The Black Panthers Speak

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This is a reprint of Foner’s 1970 collection of documents from the Black Panther Party. Of course, given the date of publication there is a good amount of material from the Panthers that is not included, but this is nevertheless an excellent resource for anyone interested in the Black Panthers as it does something that most books do not do–allow the Panthers to speak for themselves. One does not have to deal with either critics convinced that the Panthers were going to cause the breakdown of American society, nor does one have to deal with white leftists who have an almost fetish-like fascination with the Panthers. There are theoretical essays and other writings from a number of well-known Panthers including Huey P. Newton, Fred Hampton, Bobby Seale, and David Hillard; selections from their newspaper, The Black Panther; a collection of writings by female Panthers; and writings about the various social programs they instituted.

Ishmael Reed is quoted on cover of the book as saying that the book is ìa rebuttal to [the current] organized attempt to destroy the Panthersí legacyîóa statement that is indicative of the importance of this book. The Panthers are generally portrayed as a group of armed racist separatists that wanted to violently overthrow the government of the United States, and as one learns from this book, such a portrayal is fraught with inaccuracies. The Black Panthers, while armed, did so for reasons of self-defense, believing it was the only way to protect their communities from the racist police that patrol the ghettos. Moreover, the Black Panthers were not racist separatists; rather they were willing to work with oppressed peoples of all colors as a way of building a movement of international solidarity. The Panthers were committed Marxist-Leninists who sought the replacement of capitalism with the dictatorship of the proletariat which was a theoretical threat to the state and ruling class in the United States.

The Black Panther Party saw themselves as the vanguard of the black movement in the 1960s, but rather than merely issuing proclamations and presenting their “line” to the masses, the Panthers made it their goal to get out into the community and help people by talking to them and finding out what it was that they needed. The Black Panthers initiated a number of programs in response to their conversations with the black communities–free breakfast programs, health clinics, and education classes–all of which are discussed in the book. These programs are what is left out in many books on the 1960s or the civil rights movementóthe fact that the Panthers tried, and had success, in addressing the needs of the people in the black community, does not fit in with the image of the Panthers as gun-toting racists bent on the destruction of the United States.

This is essential reading for anyone interested in the Civil Rights Movement or the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s. With so much of the New Left’s later theoretical orientation being influenced by the Black Panthers, it would be impossible to understand their decisions without being familiar with the Panthers’ ideology and praxis.

Philip S. Foner, ed., The Black Panthers Speak, (Da Capo Press, 2002).

Author: mediamouse

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