect themselves and their community from police attacks. People lined both sides of the block. Some elderly residents brought lawn chairs to sit in while they listened. Some of the younger generation climbed on cars.
   Several police cars arrived on the scene, but…kept their distance. A Contra Costa County helicopter patrolled above. According to a sheriff’s spokesman, the department took no other action because the Panthers broke no laws and, as required, displayed their weapons openly. Neighbors showed up with their own guns…. One young woman who had been sitting in her car got out and held up her M-1 for everyone to see. The Panthers passed out applications to join their party, and over three hundred people filled them out. According to FBI informant Earl Anthony, he “had never seen Black men command the respect of the people the way that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale did that day.”

Several days after Dowell’s death, alarmed by the Panthers’ growing prominence, California legislator Donald Mulford introduced a bill to ban the carrying of loaded weapons in public. Newton responded by upping the ante and in early May dispatched thirty Panthers, most of them armed, to Sacramento, the state capital. They were to show up at the capitol building as the bill was being debated. The police confiscated their guns soon after they arrived but later returned them, as the Panthers had broken no laws. The Mulford Act passed. The Panthers were instantly notorious, and images of their armed foray were splashed across the nation’s newspapers and shown on television. It was a PR coup. Soon thousands of young blacks joined the party, and by the end of 1968 seventeen Panther chapters had opened across the country. One enthusiast, quoted in a major feature story in The New York Times Magazine, spoke for many when he said: “As far as I’m concerned it’s beautiful that we finally got an organization that don’t walk around singing. I’m not for all this talking stuff. When things start happening I’ll be ready to die if that’s necessary and it’s important that we have somebody around to organize us.” 

* * *

The rise and fall of the Black Panther Party is a heartbreaking saga of heroism and hubris, which, in its full dimension and contradiction, has long awaited its ideal chronicler. The material is rich, some of it still radioactive. A good deal of it can be found in a clutch of memoirs, inevitably self-serving but valuable nonetheless, that have appeared sporadically over the years by ex-Panthers, including Bobby Seale, David Hilliard and Elaine Brown among the better known, but also such lesser figures as William Lee Brent, Flores Forbes and Jamal Joseph. There are also accounts by David Horowitz, Kate Coleman and Hugh Pearson. All are to be read with care. The Panthers were controversial in their day and remain so. Their history is swaddled in propaganda, some of it promulgated by the party’s enemies, who sought assiduously to destroy it, and some by its apologists and hagiographers, who, as often as not, have refused to acknowledge the party’s crimes and misdemeanors, preferring to attribute its demise almost entirely to the machinations of others. Peopled by outsize characters—starting with its magnetic and headstrong founder, Huey P. Newton, eulogized at his 1989 funeral as “our Moses”—the party’s complicated history, replete with Byzantine political schisms, murderous infighting and a contested legacy, has eluded sober examination. 

Now two scholars, Waldo Martin Jr., a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, and Joshua Bloom, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UCLA, after more than a decade of work, offer a corrective. They demolish the canard that the Panthers were anti-white. What distinguished Newton and Seale’s approach was their refusal to go along with the narrow cultural nationalism that had appealed to so many African-Americans. They fought tremendous battles, sometimes turning deadly, with those who thought, as the saying went, that political power grew out of the sleeve of a dashiki. Bloom and Martin rightly emphasize the Panthers’ steady embrace of a class-based politics with an internationalist bent. The party was inspired by anti-imperialist struggles in Africa, Latin America and Asia. They began by emphasizing the local but soon went global, ultimately establishing an international section in Algiers. Their romance with the liberation movements of others would eventually become something of a fetish, reaching its nadir in the bizarre adulation of North Korea’s dictator Kim Il-Sung and his watchword juche, a term for the self-reliance that the Panthers deluded themselves into thinking might be the cornerstone of a revolutionary approach that would  find an echo of enthusiasm in America. 

