The Black Panther Party:
A Short Historiography for Teachers
by Yohuru Williams
As we are still in many ways coming to grips with the legacy of the Black Power Movement, the historiography of the Black Panther Party is still in its infancy. While the overall pool of sources remains relatively small and uneven, there are still some good places to start.
The earliest chroniclers of the party were the Panthers themselves. While Panther memoirs pose a unique problem in negotiating the contested terrain between memory and history, there are nevertheless a few that are essential for comprehending its growth and development over time. Bobby Seale’s Seize the Time (1970), Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power(1992) and David Hilliard’s This Side of Glory (1992) provide general information and background on the BPP. Each has its own strengths and weakness but also offer unique perspectives on different periods and aspects of the party. Seale, for instance, documents the origins of the party and its struggles as an organization up through 1969. Brown’s book is similarly vital in its discussion of the important contributions and unique challenges women faced in the party. A slew of Panther biographies in recent years include Flores Forbes, Will You Die with Me (2006), which continues the Panther tradition, for better or worse, of documenting its own history in outlandish—and at times impossible to verify--detail. In 2002, David Hilliard and Donald Weise republished Huey Newton’s 1973 book To Die for the People with a few previously unpublished works by Newton in The Huey P. Newton Reader. Although these are good places to begin examining the group’s legacy from the perspective of some of its leading members, scholars have offered more searing and critically balanced accounts.
With the exception of a handful of dissertations in the early 1970s, journalists wrote the earliest “histories” of the party including Gene Marine’s 1969 book, The Black Panthers, Murray Kempton’s account of the trial of 21 New York BPP members implicated in a bombing plot, The Briar Patch (1973), Donald Freed’s, Agony in New Haven: The Trial of Bobby Seale, Ericka Huggins and the Black Panther Party (1973), and Gail Sheehy’s Panthermania (1971), to name a few. Like the Panther memoirs, these vary widely in usefulness since few placed the party in a larger historical context. With a major emphasis on the national leadership, these works tended to view the Panthers as the radical fringe of the non-violent civil rights movement often in dramatic prose. The back cover of Gene Marine’s book for example, famously characterized the Party as “Uniformed, Armed Men in America!: Black Men Who talk back –and Shoot Back!” Published before the verdict in the complicated 1970 murder trial exonerating Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins in New Haven, Connecticut Sheehy nevertheless dismissed the Panthers as undeserving of national attention. “I would only hope that this year we all have more courage to consult the facts and to resist the emotional catharsis of manufacturing black martyrs,” she wrote. “There is too much real work to be done.” Such accounts would later help to fuel the idea that the BPP was little more than a media creation.
Popular histories of the party are rarer still and include Michael Newton’s 1981 publication Bitter Grain: the Story of Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party which, notwithstanding its lack of citations, chronicles the party’s rise and fall in age appropriate language, especially helpful for young readers. Despite much of his information coming from newspaper accounts, it is still a useful overview. A more recent but less cogent popular history is Jim Kaskins, Power to the People: The Rise and Fall of the Black Panther Party (1997). For a whodunit collaboration by a journalist and a professor of urban politics, in the style of the early journalistic accounts of the Party, see Paul Bass and Douglas W. Rae, Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of a Killer. For photographs, see Stephen Shames, The Black Panthers (2006). The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, 1967-1980 (2007), offers students a firsthand look at some of the party’s important newspaper articles. For the revolutionary artwork produced by BPP, see Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas.  Two compelling video sources are The Murder of Fred Hampton (2007) and What We Want, What We Believe: The Black Panther Party Library (2006). 
Professional historians have been reluctant to take on the Panthers but this beginning to change.. The first wave of scholarship to challenge the idea that the BPP were a dangerous and self-detructive entity came from outside the discipline of history. Political Scientist, Charles Jones edited anthology The Black Panther Party Reconsidered (1998) remains a useful resource on the Party, especially for the authors introduction debunking some of the more popular myths associated with the party and for several of the essays engagement of critical issues such as gender and violence. Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsificas’s Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party (2001) is an interdisciplinary collection. While several of the essays are quite interesting, overall this work will be of less interest to teachers seeking to build content knowledge on the party. 
