PROSE Award (Honorable Mention in U.S. History), American Publishers Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence
Podcast interview with Joshua Bloom, co-author of Black against Empire
Huey and Bobby
On February 17, 1942, in Monroe, Louisiana, Huey P. Newton was born, the seventh and youngest child of Walter and Armelia Newton. Walter Newton was a paragon of responsibility. He held down two jobs at any given time, working in the gravel pit, the carbon plant, sugarcane mills, sawmills, and eventually as a brakeman for the Union Saw Mill Company. On Sundays, he served as the minister at the Bethel Baptist Church in Monroe, where he and his family lived. He preached as the spirit moved him, often promising to address his parishioners on a particular topic, then improvising an inspirational sermon salient to the moment. The rest of the time he spent with his family, the joy and purpose of his life.
Armelia Johnson liked to say that she married young and finished growing up with her children. She was only seventeen when she gave birth to her first child. The others soon followed. Unlike most black women in the South in the 1930s and 1940s, Armelia stayed at home, raising her children, seeing them through life's challenges, and relishing life's humor. The Newton family saw Armelia's not working as a domestic servant for whites as an act of rebellion.
Walter Newton often used to say, "You can take a killing but you can't take a beating." On one occasion, Walter Newton got into an argument with a younger white man for whom he worked about a detail of the job. The white man told him that when a "colored" disputed his word, he whipped him. Walter Newton replied that no man whipped him unless he was a better man, and he doubted that the white man qualified. The man was shocked at this uncharacteristic response and backed down.
This was just one of many times that Walter Newton defied whites in ways that often got blacks in the South lynched. He developed a reputation for being "crazy," so whites steered clear of him, gaining him powerful respect among blacks. Newton's ability to challenge whites and stay alive is something of a mystery. One factor, according to Huey Newton, may have been his mixed race. Walter Newton's father was a white man who had raped his black mother. Thus, local whites knew his father, cousins, aunts, and blood relatives, and while they might not have hesitated to kill a black person, they may have been reluctant to shed his white family's blood.
The Newtons moved to Oakland in 1945, following the path of many black families migrating from the South to the cities of the North and West to fill the jobs in the shipyards and industries that opened up with the onset of World War II. When the war ended, many blacks were laid off as wartime industry waned, and soldiers returning from the war created a labor surplus. Both new and expanded black communities in cities across the country rapidly sank into poverty. While the Newtons were better off than many of the black families they knew, they were poor, with seven children to feed, and often ate cush, a dish made of fried cornbread, several times a day. Making payments on the family's bills became Walter Newton's constant preoccupation.
The Newton family was on the edge, and Huey looked to his older brothers for survival strategies. Each coped with ghetto life in a different way. Walter Newton Jr., the oldest, became a hustler, working outside legal channels to keep poverty at bay. He always dressed sharp, and he drove a nice car. Everyone in the neighborhood called him "Sonny Man." Lee Edward gained a reputation as a street fighter before joining the military. He knew how "to persist in the face of bad odds, always to look an adversary straight in the eye, and to keep moving forward." Melvin Newton took a different path. He became a bookworm, went to college, and eventually taught sociology at Oakland's Merritt College.
Huey P. Newton became all of these things-hustler, fighter, and scholar. From his oldest brothers, Lee Edward and "Sonny Man," he mastered the ways of the street and learned how to fight. Through his teen years, Huey fought constantly. Unlike Melvin, Huey was not a bookworm. For years he rebelled at school. By the time he entered the eleventh grade, he still could not read, and his teachers often told him he was unintelligent. But outside of school, he had been learning how to think. With Melvin, he memorized and analyzed poetry. When a counselor in his high school told him he was "not college material," Huey decided to prove him wrong. Over the next two years, through intense focus and will, he taught himself to read, graduated high school, and in 1959, enrolled in Merritt College.
By the time Huey Newton became involved in the Afro-American Association at Merritt, he could debate theory as well as any of his peers. Yet he had a side that most of the budding intellectuals around him lacked; he knew the street. He could understand and relate to the plight of the swelling ranks of unemployed, the "brothers on the block" who lived outside the law. Newton's street knowledge helped put him through college, as he covered his bills through theft and fraud. But when Newton was caught, he used his book knowledge to study the law and defend himself in court, impressing the jury and defeating several misdemeanor charges.
In 1962, at a rally at Merritt College opposing the U.S. blockade of Cuba, Newton's political life took a leap forward: there, he met fellow student Bobby Seale, with whom he would eventually found the Black Panther Party. The rally featured Donald Warden, leader of the Afro-American Association. Warden praised Cuba's Fidel Castro and voiced opposition to domestic civil rights organizations. After the speeches, an informal debate began among the students, during which Newton convinced Seale that the U.S. policy in Cuba was wrong and also made him question mainstream civil rights organizations. Newton impressed Seale with his command of the argument presented by E. Franklin Frazier in Black Bourgeoisie, a scathing critique of the black middle class that he had read with Warden. Seale soon joined Warden's group.
More than five years older than Newton, Bobby Seale was born in Dallas, Texas, on October 22, 1936, the oldest of three siblings, and raised in Oakland. His father worked as a carpenter, and his mother also worked, sometimes as a caterer. Besides teaching Bobby how to build things and how to hunt and fish, Bobby's father also taught him about injustice, often beating him badly for no apparent reason.
The arbitrary beatings filled Bobby with a rage for which he had few outlets. They also meant he had little to fear from fights; he had already tasted the worst. Rather than become a bully himself, from an early age, Bobby started to stand up for the little guy. When his family first moved to Oakland, a local bully pushed his little sister Betty off the swing. Despite being outnumbered in new territory, Bobby knocked the bully out of the swing and then told all the kids they could share the swing. Bobby had a penchant for taking on bullies, even when he had little hope of winning, once challenging a neighborhood kid twice his size who was cheating the smaller kids in marbles, and was often beaten to the ground.
When he was fifteen, Bobby became close to a loner named Steve Brumfield. Steve told Bobby that the white man had stolen the land from the American Indians. The two of them escaped the pettiness and injustices at school and home by emulating Lakota warriors, running through the Berkeley hills for hours every day, dressed in moccasins and beads, and fighting each other for sport. Bobby used metalworking skills he learned in a vocational program at Berkeley High School to make large knives and tomahawks that the two carried wherever they went. When they were not practicing fighting, they climbed trees and dreamed of moving to South Dakota, marrying American Indian women, and living off the land. Bobby had never felt happier. He quickly became fast and strong, and soon the bullies tried to stay out of his way.