In the beginning, little about the party was original. Even the iconic dress of black leather jackets and matching berets was inspired by earlier Oakland activists, like the now all-but-forgotten Mark Comfort who, Bloom and Martin note, “had begun appealing to young African Americans with militant style.” As early as February 1965, the month Malcolm X was assassinated, Comfort had launched a protest “to put a stop to police beating innocent people.” Later that summer, Comfort and his supporters demanded that “the Oakland City Council keep white policemen out of black neighborhoods” and took steps to organize “citizen patrols to monitor the actions of the police and document incidents of brutality.” This wasn’t enough for Newton and Seale. Inspired by Robert F. Williams’s advocacy and practice of “armed self-reliance”—for which he’d had to flee the country in the early 1960s, seeking sanctuary in Castro’s Cuba—Newton and Seale decided to break entirely with “armchair intellectualizing,” as Seale would later call it. Propaganda of the deed, they believed, would arouse the admiration of, in Newton’s words, the “brothers on the block.” They’d had it with bended-knee politics. It was time, as a favored slogan of the Party would later urge, “to pick up the gun.”

Drawing up a ten-point program stuffed with demands for justice and self-determination, the Panthers represented a rupture with the reformist activism of the traditional civil rights movement. It wasn’t long before the party saw itself as a “vanguard,” capable of jump-starting a revolution. For some—and here I do not exempt myself—it was an intoxicating fever-dream.

* * *

In early November 1969, I left Berkeley for a few days and went to Chicago to support the Chicago Eight, then on trial for the bloody police riot that had marred the anti–Vietnam War protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. I knew some of the defendants: Jerry Rubin, whom I’d met four years before while organizing one of the first junior high school protests against the Vietnam War; Tom Hayden, who’d taken an interest in my rabble-rousing posse at Berkeley High School during People’s Park; and Bobby Seale, whom I’d encountered through my close friendship with schoolmates who’d joined the Panthers and let us use the party’s typesetting machines in its Shattuck Avenue national headquarters to put together our underground newspaper, Pack Rat. Seale had been bound and gagged in the courtroom—a “neon oven,” Abbie Hoffman had called it. The country was riveted by the appalling spectacle. I arrived at the apartment that Leonard Weinglass, one of the defense attorneys, had rented. It served as crash pad and general meeting place for the far-flung tribe of supporters and radical nomads, unafraid to let their freak flags fly, who sought to muster support for the beleaguered defendants.

Sometime around midnight, Fred Hampton, clad in a long black leather coat and looking for all the world like a gunslinger bursting into a saloon, swept in with a couple of other Panthers in tow. You could feel the barometric pressure in the room rise with Hampton’s entrance. At the time, the favored flick was Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, an epic western revenge fantasy that inflamed the overheated imaginations of a number of unindicted co-conspirators like my friend Stew Albert, a founder of the Yippies. Hampton was already in the cross-hairs of the FBI and Mayor Daley’s goons, to whom he’d been a taunting nemesis. He had an open face, and his eyes flashed intelligently. He had the Panther swagger down pat, yet his voice was soft, welcoming. He radiated charisma and humility. He seemed tired, and somehow you knew he was already thinking of himself as a dead man walking. He was famous for having proclaimed: “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.” You could see how people could fall for him, and you could well imagine how his enemies hated and feared him. A month later he was murdered, shot dead by police while sleeping in his bed. He was 21.