In 2000, I published the first full scale treatment of the Black Panther Party in a local setting, Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Panthers in New Haven.  This study sought to locate the history of the party in relation to the much larger Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. It demonstrated how at the local level the BPP could be an important conduit for change. In his award-winning book, American Babylon, historian Robert Self discusses the group with the broad sweep of Oakland's postwar urbnan development.
There is much to consider in the works by professional historians on the BPP. To disentangle some of the myths and assumptions about the Panthers that float as popular history begin with In Search of the Black Panther Party (2006). Edited by Jama Lazerow and myself, this collection historicizes the party’s place in history through a multi-faceted engagement with the many groups, organization, and constituencies that effected, and it turned were effected by, the Panthers.
Several short works, including articles and book chapters are available to help build content knowledge quickly. For a general accounting of the party in relation to the much larger issues associated with the Black Power Movement, you should begin with chapter nine, “The Trial of Huey P. Newton,” in Peniel Joseph’s Waiting ’Til The Midnight Hour. Chapter Eight of my book, Black Politics/White Power is also useful as an overview, especially if you are interested in relating the Panthers origins to events nationally and discussing their impact beyond the special confines of Oakland. Donna Murch essay, “The Campus and the Street: Race, Migration, and the Origins of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, CA,” offers new insights into the southern of the Party in Oakland. Murch masterfully documents how the Panthers not only inherited their ideas on self-defense but also their emphasis on education from their southern origins. 
The BPP formed alliances with various organizations throughout its history and was internationalist in its outlook. Two outstanding essays on the Panthers relations with the predominately-white peace and freedom party and the Students for a Democratic Society respectively by Joel Wilson and David Barber appear in the anthology In Search of the Black Panther Party. On the Panthers, internationalism see Jennifer B. Smith’s, An International History of the Black Panther Party.
For the Panthers relationship with mainstream civil rights organizations see my essay “A Red Black and Green Liberation Jumpsuit, Roy Wilkins, the FBI and the Conundrum of Black Power” in Peniel Joseph’s anthology The Black Power Movement (2006). Simon Hall offers a good more general overview on the relations between the Panthers and the NAACP while Scot Brown illuminates the party’s tumultuous relationship with Maulana Karenga’s US organization. 
My article “In the Name of the Law: the 1967 Police Shooting of Huey Newton and Law Enforcement’s Permissive Environment,” published in the Black History Bulletin in 1998 is a good primer on the Panthers that looks both at their early programs and encounters with police. Two recent works, Curtis Austin’s Up Against the Wall: Violencein the Making and the Unmaking of the Black Panther Party (2006) and Christopher B. Strain’s Fire: Self-Defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era (2005) endeavor to deal with violence within the BPP from two different if complimentary perspectives. Strain attempts to link the Panthers emphasis on armed self-defense with defensive traditions growing out of the South. Austin, on the other hand, squarely engages the political and personal violence that plagued the party as an important factor that contributed to the party’s demise. 
In a short essay, considering the local history of the Panthers, Jim Campbell observed that the BPP might be best understood best not as a national organization but as a “Congress of local movements.” If you are interested in this aspect of the party, be sure to reference several short articles that document this history. In Jeanne Theoharris and Komozi Woodard’s anthology Freedom North, historian Jon Rice, for instance provides an interesting if problematic portrait of the Chicago BPP. The special issue of The Black Scholar edited by Peniel Joseph that gave birth to “Black Power Studies” includes an article on the New Haven Black Panther Party. Two intriguing essays, Reynaldo Anderson's, "Practical Internationalists: the Story of the De Moines, Iowa Black Panther Party" and Robyn Ceanne Spencer's, "Inside the Panther Revolution: The Black Freedom Movement and the Black Panther Party of Oakland, California” document aspects of the local history of the party.  Much more substantive short local Studies on Panther and Panther inspired groups in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Winston Salem, North Carolina, Omaha, Nebraska, Detroit, Michigan, Birmingham, Alabama and Milwaukee, Wisconsin are found in the forthcoming Duke Volume, Liberated Territory: Untold Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party (forthcoming 2008). For a substantial treatment of the Panthers in a larger urban study, see Winston A. Grady-Willis well documented study, Challenging U.S. Apartheid: Atlanta and Black Struggles for Human Rights, 1960-1977.
