Inside the Gun of the Black Panther Party

This post is part of our online roundtable on Robyn Spencer’s The Revolution Has Come

On May 2, 1967, Black Panthers amassed at the Capitol in Sacramento brandishing guns to protest a bill before an Assembly committee restricting the carrying of arms in public. Photo: Walt Zeboski / AP

In 1973, Amar Casey arrived in Oakland to work at the Oakland Community School. Casey was part of a small migration of Panthers coming from around the nation as the Black Panther Party consolidated its forces in its home city. Casey’s story—his candid and striking thoughts about life in the Black Panther Party—was one of the many stories and thoughts from rank-and-file Panthers that shoots from the pages of Robyn C. Spencer’s The Revolution Has Come.

Spencer aims “to tell the narrative history of the Black Panther Party from the inside out.” She wants readers “to know what it meant to live inside an organization that considered itself revolutionary—to experience comradeship, to feel the joy that came with a deep political commitment, and to feel the agony of betrayal by people, ideas, and the very organization they were committed to” (p. 202–203).

Aside from the self-defensive black panther, the members of the Party best embodied the image of the self-defensive gun. When Spencer takes her readers inside the gun of the Black Panther Party, she does not guide them to the familiar faces of the leaders—Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Elaine Brown. Readers primarily witness and listen to the triumphs and struggles of the rank-and-file members of the Party.

The Revolution Has Come represents the revolution that is coming—that has already arrived in the burgeoning historiography of Black Power. After nearly two decades of ever-flowing and exciting literature on the leaders of grassroots Black Power organizations, historians are focusing on unearthing the grassroots of the grassroots. Guiding this shift have undoubtedly been social historians and historians of Black Power women, from the pioneering work of Rhonda Williams to now Robyn Spencer (and Ashley Farmer, whose book on how Black women transformed Black Power is coming out in November). These historians are not only telling the unknown stories of Black women, but also the relatively unknown stories of rank-and-file Black men like Amar Casey, and complicating terms like “leader” and “rank-and-file” in the process.

The Revolution Has Come is a social history of the Black Panther Party, especially the latter chapters of the book. Spencer carefully, sharply, and artfully displays in vivid detail not merely the life of the Black Panther Party, but the lives of the Panthers—not merely the voice of the Black Panther Party, but the voices of the Panthers. It is a book that appears—based on the dates of her interviews—to have been in the making for two decades. And it shows. The Revolution Has Come sits on a weighty body of research and a weighty body of everyday experiences and voices like that of Amar Casey.

Women of the Black Panther Party in Oakland in the late 1960s (Photo: PBS)

When Casey came to Oakland in 1973 to work at the school, hundreds of Oakland Panthers were at work. “I was amazed at what they owned—it blew me away,” Casey told Spencer decades later. “They had the school, they had the dormitory for the children, they had a newspaper, they had a restaurant, a medical clinic. They had an amazing infrastructure” (p. 132). This amazing infrastructure had to be funded and operated by people, which put an enormous strain on all those Party members.

Casey found himself in the field nearly every weekend, soliciting donations for Party programs. He received a percentage back “and that’s what you had to live on,” he recalled. “And it worked a bit because you were supported, you got food and housing, but you were pretty dirt poor for the most part” (p. 191).

Spencer shares the stories of the leaders: their audacious protests, their displays of force, their court cases and jailing, their penthouse suites, their edicts to the members, their ideological and tactical wrangling. But Spencer also takes us through the lives of people like Casey. Living and working in the dormitory of the Oakland Community School, he would wake up around five o’clock in the morning. He would help bathe the children living in the dormitory, dress them and get them ready for school. “You ride in the van and come to school; you teach school all day” (p. 195).

Casey described how workers would either ride back to the dormitory with the students after the school day at 5 o’clock in the early evening, and then bathe the schoolchildren and get them ready for bed. Or, “you stay in the school and you cleaned the whole school, you see.” That could mean Panthers not leaving the school until midnight “and you got to be back there” the next morning, every weekday—and then solicit donations on Saturdays, and attend meetings on Sundays (p. 195).

“So you end up having half a day on Sunday really to yourself,” he said. “Now you’re doing this week after week after week after week after week after year after year, you’re doing this. No holidays, ain’t none of that, ain’t no break” (p. 196).

Black Panther Grocery Distribution (Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries)

Casey’s story—which echoes the stories of so many other women and men Spencer highlighted in The Revolution Has Come—shows that inside the barrel of the gun was a fiery commitment to the organization and to bringing resources to the people. But this “brutal exploitation of the collective,” as Casey described it, eventually led to Panthers getting tired and leaving. This exodus picked up in the late 1970s when declining organizational resources necessitated even greater exploitation of the rank-and-file members. With the unrelenting demands of Party work, Casey recalled that there “was very little balance in terms of the development of the individual” (p. 196).

Individuals certainly had little time to pursue their own leisurely interests outside the Party. However, Spencer’s look inside the Party shows that there was in fact ample time for the development of the individual.

Black Panther Party members not only tried to transform the world; they tried to transform themselves, she argues. This struggle within the struggle unfolded in the day-to-day realities of the rank-and-file—those who occupied the most democratic layer of the organization (p. 4).

Spencer documents the Panthers’ regular struggle against individualism, sexism, sexual violence, physical violence, homophobia, betrayal, and poverty inside Panther spaces. She details their efforts to build trust and respect and provide basic living necessities for their comrades amid the policing forces sowing distrust. Spencer even wisely reveals their bouts with one of the more personal human feelings: loneliness. “Collective living and rigorous work routines bred an insularity that left many rank-and-file Panthers with feelings of isolation,” Spencer maintains. Panther women felt especially isolated and lonely because of what Spencer describes as “the party’s unspoken policy” that Panther women could not date outside the organization. “I feel that great sense of loneliness which I feel and know that [what] others feel can be greatly helped with the coming of people in the community being able to spend time with us,” one Panther woman wrote (p. 186–187).

Spencer quotes this woman at length, allowing her to pour out her feelings about how community attention is needed and wanted, allowing her to pour out her experiences of Panther men expecting sex from her and other Panther women, allowing her to pour out her feminist ideas. “More equal grounds could be gained,” the Panther woman wrote, “and this would promote more appreciation of the female and more female appreciation of herself” (p. 188).

The book is not necessarily organized around the voices of these Panther women and men—as much as they fill up the topical sections within a topical narrative. The topics drive the voices. Perhaps Spencer would have better achieved her aim of providing an insider’s view by allowing the voices to drive the topics.

Readers learn about the rank-and-file Panthers as Panthers, instead of as people with lives before and after the Party. There are two lives to tell as a social historian of an organization: the life of the organization from the perspectives and experiences of the rank-and-file, and the life—or lives, rather—of the members of the rank-and-file inside and outside the organization. What made the Black Panther Party was not its philosophy, its ten-point program, its audacious uniform, or its bold rhetoric. It was not merely its remarkable cadre of leaders that were killed, jailed, exiled, or undermined by the state. It was the rank-and-file. They made the Black Panther Party and came to be identified as Black Power’s fiercest gun.

Spencer’s The Revolution Has Come shows once again that inside the gun of the Black Panther Party were not deadly bullets aimed at White people. Inside the gun were life-giving and life-defending community servants who shot out of bed every day before dawn to help Black people in need.

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Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Best Seller. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.