Hampton seemed destined for greatness, having already eclipsed in his seriousness Eldridge Cleaver, the party’s minister of information and an ex-con who’d written the bestselling Soul on Ice. Cleaver was regarded by many of the younger recruits within the party as their Malcolm X. A strong advocate of working with progressive whites, Cleaver was a man of large appetites, an anarchic and ribald spirit who relished his outlaw status. After years in prison, he was hellbent on making up for lost time and wasn’t about to kowtow to anyone—neither to Ronald Reagan, whom he mocked mercilessly, nor, as it would turn out, to Huey Newton. He was the joker in the Panther deck and a hard act to follow. Like so many of the Panthers’ leaders, he had killer looks, inhabiting his own skin with enviable ease. (The erotic aura that the Panthers presented was a not inconsiderable part of their appeal, as any of the many photographs that were taken of them show. And in this department, Huey was the Supreme Leader, and he never let you forget it.) Eldridge was the biggest mouth in a party of big mouths. He especially loved invective and adored the sound of his own voice, delivered in a sly baritone drawl. He was a gifted practitioner of the rhetoric of denunciation, favoring such gems as “fascist mafioso” and given to vilifying the United States, at every turn, as “Babylon.” He was a master of misogynist pith, uttering the imperishable “revolutionary power grows out of the lips of a pussy.” He was fond of repeating, as if it were a personal mantra: “He could look his momma in the eye and lie.” He was notorious in elite Bay Area movement circles for his many and persistent infidelities and for his physical abuse of his equally tough-talking and beautiful wife, Kathleen. About these failures, however, a curtain of silence was drawn. He was, all in all, a hustler who exuded charm and menace in equal measure. 

Cleaver would ultimately flee the country, rightly fearing a return to prison following his bungled shootout with Oakland police in the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968. The debacle had given the Panthers their first martyr, 17-year-old Bobby Hutton, the nascent party’s first recruit, gunned down by the cops as he sought to surrender. His funeral was front-page news; Marlon Brando was a featured speaker. Cleaver was arrested, released on bail and then disappeared, heading first to Cuba and then to Algeria. Newton was still in prison, awaiting trial for killing an Oakland cop. Now Bobby Seale was fighting to avoid a similar fate in Chicago. David Hilliard, the party’s chief of staff, was left to try to hold the group together. Hoover’s FBI, sensing victory, ratcheted up its secret COINTELPRO campaign, in concert with local police departments across the country,  to sow dissension in the party’s ranks and to otherwise discredit and destroy its leaders. Hoover was a determined foe. He too had seemingly embraced Malcolm X’s defiant slogan “By any means necessary.” He cared a lot about order and about the law not a whit. With King gone, he worried, not unreasonably, that the Panthers would widen their appeal and step into the breach.

The suppression of the urban rebellions that erupted in many of the nation’s cities in the hinge year of 1968 underscored the Panthers’ fear that the United States had entered a long night of fascism. Nonviolent protest struck a growing number of activists as having run its course in the face of unsentimental and overwhelming state power. The Vietnam War, despite the upwelling of the Tet Offensive, seemed endless. Richard Nixon’s election on a platform of “law and order” made a generation of reform-minded progressives seem hopelessly naïve. Fires were being lit by a burgeoning and increasingly despairing discontent. For some time, Jim Morrison had been singing of “The End.” Soon, Gil Scott-Heron would intone that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and from his California prison cell, Huey P. Newton began to dream of “revolutionary suicide.” 

* * *

Bloom and Martin have written about as close to an official history as can be imagined. Cornel West has praised it as “definitive,” and Tom Hayden thinks it “should become a standard historical work.” It would be surprising if it did: Bloom and Martin have chosen, oddly for scholars, to adopt the worldview and sometimes the language of their subjects. Empathy, for them, goes a long way—too far, I would argue. Objectivity, of course, is the fool’s gold of historical writing, but, like perfection, it is a virtue worth pursuing. Bloom and Martin, however, are more activists than traditional historians, even dedicating their book to, among others, “young revolutionaries everywhere.” When it comes to the Panthers, they are as close to their subject as lips are to teeth. In a note on how they went about writing the book, they trumpet their decision not to use material from the many conversations they had in the late 1990s with surviving former Panthers, including such luminaries as Seale, Hilliard, Elaine Brown and Ericka Huggins, among many others. The authors say that they came to distrust such accounts as “highly contradictory” and so decided to avoid “using retrospective interviews as a principal source of evidence.” They preferred to trust “many thousands of firsthand accounts of historical events offered by participants shortly after they occurred.”