Two other books on the BPP Jane Rhodes engaging study Framing the Black Panthers and former Oakland Panther Paul Alkebulan’s Survival Pending Revolution make important contributions to the growing body of Panther literature. In conjunction with the other studies mentioned in this brief bibliography they will provide you with the information, you need to design an informative unit on the Black Panther Party and the Black Power Movement.
 Gail Sheehy, Panthermania: The Clash of Black against Black in One American City (New York: Harper and Row, 1971Michael E. Staub, “Black Panthers, New Journalism, and the Rewriting of the Sixties, Representations,” No. 57 (Winter, 1997), pp. 52-72.
 Michael Newton, Bitter Grain, The Story of Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party (Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1980); Jim Kaskins, Power to the People: The Rise and Fall of the Black Panther Party (New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1997).
 Paul Bass and Douglas W. Rae, Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of a Killer (New York: Basic Books, 2006); for photographs see, Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones, Black Panthers: 1968 (LA: Greybull Press, 2002) and Stephen Shames, The Black Panthers (NY: Aperture, 2006). For Panther art, see the recent coffee table-style book, Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas (New York: Rizzoli, 2007).
 The Murder of Fred Hampton. DVD. 2007, FACETS. What We Want, What We Believe: The Black Panther Party Library. DVD. 2006. Oakland: AK Press.
 Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, Eds, Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Panthers and Their Legacy (New York: Routledge, 2001). Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodward, eds., Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America (New York: New York University Press, 2005); Charles E. Jones, ed., The Black Panther Party Reconsidered (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998); Yohuru Williams and Jama Lazerow, Liberated Territory: Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party (forthcoming from Durham: Duke University Press, 2008)
 A new edition is now available from Blackwell Press
 On the Panthers links to the struggles of other racial and ethnic groups see Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, compelling essay “Rainbow Radicalism: The Rise of the Radical Ethnic Nationalism, in Joseph, The Black Power Movement, chap.8; or his equally engaging article “Brown Power to Brown People: Radical Ethnic Nationalism, the Black Panthers and, Latino Radicalism, 1967-1973” in In Search of the Black Panther Party, 252-280; for the BPP’s connection with Asian Americans see Daryl J. Maeda, “Black Panthers, Red Guards, and Chinamen: Constructing Asian American Identity through Performing Blackness, 1969–1972,” American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1079-1103; For the Panthers influence on Maggie Khun and the Gray Panthers see my introductory comment , “Black Panther, White Tigers, Brown Berets, Oh My!,” in In Search of the Black Panther Party, 183-190; Donna Murch, “The Campus and the Street: Race, Migration, and the Origins of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, CA,” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, (October-December 2007) 9:4, 333 - 345.
 Yohuru Williams, “A Red Black and Green Liberation Jumpsuit, Roy Wilkins and the Conundrum of Black Power” in Joseph, The Black Power Movement, 169-191; Simon Hall, The NAACP, Black Power, and the African American Freedom Struggle, 1966-1969” The Historian 69 (1), 2007, 49–82;
 Curtis Austin, Up Against the Wall, Violence and the Making of the Black Panther Party, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006); Christopher B. Strain, Pure Fire: Self-Defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005).
 Reynaldo Anderson (communication studies), “Practical Internationalists: The Story of the Des Moines, Iowa, Black Panther Party,” and Robyn Ceanne Spencer, “Inside the Black Panther Revolution: The Black Freedom Movement and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California,” in Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America (NY: NYU Press, 2005), chap. 13
 Black Politics/White Power is still the only local monograph outside the Bay Area to focus on the Panthers. Also, “No Haven: From Civil Rights to Black Power in New Haven, Connecticut,” in The Black Scholar 31:3-4 (Fall/Winter 2001): 54-66; Winston A. Grady-Willis, Challenging U.S. Apartheid: Atlanta and Black Struggles for Human Rights, 1960-1977 (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2006). Curtis Austin’s study, though told from a national perspective, contains significant and sustained forays into the local history of a number of communities, Jon Rice, “The World of the Illinois Panthers,” in Jeanne F. Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, eds., Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980, (New York: Palgrave, 2003);; Two other such essays have been published by scholars outside the history discipline: Judson L. Jeffries (political science), “Black Radicalism and Political Repression in Baltimore: The Case of the Black Panther Party,” Ethnic and Racial Studies (London), 25 (Jan. 2002): 64-98; In addition to a biography on Huey Newton, Huey Newton: The Radical Theorist, Professor Jeffries has also edited two anthologies on the BPP.
