The year 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, an organization that remains largely frozen in the popular narrative portrait of the 1960s as the most fearsome and violent of extremist organizations. These labels have stuck despite an explosion of books, articles, movies, and several documentaries meant to shine a brighter light on its activities. Notwithstanding these efforts, the BPP remains one of the most misunderstood organizations of the 20th century.
Founded by Merritt College students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland in 1966, the party at its height boasted some 5,000 members nationally and even an international wing. In the popular retelling of the Panthers’ history, the party’s founders and its national spokesperson, Eldridge Cleaver, as well as the Panthers’ numerous run-ins with police, take center stage. But the history of the Black Panther Party is about more than iconic male leaders. Bryan Shih and I set out to offer a view of the party from the bottom up, by focusing on the rank-and-file members who were responsible for its day-to-day operations—the people who transformed the Panthers from a small, Oakland-based organization into an influential national party with chapters in nearly every major city across the country.
We conducted oral histories with ordinary members, many of whom were teenagers when they joined, and thus are still alive to give their testimonies. They spoke of why they joined, what appealed to them about the party, the sacrifices they made, and how they understood their work. Above all, they recalled the long-lasting transformations they went through during their time in the party. Norma Mtume was a college student in Los Angeles with a flair for numbers when she joined the Panthers. She eventually rose to become the minister of finance for the entire party. Like so many of the people we met, she has dedicated much of her post-Panther life to community and professional work rooted in the original principles of the party.
Women like Mtume are often absent from the narrative of the party’s history. But women, of course, exerted tremendous influence and direction over the party at both the local and national levels, and were a major part of the party’s success. In the following testimonials, four women share their memories of joining the Panthers and the mark it left upon their lives.
(b. September 15, 1950) grew up in Tacoma, Washington, before joining the party at the national headquarters. She served as a communications secretary and ran a voter-registration campaign. She is now an associate professor of art history at Pomona College, teaching the arts and cinema of Africa and the African diaspora.
My first introduction to the party was in July 1969, at the United Front Against Fascism conference at the Oakland Auditorium. The keynote speaker was a guy named Bobby Seale. I had never heard of him. He gave a long speech, and at the end, almost in a sigh, he said, “And to all you college students, please, come home. The white man’s not going to teach you anything on those college campuses about how to free your people.” I can see in retrospect that it made me feel responsible. After the conference, I walked into the office like I was volunteering as a candy striper. I was wearing a little dress and little pumps and said, “I’m going to be here for a few more weeks. I’m just visiting from Washington, and I’d like to volunteer my time.” It makes me laugh every time I think about it.