Did it not occur to them that contemporaneous accounts might be hostage to particular agendas and interests, thus reducing their usefulness as a reliable guide to the reality they purport to reflect? Bloom and Martin are proud to have “assembled the only near-complete collection of the Party’s own newspaper, The Black Panther,” an archive that includes 520 of the 537 issues published. This record, they assert, “offers the most comprehensive documentation of the ideas, actions, and projections of the Party day to day, week to week,” and it is the foundation stone upon which the edifice of their history of the Black Panther Party is built. This is perverse. It’s as if they had written the history of the Nation of Islam by mainly quoting Muhammad Speaks, or assembled a serious history of the American Communist Party by relying on back issues of The Daily Worker. Do Bloom and Martin not realize that such unabashed organs of propaganda are deliberate exercises in spin, often pushing this or that favored political line while seeking to conceal inner-party squabbles, as well as fierce clashes, large and small, over personalities and politics?

Too often there is an airless quality to their prose, and the human factor, sadly, is sometimes lacking. Thus, the story’s inherent drama is diminished, inert. Bloom and Martin have inexplicably chosen to ignore much that illuminates but which lies hidden in plain sight in the memoirs of several former Panthers, works they cite in the book’s endnotes but whose most revelatory nuggets remain buried. For example, among the things you will not learn from Black Against Empire, but would from Elaine Brown’s hair-raising account in her indispensable A Taste of Power (1992), is how Newton viciously turned on Seale, his comrade and peerless organizer. You will not learn in detail from Bloom and Martin how Newton succumbed to his cocaine-and-cognac-fueled megalomania; how he ordered Big Bob Heard, his six-foot-eight, 400-pound bodyguard, to beat Seale with a bullwhip, cracking twenty lashes across his bared back; nor how, when the ordeal was over, Newton abruptly stripped Seale of his rank as party chairman and ordered him to pack up and get out of Oakland. Hilliard, too, Newton’s friend since they were 13, would be expelled, as would his brother, June. As would Seale’s brother, John, deemed by Newton to be “untrustworthy as a blood relative of a counterrevolutionary.” Newton became what he arguably had been from the start: a sawdust Stalin.

You won’t learn from Bloom and Martin the hard truth about Flores Forbes, a trusted enforcer for Newton, a stalwart of the party’s Orwellian “Board of Methods and Corrections,” and a member of what Newton called his “Buddha Samurai,” a praetorian guard made up of men willing to follow orders unquestioningly and do the “stern stuff.” Forbes joined the party at 15 and wasted no time becoming a zombie for Huey. Forbes was bright and didn’t have to be told; he knew when to keep his mouth shut. He well understood the “right to initiative,” a term Forbes tells us “was derived from our reading and interpretation of Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.” What Forbes took Fanon to mean was “that it is the oppressed people’s right to believe that they should kill their oppressor in order to obtain their freedom. We just modified it somewhat to mean anyone who’s in our way,” like inconvenient witnesses who might testify against Newton, or Panthers who’d run afoul of Newton and needed to be “mud-holed”—battered and beaten to a bloody pulp. Newton no longer favored Mao’s Little Red Book, preferring Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which he extolled for its protagonists’ Machiavellian cunning and ruthlessness. Nor will you learn from Bloom and Martin how Newton admired Melvin van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the tale of a hustler who becomes a revolutionary. Military regalia was out, swagger sticks were in. Newton dropped the rank of minister of defense. Some days he wanted to be called “Supreme Commander,” other days “Servant of the People” or, usually, just “Servant.” But to fully understand Huey’s devolution, you’d have to run Peebles’s picture backward, as the story of a revolutionary who becomes a hustler.