 Paul Alkebulan, Survival Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007); Jane Rhodes, Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon (New York: The New Press, 2007). For new works on the BPP see Judson Jeffries, ed., Comrades: A Local History of the Black Panther Party (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).
Black Women, Black Power: A Historiography for Teachers
Rhonda Y. Williams
While I have already discussed numerous scholarly works that address black women, gender, and Black Power, other poignant studies exist that also explore black women’s Black Power politics and help situate their activism within a broader tradition of social protest, political thought, and cultural expression. A selective bibliography appears below.
Black nationalist politics has a deep and rich connection to black
For historical works, including scholarly biographies, of black women primarily in traditional black freedom organizations during the civil rights and Black Power eras, see Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965, eds., Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, eds. Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin (New York: New York University Press, 2001); Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); and Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2005). Also useful are Kathleen Cleaver, “Women, Power, and Revolution,” in Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party, eds. Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas (
Other studies examine black women’s feminist and radical responses to racism, sexism, poverty, imperialism, and heterosexism in the 20th century, including during and after the Black Power era. Joy James’s Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999) covers a sweep of time, starting with Ida B. Wells in the early 20th century and ending in the 1990s. Robin D.G. Kelley documents how some black women radicalized black liberation agendas in his book chapter entitled “‘This Battlefield Called Life’: Black Feminist Dreams” in Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2002). Erik McDuffie spotlights the U.S. domestic and transnational struggles of the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, a short-lived black women’s radical organization during the Cold War era, in his essay entitled: “[A] new freedom movement of Negro women”: Sojourning for Truth, Justice, and Human Rights during the Early Cold War” in Women, Transnationalism and Human Rights, eds. Karen Sotiropoulos and Rhonda Y. Williams, A Special Issue of the Radical History Review 101 (Spring 2008). In Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), Kimberly Springer provides the first book-length analytical study on the development of 1970s’ black feminist organizations, including their confrontation with black women’s and men’s homophobia. For an example of studies that explore sexuality and the politics of reproductive control, see Simone M. Caron, “Birth Control and the Black Community in the 1960s: Genocide or Power Politics?” Journal of Social History 31 no. 3 (Spring 1998) and Jennifer Nelson, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement (
Numerous studies discuss the broad swath of black women’s resistance at the local and national levels after World War II, decades rich with social struggles for self-determination and equality. Rhonda Y. Williams’ The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) examines low-income black women, their daily experiences, and social protest against the changing urban backdrop of public housing from the 1940s through the 1970s in Baltimore. In Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2004), Premilla Nadasen charts the formation of the National Welfare Rights Organization with an eye to its activist campaigns and internal race, gender, and class dynamics. Annelise Orleck in Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (Beacon, 2005) focuses on grassroots anti-poverty organizing among black women in
More historical work is needed on black women, their engagement in the Black Arts Movement, and their legacies in literature, visual art, and music. For one example, see Ruth Feldstein, “‘I Don’t Trust You Anymore’: Nina, Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s,” Journal of American History 91 (March 2005). The classic All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, eds. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith (New York: The Feminist Press of CUNY, 1982, 2003), provides a discussion of black female scholars’ creative literary and intellectual responses to white women’s racism, black men’s sexism, and homophobia. Also see, Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983, 2000); Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde (
Finally, for a sample of scholarship on black women and the contemporary politics of Malcolm X, see Farah Jasmine Griffin, “‘Ironies of the Saint’: Malcolm X, Black Women, and the Price of Protection,” in Sisters in the Struggle; and Patricia Hill Collins, “Learning to Think for Ourselves: Malcolm X’s Black Nationalism Reconsidered,” and Angela Y. Davis, “Meditations on the Legacy of Malcolm X,” both in Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, ed. Joe Wood (New York: Anchor Books, 1992).
Rhonda Y. Williams is associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University. She is author of the award winning The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) and the coeditor of two volumes: with Karen Sotiropoulos, Women, Transnationalism, and Human Rights, Radical History Review 101 (Spring 2008); and with Julie Buckner Armstrong, Susan Hult Edwards, and Houston Bryan Roberson, of Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement: Freedom’s Bittersweet Song (New York: Routledge, 2002).
concise yet exhaustive piece on the black panther party. very good article, thanks for sharing!
Post a Comment