But after high school, Steve joined the military and Bobby, lonely once again, drifted from city to city, job to job, and woman to woman. When things got hard, he ended up back at home with his parents. No longer willing to be pushed around by his father-and now perfectly able to defend himself-he joined the U.S. Air Force. While further developing his metalworking skills and mastering the use of firearms, he learned to contain and channel his rage, turning his explosive temper into cold calculation. When three soldiers refused to pay back a debt and threatened to beat Bobby if he mentioned the matter again, he suppressed his instinct to fight and bade his time. Later that week, Bobby attacked the main perpetrator when his defenses were down, nearly killing him with a pipe.
Huey and Bobby both had their first serious political experiences with Donald Warden in the Afro-American Association. Warden had founded the all-black study group while he was a student at Boalt Law School at the University of California, Berkeley, creating a space for in-depth discussion of books by black authors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Booker T. Washington, and James Baldwin. Warden asserted a black nationalist perspective inspired by Malcolm X, emphasizing racial pride and embracing a transcontinental black identity rooted in Africa. Warden believed in the virtues of black capitalism, arguing that black people "must develop our own planned businesses where efficiency, thrift and sacrifice are stressed." Feisty and charismatic, Warden challenged students and professors alike, debated groups such as the Young Socialist Alliance, and gave public lectures on black history and culture. Willing to debate anyone, Warden made a strong impression on fellow students, and became an important intellectual influence on many of the future leaders of the Black Liberation Movement.
In addition to Newton and Seale, association members included Leslie and Jim Lacy, Cedric Robinson, Richard Thorne, Ernest Allen, and Ron Everett, who later changed his name to Ron Karenga, founded the black cultural nationalist organization US, and created the holiday Kwanza. Warden also became a mentor to James Brown in 1964, and through him, helped influence the politicization of soul music.
The Afro-American Association produced local radio shows debating the concerns of Black America, regularly mobilized street-corner rallies preaching racial consciousness to unemployed blacks, and sponsored conferences entitled Mind of the Ghetto. At a September 1963 conference at McClymonds High School in Oakland, Cassius Clay, the future heavyweight boxing champion who would change his name to Muhammad Ali and have his title stripped for resisting the draft, was the featured speaker.
But Newton was a man of action, and he grew dissatisfied with Warden's teaching. Newton felt that Warden was heavy on the talk but ultimately could not be counted on. In Newton's view, Warden "offered the community solutions that solved nothing," and he also doubted that much could be accomplished through black capitalism. Soon he split from Warden in search of a new path.
When Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, Bobby's rage overflowed. He gathered six bricks from his mother's garden, broke them in half, and stood in wait at the corner, hurling bricks at the cars of any whites he saw passing by. "I'll make my own self into a motherfucking Malcolm X," he swore, "and if they want to kill me, they'll have to kill me."
By then the civil rights juggernaut had run its course. Throughout the early 1960s, in campaign after campaign, the Civil Rights Movement successfully tore down the Jim Crow system of legal segregation. Activists crossed the color line with their bodies, drawing brutal repression from local white authorities and forcing the federal government to intervene-politically, legally, and militarily. But by the summer of 1964, the limits of civil rights political practice were becoming clear, particularly at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.
As late as 1964, the Democratic Party in Mississippi excluded blacks, all too often doling out violence or death to blacks who attempted to register to vote. In the Freedom Summer campaign that year, leading civil rights organizations developed a parallel political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), that included blacks as well as nonblacks and began registering blacks to vote. Three of the Freedom Summer activists-James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman-were kidnapped, mutilated, and killed. Undaunted, the campaign continued. The MFDP held a state convention in Jackson in early August and selected sixty-eight delegates to attend the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
President Johnson was determined to maintain white southern support and worked to undermine the MFDP. On August 12, Mississippi's Democratic governor, Paul B. Johnson, told the all-white Dixiecrat delegation that President Johnson had personally promised him not to seat the MFDP. The president refused to discuss the MFDP with civil rights leaders and instructed FBI director Hoover to monitor the renegade party closely and provide regular updates on its activities to the White House.
It became clear by the start of the convention that the MFDP would not win outright support in the Credentials Committee to seat its delegation in Atlantic City. But MFDP leaders hoped that a strong minority report from the committee would bring the issue to an open vote on the floor and that, under the pressure of public scrutiny, convention delegates would at least vote to seat both delegations.
On August 22, after intensive one-on-one lobbying of the state delegations, the MFDP presented its case to the Credentials Committee. Fannie Lou Hamer's testimony about the consequences of her efforts with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register Mississippi blacks vote-in which she described how she was fired from her job and beaten in jail by black prisoners under orders of the police-caught the nation's attention:
The first Negro began to beat, and I was beat until I was exhausted.... After the first Negro ... was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack. The second Negro began to beat ... I began to scream, and one white man got up and began to beat me on my head and tell me to "hush." One white man-my dress had worked up high-he walked over and pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back, back up.... All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.
The television audience responded almost instantly. Phones started to ring, and the delegates began receiving telegrams urging them to support the MFDP. Quickly, President Johnson called a press conference, and Hamer's testimony was cut off so that the president's statement could be broadcast.
Behind the scenes, the president's staff twisted the arms of Credentials Committee members while soon-to-be vice president Hubert Humphrey called a meeting at the Pageant Motel across the street from the convention with Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, and the other MFDP leaders to discuss a compromise.Humphrey told them that the MFDP delegation would not be seated but that educated professionals from the delegation-Aaron Henry of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and white minister Ed King-would be given seats alongside the official all-white Mississippi delegation. Ms. Hamer would not be part of any official delegation. "The President will not allow that illiterate woman to speak from the floor of the convention," said Humphrey.
The MFDP had not been consulted in the compromise offer, and the delegates rejected the proposal on the spot. Then someone knocked on the meeting room door and announced, "It's over!" The MFDP leaders turned on the TV to see Minnesota attorney general Walter Mondale, head of the Democratic Party committee appointed to resolve the MFDP challenge, announcing that the MFDP had accepted the "compromise." Apparently, the Democratic Party leadership had timed the introduction of the issue on the convention floor to coincide with the MFDP leaders' meeting with Humphrey across the street so that the leaders could not voice any opposition. Feeling deeply betrayed, SNCC and MFDP leader Bob Moses stormed out of the room, slamming the door in Hubert Humphrey's face.