Several years ago, I spent an afternoon with Seale, renewing a conversation we’d begun some months before. He’d moved back to Oakland, living once again in his mother’s house, and was contemplating writing a book—the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, as he put it to me, about the rise and fall of the Panthers—on the very dining room table where almost a half-century ago he and Newton had drafted the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program. No one was getting any younger, and he felt he owed it to a new generation to come clean. At his invitation, we jumped into his car and, with Bobby at the wheel, drove around Oakland, visiting all the neighborhood spots where history had been made: here was the corner where Newton had shot and killed Officer Frey in October 1967; and there was the former lounge and bar, the notorious Lamp Post, where Newton had laundered money from drug deals and shakedowns; and over there were the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse, where thousands, including myself, had assembled in August 1970 to hail Newton’s release from prison and where, beneath the blazing summer sun, Huey, basking in the embrace of the adoring crowd, had stripped off his shirt, revealing his cut and musclebound torso, honed by a punishing regimen of countless push-ups in the isolation cell of the prison where he’d done his time, a once slight Oakland kid now physically transformed into the very embodiment of the powerful animal he’d made the emblem of his ambitions.

As Seale spoke, mimicking with uncanny accuracy Huey’s oddly high-pitched and breathless stutter, virtually channeling the man, now dead more than two decades—ignominiously gunned down at age 47 in a crack cocaine deal gone bad by a young punk half his age seeking to make his bones—it became clear that, despite everything he’d endured, Bobby Seale was a man with all the passions and unresolved resentments of a lover betrayed. There could be little doubt that, for Seale, the best years of his life were the years he spent devoted to Newton, who still, despite the passage of time, loomed large. Seale, like the party he gave birth to, still couldn’t rid himself of Huey’s shadow.

* * *

Among the challenges in grappling with the Panthers and their legacy is keeping in reasonable balance the multiple and often overlapping factors that combined to throttle the party. The temptation to overemphasize the role of the FBI is large. It should be avoided. There is no doubt about the evil that was done by Hoover’s COINTELPRO: it exacerbated the worst tendencies among the Panthers and did much to deepen a politics of paranoia that would ultimately help hollow out what had been a steadily growing movement of opposition. It sowed the seeds of disunity. It cast doubt on the very idea of leadership. It promoted suspicion and distrust. It countenanced murder and betrayal. But the Panthers were not blameless. Newton, for his part, provided fertile ground for reckless extremism and outright criminality to grow and take root. Cockamamie offshoots like Donald DeFreeze’s so-called Symbionese Liberation Army and even the lethal cult of Jim Jones’s benighted People’s Temple owed an unacknowledged debt to Newton’s example. His responsibility for enfeebling his own and his party’s best ambitions, gutting its achievements and compromising its ability to appeal to the unconvinced majority of his fellow citizens, is too often neglected in accounts of this kind. Yet it is precisely this sort of postmortem and historical reckoning that is necessary for any proper and just understanding of the party’s politics and history. It is work that remains to be done.

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Bloom and Martin barely concern themselves with the party’s swift descent into thuggery, consigning only six paragraphs in the closing pages of their book to a section called “Unraveling.” They prefer to dwell on the party’s glory years from 1967 through 1971. They deny that the party’s end was rooted in its undemocratic character, and instead attribute its defeat largely to what they believe was the deft way the political establishment undercut its base, by initiating reforms and awarding concessions that won over the Panthers’ allies. “The costs of appeasing allies,” they conclude, “thus made continued insurgency impossible, and the national organization defanged itself.” While they allow that after 1971, the party “became increasingly cultish…with a mafioso bent,” they blame the erosion of the party’s image on journalists and critics like Kate Coleman and David Horowitz. They excoriate both as “right-wing activists,” which in Coleman’s case is calumny. In no instance do they dispute the accuracy of either Coleman’s reporting or Horowitz’s cris de coeur. Coleman, a veteran of the Free Speech Movement and a longtime muckraking reporter, published, together with Paul Avery, a scrupulously reported and damning indictment of the Panthers’ criminal practices in New Times magazine in 1978. For this sin, she incurred death threats and castigation from former party stalwarts. Horowitz, a former editor of Ramparts magazine in its senescence, broke with Newton when he learned that the Panthers had very likely murdered Betty Van Patter, a white woman who had loyally served as the party’s bookkeeper and had discovered suspicious irregularities in the accounting ledgers. Horowitz felt responsible, for it was he who had recommended Van Patter for the job. He has spent the years since atoning for the blood he feels still stains his hands.

