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Gary Younge
By any means necessary

The announcement of who had won the contest for homecoming queen at the prestigious, historically black, Howard University, in Washington DC, was always a dramatic affair. A high-backed throne was placed on a revolving stage with its back to the audience and would then be slowly swivelled around in the dark until the lights came on to reveal the winner. But the 1966 election was more dramatic than most. Until then it had been little more than a display of conservative African-American femininity, where the candidates paraded in the latest styles and flashy cars, smiling sweetly and pressing flesh before the secret ballot on election day. In 1966 a young woman called Robin Gregory stood with an altogether different agenda. She canvassed the dorms preaching black power and women's rights and wore her hair in an afro, looking sharp but by no means dainty.

The votes were cast, the candidates were backstage and the lights dimmed. In the civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize, Paula Giddings recalled hearing the crank of the revolving stage begin. "Well before you saw Robin, you saw the silhouette of her afro... Well, the auditorium just exploded. People started jumping up and screaming and some were raising their fists, then spontaneously a chant began. The chant was 'Umgawa, black power, umgawa, black power,' and people started to march out of the auditorium... and out into the streets."

The year 1966 was a pivotal moment in America's racial landscape of which Gregory's election was a salient illustration. It was the year that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The International Black Panthers film festival, which took place in New York last weekend, gave an opportunity to bring that turbulent time to life and the politics advanced in those days up to date. Films such as Eyes on the Prize, May Day, which documented a huge Panther rally demanding freedom for Newton, evoked the battles of the 1960s, while short pieces such as 41 Shots, a documentary-style musical tribute to Amadou Diallo, the unarmed Guinean immigrant who was shot 41 times by the New York police at the doorway to his apartment, acted as bulwarks against over-indulgent nostalgia.

The theme of the festival was "to capture the imagination of a new generation", an attempt to throw the debate forward but which also described precisely what the Panthers had done back in the 1960s. Then they were central to a shift that was not just political but demographic, aesthetic, generational and cultural. The year before their founding had seen the Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, stopped in its tracks by the billyclubs and tear gas of Alabama's finest, and the passage of the voting rights act, which guaranteed African-Americans all over the country their basic democratic rights. The year after would see rioting in Detroit, Newark, Boston and Milwaukee. It also saw the first election of a black mayor in a major American city, when Carl Stokes took the oath in Cleveland. The focus of struggle had moved from civil rights in rural areas of the south to economic rights in the urban north, and its leaders and their tactics were moving with it.

In 1965 the leaders marched serenely in well-tailored suits , quoting from the Bible; in 1967 they would strut defiantly, wearing leather jackets and berets and carrying guns and citing Mao. The Black Panthers took the slogans and emblems of the civil rights struggle ("black power" entered the mainstream during a march in Mississippi; "black panther" was first used by activists in Alabama) and carried them like a baton to an entirely different political place. They started with a campaign to put up a stop sign at a busy intersection outside a school in Oakland, California, where a large number of children had been hurt. By September 1968 the FBI chief, J Edgar Hoover, had branded the Black Panthers "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country".

Hoover's assessment was a gross exaggeration. But it is one that the Panthers would have been flattered by. The logic of the new party was built on the premise that non-violence as a strategy had had its day and it was time for African-Americans to turn Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" from words into action. They were out to confront not only racism but capitalism too.

"Huey and I began to try to figure out how we could organise youthful black folks into some kind of political electoral power movement," said Seale. "Huey come up with some notion that if you drive a panther into a corner, if he can't go left and he can't go right, then he will tend to come out of that corner to wipe out or stop his aggressor. So we're just like the black panthers."

Both Newton and Seale were very much products of their time. Like many black Americans then, they had left their birthplace in the rural south for the big cities, having moved in search of better wages and less racism as part of the great migration that followed the mechanisation of cotton-picking and the civil rights era.

In 1940, 77% of black Americans lived in the south - 49% were rural. By 1970 black America was only half southern and more than three-quarters lived in cities. "Black migration was one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history - perhaps the greatest not caused by the immediate threat of execution or starvation," wrote Nicholas Lehmann in his book, The Promised Land.

Such huge population movements had political consequences that were evident in the Panthers' agenda. Most importantly, it had its roots in political ideology rather than religion - an exceptional state of affairs for black American politics. Examine the roll-call of 20th-century African-American leadership, from Adam Clayton Powell, through Martin Luther King, to Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson, and you'll see only a handful of prominent figures emerging from outside organised religion, because, after slavery, the churches were one of the few places that black people could congregate without attracting suspicion.

Quite what you would call the Panthers' guiding ideology is not clear. It was a mixture of Leninism, black nationalism, Maoism and Castroism, with the teachings of developing-world theorists like Fanon thrown in. But whatever it was, it was not religious, and the absence of religion made more space for both political debate and collective leadership. "Our programme was structured on the Black Muslim programme - minus the religion," said Huey Newton.

They linked issues of race to class, as King and Malcolm X had done in theory, but had never been able to achieve in practice. It was the late Fred Hampton, shot dead by police in Chicago, who coined the phrase "rainbow coalition", as he worked with Hispanics and poor Appalachian whites. That the Panthers were internationalists is not surprising, given the swathe of anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia - not least the Vietnam war - and uprisings throughout both western and eastern Europe. Asked why they wore berets, Newton said: "Because they were used by just about every struggler in the third world. They're sort of an international hat for the revolutionary."

The Panthers were by no means infallible, particularly given the standards they set, both for themselves and others. While there were a number of women in the movement, feminism was a coexisting current that almost completely passed them by. Their attraction to the tropes of militarism - the guns, the berets, the marching and patrolling - owed more to macho posturing than radical politics. Having declared war on the US and exposed the brutality of its state machinery, you cannot help but think that they might have been more prepared for the consequences.

Their violent past is no secret. By the time the organisation imploded in the early 1970s it had left 28 members dead; 68 wounded; 14 police officers dead; eight members are still in prison. But then there were other statistics too. The 200,000 hot breakfasts provided daily for schoolchildren; 1m tests for sickle-cell anaemia; 200,000 weekly newspapers; 5,000 followers in 48 chapters.

Not long after J Edgar Hoover called on the FBI to "exploit all avenues of creating further dissension in the ranks of the Black Panther Party," the party was riddled with informers. One of them would pass on the floor plans to the home of the Illinois leader, Hampton, who was then murdered in his bed. It was 1969 and, like most of his fellow Panthers, Hampton was young - only 21 - which makes it almost indecently early to talk of a Panther legacy, since most of them are still alive, and many are politically active.

The Panthers have no direct political descendants. They left no guiding ideology, theory, little black book or organisational framework, but you will see their bequest reflected in everything from hip-hop lyrics, to local activism around police brutality, and miscarriages of justice. Shining brightly and burning out quickly, they took the consciousness of black America to another level; giving a political voice to the impatience of youth, and the more defiant, less beseeching spirit of the post-civil rights era.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
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