Civil rights mobilization played a central role in defeating legal segregation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enfranchised southern blacks. But for blacks outside the South, neither generated political gains or significant economic concessions. Even in its heyday in the early 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement never significantly challenged de facto, or customary,economic and political exclusion in the black ghettos of the North and West. As de jure, or legal, segregation was defeated in the South, economic and political empowerment lagged, civil rights strategies lost their punch, and black activists across the country looked for other solutions. Many, including Newton and Seale, turned to Malcolm X.
In December 1964, after the Atlantic City convention, Malcolm X spoke at the Williams Institutional CME Church in Harlem on the same stage with Fannie Lou Hamer. In sharp contrast to the nonviolent tactics of the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X suggested that black activists take up the revolutionary activities of the anticolonial Mau Mau rebels in Kenya:
In my opinion, not only in Mississippi and Alabama, but right here in New York City, you and I can best learn how to get real freedom by studying how Kenyatta brought it to his people in Kenya, and how Odinga helped him, and the excellent job that was done by the Mau Mau freedom fighters. In fact, that's what we need in Mississippi. In Mississippi we need a Mau Mau. In Alabama we need a Mau Mau. In Georgia we need a Mau Mau. Right here in Harlem, in New York City, we need a Mau Mau.... We need a Mau Mau. If they don't want to deal with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, then we'll give them something else to deal with. If they don't want to deal with the Student Nonviolent [Coordinating] Committee, then we have to give them an alternative.
Malcolm X developed a form of revolutionary black nationalism as a minister in the Nation of Islam (NOI). Maintaining a central focus on a black nationalist identity as advocated by the NOI, he came to see black liberation as part of the global struggle against Western imperialism-a stance that posed a challenge not only to the integrationist politics of the Civil Rights Movement but also to the NOI's tradition of abstaining from political controversy.
Uncle Sam's hands are dripping with blood, dripping with the blood of the black man in this country. He's the earth's number-one hypocrite. He has the audacity-yes, he has-imagine him posing as the leader of the free world. The free world!-and you over here singing 'We Shall Overcome.' Expand the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights, take it into the United Nations, where our African brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Latin-American brothers can throw their weight on our side, and where 800 million Chinamen are sitting there waiting to throw their weight on our side.
When he continued to strike this tone in public statements, becoming increasingly politically outspoken and controversial, his mentor Elijah Muhammad expelled Malcolm X from the NOI.
Malcolm X's words resonated with many young blacks, especially those in the ghettos who had not seen the Civil Rights Movement bring any noticeable change in their condition. He also spoke to the activists who felt betrayed by President Johnson and the federal government and were sick of turning the other cheek: "And now you're facing a situation where the young Negro's coming up," Malcolm declared. "They don't want to hear that 'turn-the-other-cheek'" stuff, no.... There's a new deal coming. There's new thinking coming in. There's new strategy coming in. It'll be Molotov cocktails this month, hand grenades next month, and something else next month. It'll be ballots, or it'll be bullets. It'll be liberty, or it will be death. The only difference about this kind of death-it'll be reciprocal."
In the 1960s, most black families-like the Newtons and the Seales-faced the peril of poverty. After migrating to the cities of the North and West to meet the demand for wartime jobs, thousands of black workers were left empty-handed when the war ended and the jobs evaporated. Many of the jobs that did remain followed whites fleeing to the suburbs-leaving sprawling black ghettos in their wake. Living in substandard housing and subjected to inferior and overcrowded schools, blacks were largely denied their rightful share of political power and economic opportunity. As unemployment increased, so did crime, and white urban politicians responded with strategies of containment, beefing up police patrols and attacking crime through force. While President Johnson's Civil Rights Act and the supposed redress of black grievances were widely touted as success stories, the poverty, political exclusion, police brutality, and desperation of ghetto life had only intensified. As a result, many young urban blacks rejected civil rights politics as ineffectual and were drawn to the revolutionary nationalism of Malcolm X.
When Malcolm X was gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem in February 1965, he came to symbolize the struggle for black liberation-everything the Civil Rights Movement promised but could not deliver. In the words of historian William L. Van Deburg, Malcolm's "impassioned rhetoric was 'street smart'-it had almost visceral appeal to a young, black, economically distressed constituency. Before his assassination, Malcolm constantly urged this constituency to question the validity of their schoolbook- and media-inspired faith in an integrated American Dream. Many responded." After his death, Malcolm's influence expanded dramatically. "He came to be far more than a martyr for the militant, separatist faith. He became a Black Power paradigm-the archetype, reference point, and spiritual adviser in absentia for a generation of Afro-American activists."
In August 1965, six months after Malcolm X died, the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles exploded in one of the largest urban rebellions in U.S. history. Black migrants had begun moving into Watts in the 1920s, creating a black island in a sea of white towns such as South Gate, Lynwood, Compton, and Bell (Compton did have one black resident in 1930). Home-lending regulations excluded blacks from obtaining mortgages to buy houses in white neighborhoods. By 1945, Watts was 80 percent black. Through the 1950s, the black migration continued, and more blacks migrated to California than to any other state. During this decade, the black population of New York City increased almost two and a half times, and Detroit's black population tripled-while Black L.A. grew eightfold. Meanwhile, white residents fled in droves for the suburbs, taking capital and employment opportunities with them.
Tensions between Watts residents and the police ran high. While the vast majority of Watts residents in 1965 were black, only 4 percent of the sworn personnel of the Los Angeles Police Department and 6 percent of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department were black. Police Chief William Parker used analyses of crime data to develop and justify a policy that explicitly targeted Watts and other black neighborhoods for heavy police coverage, including intrusive techniques such as routine frisking of people on the street. "I don't think you can throw the genes out of the question when you discuss the behavior patterns of people," Parker wrote in 1957. Officers on the force called their nightsticks "nigger-knockers." Residents of one of the most highly patrolled precincts called their area "little Mississippi." The local NAACP reported, "Negroes in Los Angeles never know where or at what hour may come blows from the guardians of the law who are supposed to protect them." One activist recalled, "You just had to be black and moving to be shot by the police."