But what matters most to Bloom and Martin, apparently, is not whether Coleman’s reporting is accurate or Horowitz’s criticisms and self-flagellations are warranted. Rather, they are most exercised by the damage they believe was done to the party’s image by Coleman and Horowitz in making the charges public. They concede that “retrospective accounts from a range of sources add some credence to these accusations,” but insist that “few of the accusations have been verified.” Bloom and Martin’s research is impressive—yet somehow they have missed or omitted accounts that might detract from or unduly complicate their overly generous portrayal. For example, the late Ken Kelley, a gifted and honest reporter, wrote courageously about Newton, whom he knew well and for whom he once worked. In a story published in the month following Newton’s death, which appeared in the East Bay Express, Kelley revealed that Newton had admitted to him shooting 17-year-old Oakland prostitute Kathleen Smith and ordering the killing of Betty Van Patter for refusing to clean up the party’s books. Van Patter’s end was gruesome, according to Kelley: “They didn’t just kill her. They kept her hostage, they raped her, they beat her up, then they killed her and threw her in the Bay.”

* * *

It would be unjust to allow the supernovas of the Panther elite to overshadow the unsung heroes whose audacity and tenacious commitment to change was sparked by the party. That would miss the larger, less obvious story, which is one of persistent idealism. It owes almost everything to the wellspring of activism that the Panthers, at their best, summoned into being. Bloom and Martin are alive to this crucial point, and it is here that they make their strongest and most convincing contribution. The collapse and destruction of the party, occasioned by the unremitting enmity of the state as well as by its numerous self-inflicted wounds, should not be permitted to overwhelm the good work that it engendered in the many who enrolled in its cause.

I remember especially my old high school comrade Ronald Stevenson, who at 16 joined the party, inspired by its program of resistance and empowerment. There were thousands like him across the country. With the party’s encouragement, Ronnie organized a Black Student Union, going on to be elected its first chair. Together, we launched a campaign to establish a black history course and department. Our only disagreement was whether the course should be elective or mandatory, he favoring the former, I the latter. I felt that if the class were voluntary, only the black kids would be likely to enroll. I believed that such history was arguably even more important for white people to know in order to challenge racial stereotypes and to grasp the essential contribution that black people had made to American history and culture. After all, how could you consider yourself an educated and serious person if, say, you only knew about Abraham Lincoln but not Frederick Douglass? Or about John Brown but not Nat Turner? All this may seem self-evident today. In 1968, it was not. We fought hard, mobilized fellow students and their parents, and issued our “nonnegotiable demands.” We won, and the Berkeley Board of Education agreed to establish such a course. It was among the first in the nation to be offered in a high school, and Ronnie and I were eager to enroll. Forty-five years later, Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower and Basil Davidson’s The African Genius, two of the books we were assigned to read, still have pride of place on my bookshelves.

A year later, 17-year-old Ronnie was on the run, accused of having shot and killed a former member of the Black Panther Party outside its Shattuck Avenue headquarters. For the next decade, I’d occasionally hear that he was in Cuba or Algeria. The truth was that he’d gone underground and changed his name, but instead of fleeing to Havana, he’d gone to Mahwah, New Jersey, where he’d gotten a job in an auto plant. There, ever the organizer, he’d become a member of the United Auto Workers, eventually elected to represent 300 of his fellows as their district committee man. But after eight years in the plant, Ronnie and the other workers found themselves out of a job; the plant had closed. He told me all this when he showed up at our tenth-anniversary high school reunion, having decided to return to California and face the music. The charges against him were eventually dismissed, and he re-enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1983, where he founded a program called Break the Cycle that hired undergraduates to tutor local at-risk elementary and middle school students, with an emphasis on mathematics. The program was a success, running for more than twenty years. Ronnie would graduate with a degree in African-American studies in 1990 and became a lecturer in the department. He also started a community program that put kids from South Berkeley together with police officers each week to discuss racial profiling. He died in 2010 of a brain aneurysm. He was 58.

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