Between January 1962 and July 1965, Los Angeles law enforcement officers (mostly police but also sheriff's deputies, highway patrol personnel, and others) killed at least sixty-five people. Of the sixty-five homicides by police that the Los Angeles coroner's office investigated during this period, sixty-four were ruled justifiable homicides. These included twenty-seven cases in which the victim was shot in the back by law officers, twenty-five in which the victim was unarmed, twenty-three in which the victim was suspected of a nonviolent crime, and four in which the victim was not suspected of any crime at the time of the shooting. The only case that the coroner's inquest ruled to be unjustified homicide was one in which "two officers, 'playing cops and robbers' in a Long Beach Police Station shot a newspaperman."
The incident that sparked the Watts rebellion was a traffic stop. Twenty-one-year-old Marquette Frye was driving his 1955 Buick along 116th Street near his family's house at 6 P.M. on August 11, 1965, when he was pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer. His younger brother Ronald Frye, the only passenger, had just been discharged from the U.S. Air Force. A crowd gathered, including Marquette's mother, Rena. More police arrived. Soon a crowd of more than two hundred had gathered, and the onlookers became agitated as the police reportedly slapped Rena Frye, beat her with a blackjack, and twisted her arm behind her back.
Watts exploded. On August 12, at 9:30 P.M., a group identifying itself as "followers of Malcolm X" arrived on Avalon Boulevard shouting "Let's burn ... baby, burn!" The next day, at 3:30 P.M., the Emergency Control Center journal recorded "6 male Negroes firing rifles at helicopter from vehicle, 109th Avalon." Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown cut short an aerial tour of South Los Angeles because of "sniper fire." Delta Airlines rerouted flights over the city because rebels were "shooting at planes."
By the second day of the rebellion, according to the Los Angeles Times, more than seven thousand people were looting stores, in particular stealing guns, machetes, and other weapons. Rebels were filling glass bottles with gasoline and hurling Molotov cocktails at cars and stores, setting them on fire. Many were also firing shots at police. Fire trucks and ambulances that attempted to enter the area were also attacked.
During the heat of battle, Police Chief Parker declared, "This situation is very much like fighting the Viet Cong.... We haven't the slightest idea when this can be brought under control." One rebel standing on the corner of Avalon and Imperial made a different reference to Vietnam, telling an interviewer, "I've got my 'stuff' [gun] ready, I'm not going to die in Vietnam, whitey has been kicking ass too long."
As the fires still burned, the local CBS radio station reported, "This was not a riot. It was an insurrection against all authority.... If it had gone much further it would have become civil war." The CBS Reports TV broadcast in December 1965 called it a "virtual civil insurrection probably unmatched since" the Civil War. Scholars David O. Sears and John B. McConahay noted that the "legally constituted authority ... was overthrown." Sociologist Robert Blauner saw the rebellions as "a preliminary if primitive form of mass rebellion against a colonial status."
The rebellion spread out over 46.5 square miles. All told, 34 people-almost all black-were killed, many by police, and more than 1,032 were wounded; 3,952 people were arrested. The rebellion caused more than $40 million in property damage to over six hundred buildings, completely destroying two hundred of them.
Full of rage at ghetto conditions, chafing against police repression, and frustrated with a civil rights politics unable to redress their situation, the Watts rebels sought to take matters into their own hands, forcefully rejecting the old-guard civil rights leadership. Following the rebellion, Martin Luther King Jr. went to Watts to bring his vision of an integrated society and the tactics of nonviolence. On August 18, he spoke to a meeting of five hundred people at the Westminster Neighborhood Association. He began his appeal in rolling cadence: "All over America ... the Negroes must join hands ... " "And burn!" shouted a member of the audience. Throughout the evening, the audience repeatedly challenged and ridiculed King's appeal.Nonviolent activist and comedian Dick Gregory fared even worse in Watts. While the rebellion still flared, he borrowed a bullhorn from the police so that he could speak to the rebels. He attempted to calm them and pleaded "Go home!" The crowd did not respond kindly. A gunman in the crowd shot Gregory in the leg. The politics of nonviolence were failing.
Commenting on the wave of urban rebellions and the rejection of civil rights strategies by disenchanted and dispossessed blacks, Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau observed, "The masses of poor Negroes remain an unorganized minority in swelling urban ghettos, and neither SNCC nor any other group has found a form of political organization that can convert the energy of the slums into political power."
In Oakland in 1964, far away from Fannie Lou Hamer and the convention battles in Atlantic City, Huey Newton stabbed a man named Odell Lee with a steak knife at a party. At his trial, he claimed he had done so in self-defense, but the all-white jury was not convinced, and he spent six months in jail, mostly in solitary confinement because he would not obey orders from the guards. Newton later recalled finding a new sense of freedom in prison. The guards could lock up his body, but they could not cage his mind. Newton emerged from jail eager to embrace the new political ideas and organizations developing in Oakland.
Newton soon reconnected with Seale, and the two joined the Soul Students Advisory Council (SSAC), founded by Ernie Allen. The council was a front group for the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), an anti-imperialist and Marxist black nationalist organization based in Philadelphia. Allen had collaborated with Newton and Seale in Warden's Afro-American Association when he was a student at Merritt College. After transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, Allen had traveled to Cuba in 1964 on a trip sponsored by the Progressive Labor Party. The contingent also included other radical black students from Detroit and around the country. In Cuba, Allen and the others met Max Stanford, the leader of RAM, who was there visiting his mentor Robert F. Williams, a pioneering advocate of armed black self-defense. Williams had moved to Cuba after local authorities-in collusion with the Ku Klux Klan and backed by the FBI-forced him to flee North Carolina. Allen got to know Stanford and Williams in Cuba, and through his intense conversations and debates with them, he found a way to move beyond the limits of Warden's Afro-American Association, embracing the idea that U.S. blacks could win their freedom by participating in a global revolution against imperialism. By the time he returned to the United States, Allen was committed to organizing a chapter of RAM in California.
Ernie Allen, his brother Doug, Kenny Freeman (Mamadou Lumumba), and others began to build several front groups for RAM in the Bay Area. One project was Soulbook: The Revolutionary Journal of the Black World, a beautifully presented quarterly magazine of cultural criticism and political theory whose content ranged from essays on the significance of John Coltrane to analyses of the writings of Frantz Fanon. Both poetry and black revolutionary nationalist artwork graced the magazine.
Virtual Murrell, Alex Papillion, Isaac Moore, and other friends of Newton and Seale at Merritt also joined the SSAC and helped launch a campaign to create courses in Afro-American studies at the college. The Merritt student body was predominantly black, and there was a large demand for such courses. The demand for Afro-American studies cut across intrablack differences and garnered support from many black individuals and organizations. The administration put up resistance, but hundreds of students turned out for meetings and protests, and the administration slowly began making concessions, including development of a black studies curriculum.
Working with RAM exposed Newton and Seale to a new world of writings and ideas. Both had been strongly influenced by the thinking of Malcolm X and the readings in the Afro-American Association. But unlike the association, RAM was a revolutionary nationalist organization with a strong socialist and anti-imperialist bent. Guided by the political ideas of Robert F. Williams, RAM exposed Newton and Seale to the key writings of revolutionary nationalism, and they were particularly attracted to the writings of Frantz Fanon, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara, as well as RAM's own publications on revolutionary black nationalism, including articles by Max Stanford and Robert Williams.
The Revolutionary Action Movement advanced a pivotal idea that would become central to the politics of the Black Panther Party. Drawing on a line of thought reaching back at least to the mid-1940s and the black anticolonialism of W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Alpheaus Hunton, RAM argued that Black America was essentially a colony and framed the struggle against racism by blacks in the United States as part of the global anti-imperialist struggle against colonialism. Max Stanford defined the politics of revolutionary black nationalism this way in 1965: "We are revolutionary black nationalist, not based on ideas of national superiority, but striving for justice and liberation of all the oppressed peoples of the world. ... There can be no liberty as long as black people are oppressed and the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America are oppressed by Yankee imperialism and neo-colonialism. After four hundred years of oppression, we realize that slavery, racism and imperialism are all interrelated and that liberty and justice for all cannot exist peacefully with imperialism."
The politics of RAM connected the struggles of black Americans with liberation struggles abroad. Whereas black soldiers returning from World War II helped catalyze the Civil Rights Movement by arguing that if they could die fighting for their country, then they should be considered full citizens upon their return, RAM insisted that blacks were not full citizens in the United States. RAM viewed Black America as an independent nation that had been colonized at home. Because black Americans were colonial subjects rather than citizens, RAM argued, they owed no allegiance to the U.S. government and thus should not fight in the Vietnam War.
On July 4, 1965, RAM wrote an open statement to the Vietnamese National Liberation Front declaring the independence of Black America from the United States and asserting its solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle against American imperialism. In a separate statement that day, RAM addressed blacks in the military, arguing that if they should be fighting against anyone, it should be the U.S. government for the liberation of Black America: "Why should we go 'anywhere' to fight for the racist U.S. government, only to return home and be faced with murder, rape, castration, and extermination? How can the racist U.S. government talk about 'freeing' anyone, when the U.S. government practices racism against Black Americans every day? If the U.S. government says it cannot protect us from local and national racists, then let your battle assignment be against those who are abusing your children, wives, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and loved ones."
RAM and its front group the SSAC identified a common cause between blacks and the Vietnamese, and they were on the cutting edge of early opposition to the Vietnam War. Before there was any significant draft resistance, they criticized the draft and organized a campaign "to oppose the drafting of black men" into the military, holding rallies for the cause, including one at Merritt College on April 26, 1966, featuring local organizers Alex Papillion and Mark Comfort.
Through its honorary chair-in-exile, Robert F. Williams, RAM began building relationships with anti-imperialist leaders around the world. Williams had served as president of the local NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina. As Jim Crow came under growing attack by the Civil Rights Movement, the Ku Klux Klan, with the support of the local white government, increasingly relied on violence to protect racial segregation. With no support from the federal government, Williams turned to the skills he had learned as a private first class in the Marine Corps to turn the tide, arming himself and other members of his NAACP chapter. Williams and the Monroe NAACP fought several armed battles in self-defense against whites. In 1961, facing dubious criminal charges and threatened by a lynch mob that promised to kill him for his activities, Williams fled North Carolina.
Williams found asylum in Cuba and soon met Mao Zedong in China. Mao was deeply impressed with Williams and saw common cause in the struggle for black liberation in the United States and the global struggle against imperialism. In 1963, Mao articulated this position in an essay he wrote at Williams's behest, asking the people of the world to recognize the Black Liberation Struggle in the United States as part of the global struggle against imperialism.
Robert Williams's life exemplified a different approach to politics than that of RAM, and Williams's memoir, Negroes with Guns, greatly influenced Newton. Newton was deeply impressed by Williams's courage in standing up to the lynch mobs, but he was not sure how to apply this political approach to the ghettos of the North and West. He wanted to organize poor blacks. He wanted to mobilize the "brothers on the block," the unemployed black men seen on every street of the ghetto, the black underclass. These were the people who faced the brutality of the expanding urban police departments. And many were the same folks who had rioted in Watts. RAM claimed to be talking for them, but it was not reaching them or moving them to action. Newton did not yet know how to mobilize these "brothers on the block," but given what he knew of his brother Sonny Man, he believed that they would understand armed self-defense-that they would understand the language of the gun.
The Revolutionary Action Movement led the way in developing revolutionary black nationalist thought in the United States in the 1960s, but the group's practical application of these ideas was limited. RAM leaders fashioned themselves as revolutionaries: They read socialist and anti-imperialist texts and raised the possibility of urban guerilla warfare. Some evidence indicates that RAM members attempted to implement these ideas, but most of them were intellectuals like Huey's brother Melvin. They rarely emphasized practical action, and when they did, they oriented their efforts toward students. Huey soon became dissatisfied with the group's inability to appeal to the "brothers on the block" and sought new ways to meld theory with on-the-ground action.
Huey and Bobby wanted to challenge police brutality directly, and they found some inspiration in the activities of Mark Comfort and Curtis Lee Baker, talented young organizers who had emerged from traditional civil rights organizations in Oakland. Comfort and Baker had begun appealing to young African Americans with militant style-adopting black outfits and berets in early 1966-and with challenges to police brutality. In February 1965, Comfort organized a protest "to put a stop to police beating innocent people." A crowd of more than two hundred-mostly high school students-encircled the Oakland Hall of Justice, urging Governor Pat Brown to "make a full scale investigation" of police brutality. That August, Baker and others demanded that the Oakland City Council keep white policemen out of black neighborhoods. During that summer, Comfort organized citizen patrols to monitor the actions of the police and document incidents of brutality. When people were arrested, he followed them to the jail and bailed them out. He soon abandoned the tactic, though, because it was too costly.
On Thursday night, March 17, 1966, at approximately 9 P.M., Newton and Seale and a friend they called "Weasel" were walking on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, just north of Oakland, headed toward the University of California campus. The street was a small bohemian mecca, with students, hippies, and young people congregating and milling about in the restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops. With encouragement from Huey and Weasel, Bobby stood on a chair outside the Forum restaurant near the corner of Telegraph and Haste and began to recite Ronald Stone's black antiwar poem "Uncle Sammy Call Me Fulla Lucifer":
You school my naïve heart to sing
red-white-and-blue-stars-and-stripes songs and to pledge eternal allegiance to all things blue, true,
blue-eyed blond, blond-haired, white chalk white skin with U.S.A. tattooed all over... .
I will not serve.
The poem struck a chord. The war was escalating, and many students felt conflicted, scared, and angry about the draft. A crowd began to gather. Soon more than twenty-five people were cheering Bobby on and asking him to recite the poem again. George Williamson, an off-duty police officer, pushed into the crowd and grabbed Seale. A scuffle broke out. More police arrived. Newton and Seale were both arrested for disturbing the peace. Virtual Murrell withdrew $50 from the SSAC treasury and bailed them out.
A few weeks later, Newton and Seale saw a policeman pushing around a black man for no apparent reason. The officer arrested the man and took him to the station. Following Mark Comfort's example, Newton and Seale went to the station and bailed the man out using money from the SSAC treasury. The brother started to cry, and it touched Bobby deeply. Bobby was fed up with "armchair intellectualizing" and wanted to stand up against the police, recalling, "I was filled with a staunch belief of the need for brotherhood and revolution and rebellion against the racist system."
Huey and Bobby were ready to take meaningful, on-the-ground action. Seeking to emulate Robert Williams's defiant stance, Newton proposed that the SSAC organize a rally for Malcolm X's birthday in May 1966 and wear loaded guns in the spirit of his call for armed self-defense. Newton believed that this would attract the "brothers on the block" to participate. Seale supported Newton's proposal, but Kenny Freeman and the other RAM leaders flatly rejected it.
Perhaps feeling threatened, Freeman and other RAM leaders suggested that Newton and Seale had misused money from the SSAC treasury. That was the last straw. Already frustrated with the failure of the local RAM leadership to stand up to police brutality, the organization's lack of support during the fray on Telegraph Avenue, and its inability to organize brothers on the block, Bobby and Huey confronted Freeman and the others and then left the SSAC.
In the summer of 1966, Seale was hired to run a youth work program at the North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center funded by the federal War on Poverty. Through his role as a social service provider, he came to understand even more clearly the economic and social needs of black youth. Beyond delivering services, Bobby brought his revolutionary nationalist theory to the job and used the opportunity to push up against the ideological bias in the government program. Rather than merely guiding young blacks into a government-prescribed path, he used his authority to help them stand up against oppressive authority, particularly against police brutality. One day Seale's boss instructed him to take a group of young black men and women on a tour of the local police station. When the group arrived, the police officers pulled out notepads and pencils and started to interview the teenagers about the character of gangs in the neighborhood. Seale protested, instructing his group to remain silent and announcing that his program would not be used as a spy network to inform on people in the community. The officers claimed that they simply wanted to foster better relations with the community. In response, Seale turned the conversation around, creating an opportunity for the teenagers to describe their experiences with police brutality in the neighborhood.
It was the first time the young people had had the opportunity to look white police officers in the eye and express their anger and frustration. One teenager berated the police for an incident in which several officers had thrown a woman down and beaten her in the head with billy clubs. "Say you!" said a sixteen-year-old girl, pointing at a policeman. "You don't have to treat him like that," Seale said to the girl. "I'll treat him like I want to, because they done treated me so bad," she replied. Bobby sat back as the girl grilled the officer about whether he had received proper psychiatric treatment. The officer turned red and started to shake. "The way you're shaking now," she said, "the way you're shaking now and carrying on, you must be guilty of a whole lot! And I haven't got no weapon or nothin.'"
The poverty program provided a paycheck, some skills, and an opportunity to work with young people. But Newton and Seale were still searching for a way to galvanize the rage of the "brothers on the block." They wanted to mobilize the ghetto the way that the Civil Rights Movement had mobilized blacks in the South. They dreamt of creating an unstoppable force that would transform the urban landscape forever. The problem was now clear to Huey and Bobby, but they did not yet have a solution.
Huey and Bobby were not the only ones looking for answers. Within a year of the Watts rebellion, the younger generation of black liberation activists had widely rejected the goals of integration and the tactics of nonviolence. On June 5, 1966, James Meredith, the first black student to gain admission to the University of Mississippi, was shot on his solo march from Memphis to Jackson. Civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael flew to Memphis to take up his march, and they were soon joined by black liberation activists from around the country as well as many local blacks. As the march proceeded, a split began to emerge between the old-guard civil rights leaders represented by King and the younger wing represented by Carmichael. The younger activists wanted the march to be a blacks-only event, and they also wanted the Deacons of Defense-a militant black organization that promoted armed self-defense-to provide protection for the marchers. These were significant departures from the civil rights integrationist frame and nonviolent tactics.
As the march made its way to Greenwood, Mississippi, Carmichael and a group of activists were arrested and held in jail for six hours. Upon their release, Carmichael announced to a rally of supporters, "This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested. I ain't going to jail no more. What we gonna start saying now is 'Black Power.'" Willie Ricks, a SNCC activist, took up the phrase and called it out: "What do you want?" The crowd replied, "Black Power!" The phrase caught on like wildfire. The old-guard civil rights leaders soon acknowledged the shift. King even appealed to the government for help: "The government has got to give me some victories if I'm gonna keep people nonviolent. ... I know I'm gonna stay nonviolent no matter what happens. But a lot of people are getting hurt and bitter, and they can't see it that way anymore."
Black Power was not so much an answer as a new way of framing the quest for black liberation. No one knew quite what Black Power was or how to achieve it. But the younger generation of black activists put their minds and energies to figuring it out.
By 1966, racial tensions were rising in Oakland. Mayor John Reading called the City Council to his office for a special meeting to warn its members that if communication between the city government and low-income blacks did not improve, Oakland would become "another Watts." Amory Bradford, a Johnson administration official sent to Oakland in 1966 to develop a federal plan for reducing racial tensions, reported, "Experts sent by the President to survey conditions in other ghettos picked Oakland as one of those most likely to be the next Watts." Another visiting white official described Oakland as a "powder keg." One Economic Development Administration outreach flier widely distributed in west Oakland in 1966 read:
Let's Talk about Problems
Eugene R. Foley, U.S. Department of Commerce, President Johnson's Troubleshooter, wants to talk to you to prevent a Watts in Oakland.
That fall, word spread that Oakland police officers had beaten a black girl during the arrest of her brother. A large crowd of disgruntled youths began to gather. They soon "laid siege" to a ten-block area on East 14th Street, smashing windows, attacking cars, and throwing gasoline bombs. Sixty police officers arrived on the scene and arrested twelve people.
On September 27, 1966, sixteen-year-old Matthew Johnson was pulled over by police in Hunters Point, a black neighborhood across the bay in San Francisco. Johnson and his friends had stolen a car and were cruising around the neighborhood. When police pulled them over, the teens panicked and fled. Matthew Johnson was shot in the back by police and was left bleeding on the ground for more than an hour. By the time ambulances arrived, he was dead. The neighborhood erupted in a rebellion that went on for several days. Using bricks and Molotov cocktails, rebels damaged or destroyed thirty-one police cars and ten fire department vehicles. The police arrested 146 people, injuring 42, 10 of them with gunshots.
The situation was unbearable. Newton and Seale would tolerate no more police brutality and were fed up with the disorganized and impotent attempts of the black community to resist. They were determined to find a solution. Newton soon experienced an epiphany sparked by an article he read in the August 1966 edition of the West Coast SNCC newspaper, the Movement, about the Community Alert Patrol (CAP) in Watts. "Brother Lennie" and "Brother Crook," two activists from Watts, organized CAP after the rebellion in 1965 to prevent further police brutality. CAP members monitored the police, driving around the black neighborhoods of Watts with notepads and pencils, documenting police activities. In August 1966, CAP began displaying a Black Panther logo on its patrol vehicles-inspired by SNCC's use of the Panther symbol when helping to organize an independent black political party in Lowndes County, Alabama. CAP was not left alone to carry out its activities, however; it was vulnerable to harassment and abuse by the police. One frustrated CAP member commented on the police harassment to a Movement reporter: "There's only one way to stop all this," he said, "and that's to get out our guns and start shooting."
Newton had been studying law at Merritt College and San Francisco State College, and he also read on his own at the North Oakland Service Center law library. He discovered that California law permitted people to carry loaded guns in public as long as the weapons were not concealed. He studied California gun law inside and out, finding that it was illegal to keep rifles loaded in a moving vehicle and that parolees could carry a rifle but not a handgun. In California, he learned, citizens had the right to observe an officer carrying out his or her duty as long as they stood a reasonable distance away.
Newton had finally hit upon a way to stand up to the police and organize the "brothers on the block." He would organize patrols like the CAP in Watts. But he and his comrades would carry loaded guns.
The Black Panther
Following the September 27 killing of Matthew Johnson, the UC Berkeley chapter of Students for a Democratic Society decided to hold a conference on Black Power and invited Stokely Carmichael, SNCC chairperson and the leading national proponent of Black Power, to be the keynote speaker. Because of the timing of the Conference on Black Power and Its Challenges, scheduled for October 29 in Berkeley, it immediately became an explosive political issue for the campus and in state politics. Republican Ronald Reagan was running a highly polarizing campaign against Democratic incumbent Edmund Brown for governor of California, and the election was coming up in early November. Given the contentious national debate on Black Power and Carmichael's stature, the conference threatened to become an election issue. The campus administration decided to deny the campus chapter of SDS permission to hold the event.
The move echoed recent battles between students and the administration over students' rights in the Free Speech Movement. Soon, a raging battle arose on campus over whether SDS would be allowed to hold the conference. Wary of further escalation, the university capitulated. In response, Ronald Reagan criticized the conference publicly: "We cannot have the university campus used as a base to foment riots from." Reagan sent Stokely Carmichael a telegram urging him to stay out of California. He then challenged Governor Brown to cosign his telegram. The governor refused, saying that he did not want to dignify Carmichael's cause. Nevertheless, Governor Brown made public statements similar to Reagan's. "I wish Stokely Carmichael would stay out of California. I wish he'd not come in here at all. I think he's caused nothing but trouble," the governor told a crowd at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Californians, he pronounced, "don't want black power." The day before the conference, Governor Brown made a surprise appearance in Oakland to meet with the Alameda County sheriff to assure that "the peace of this community will be protected." Reagan quipped sarcastically, "I'm happy to see he has hurried north like a man of action."
In addition to Carmichael, speakers scheduled for the conference included Ivanhoe Donaldson, the New York director of SNCC; Brother Lennie, leader of the Watts Community Alert Patrol; Mark Comfort, leader of the Oakland Direct Action Project; Ron Karenga; James Bevel from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Mike Parker and Mike Smith from SDS; Mike Miller and Clay Carson from SNCC; Terry Cannon, editor of the Movement newspaper; Elijah Turner, an Oakland organizer; and Barbara Arthur, a student at UC Berkeley.
The controversy stoked interest in the conference, not only among students but also among local black activists. Huey and Bobby's former mentor Donald Warden and members of RAM such as Doug Allen spoke out against the "racist" university administration for attempting to bar the conference. On Saturday October 29, people flooded the Greek Theatre to listen to the speakers. By midafternoon, more than three thousand people had packed into the open-air theater, with students standing in the aisles, sitting on the stage, and spread out on the grass hill above the theater to hear the speeches. It is not clear whether Huey and Bobby participated in the conference, but they certainly heard about it.
The podium was black with big red letters identifying SDS. Behind the podium, a large banner, three feet wide and fifty feet long, read "Black Power and Its Challenges." Ivanhoe Donaldson introduced Carmichael, emphasizing Carmichael's leadership against the war and drawing an analogy between the struggle of blacks in American cities and the struggle of the Vietnamese against imperialism: "The Vietnamese are fighting the same establishment that the brothers in Oakland, Chicago and Watts are fighting." Carmichael approached the podium wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and dark tie. He straightened his shirt, adjusted the microphone, and looked out at the predominantly white student audience.
"It's a privilege and an honor to be in the white intellectual ghetto of the West," Carmichael began, making common cause with the students. But the familiarity was brief. "White America cannot condemn herself," Carmichael told the students, "so black people have done it-you stand condemned.... Move on over, or we're going to move on over you." Carmichael talked about the limitations of integrationism and the need for Black Power in international terms. "In order for America to really live on a basic principle of human relationships, a new society must be born. Racism must die. The economic exploitation by this country of nonwhite people around the world must also die."
Carmichael focused most of his speech on the question of Vietnam. "The war in Vietnam is an illegal and immoral war," he argued. He compared the plight of black people in America with the plight of the Vietnamese: "Any time a black man leaves the country where he can't vote to supposedly deliver the vote to somebody else, he's a black mercenary. Any time a black man leaves this country, gets shot in Vietnam on foreign ground, and returns home and you won't give him a burial place in his own homeland, he's a black mercenary. Even if I were to believe the lies of [President] Johnson," said Carmichael, "if I were to believe his lies that we are fighting to give democracy to the people in Vietnam, as a black man in this country, I wouldn't fight to give this to anybody."
Carmichael also criticized the student peace movement and argued that if peace activists wanted to be relevant to most people, they needed to start organizing to resist the draft:
The peace movement has been a failure because it hasn't gotten off the college campuses where everybody has a 2S [draft deferment] and is not afraid of being drafted anyway. The problem is how you can move out of that into the white ghettos of this country and articulate a position for those white youth who do not want to go. ... [SNCC is] the most militant organization for peace or civil rights or human rights against the war in Vietnam in this country today. There isn't one organization that has begun to meet our stand on the war in Vietnam. We not only say we are against the war in Vietnam; we are against the draft.... There is a higher law than the law of a racist named [Secretary of Defense] McNamara; there is a higher law than the law of a fool named [Secretary of State] Rusk; there is a higher law than the law of a buffoon named Johnson. It's the law of each of us. We will not allow them to make us hired killers. We will not kill anybody that they say kill. And if we decide to kill, we are going to decide who to kill.
The conference program featured the symbol of a black panther from the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) that Carmichael was publicizing. The LCFO was part of a new effort by local blacks and SNCC to build an independent political party outside of the exclusive white Democratic Party, marking a departure from its strategy of mobilizing civil disobedience against Jim Crow segregation in the early 1960s. Lowndes County was 80 percent black, yet in early 1966, despite the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act, there was still not a single black person registered to vote in Lowndes County. So on May 3, 1966, with SNCC's help, the LCFO convened and nominated candidates for sheriff, tax assessor, coroner, and school board and encouraged blacks to register to vote. As blacks registered, white resistance intensified. At one SNCC rally, a deputy sheriff fired into the crowd, shooting two civil rights workers and killing one, Carmichael's friend Jonathan Daniels, a white ministerial student.
Because so many whites in Lowndes were illiterate, the ballot featured a drawing of a party mascot. The all-white Democratic Party featured a white rooster and the slogan White Supremacy/For the Right. The LCFO selected the black panther as its symbol to signify a fierce black political challenge. In a June 1966 interview, John Hulett, the chairman of the LCFO, explained the symbol of the panther: "The black panther is an animal that when it is pressured it moves back until it is cornered, then it comes out fighting for life or death. We felt we had been pushed back long enough and that it was time for Negroes to come out and take over."
In late August 1966, SNCC had organized a rally at the Mt. Morris Presbyterian Church in New York City to promote the newly formed Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party. The speakers included Carmichael; William Epton, the head of the Harlem branch of the Progressive Labor Party; and Max Stanford, the leader of RAM, who identified himself at the time as the head of the Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party. Black Panther members came dressed in uniforms of black pants and shirts displaying the panther emblem. In front of a cheering crowd of 250, Carmichael called on blacks to unite with people of color in Vietnam and throughout the world. He also spoke in favor of armed self-defense for blacks. "If the police and the federal government won't protect us," said Carmichael, "we must protect ourselves." Both he and Stanford spoke in favor of the recent wave of ghetto rebellions. The United States, Stanford suggested, "could be brought down to its knees with a rag and some gasoline and a bottle."
In September 1966, Carmichael wrote that organizing had begun under the black panther symbol across the country, in the North as well as the South-including independent efforts in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. "A man needs a black panther on his side when he and his family must endure-as hundreds of Alabamans have endured-loss of job, eviction, starvation and sometimes death for political activity," Carmichael explained. "He may also need a gun and SNCC reaffirms the right of black men everywhere to defend themselves when threatened or attacked."
The Black Power conference and the symbol of the black panther captured the attention of Kenny Freeman, Doug Allen, Ernie Allen, and the West Coast members of RAM. At this time, RAM's political analysis was fairly close to that of SNCC and Carmichael. Like the New York branch of RAM, the West Coast members were drawn to Carmichael's charisma and the defiant symbol of the black panther, and they were impressed by his organizing efforts in Lowndes County. They followed the example of Max Stanford and the New York RAM and formed the Black Panther Party of Northern California.
Not only did the program for the October 1966 Berkeley Black Power conference feature the black panther logo of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in recognition of Carmichael's work there, but two days before the conference, activists distributed a pamphlet and fliers about the Lowndes County Black Panther Party on the Berkeley campus.
Huey Newton was among those to take notice of the bold logo and courageous organizing. Writing several years later, Newton recalled, "I had read a pamphlet about voter registration in [Alabama], how the people in Lowndes County had armed themselves against Establishment violence. Their political group, called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, had a black panther for its symbol. A few days later, while Bobby and I were rapping, I suggested that we use the panther as our symbol."
Like the West Coast members of RAM with whom they had worked in the Soul Students Advisory Council, Newton and Seale decided to form a chapter of the Black Panther Party. But guided by Newton's epiphany, they took their party in a different direction that would have long-term political consequences.
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