Life in the Struggle: Stories of Life in the Black Panther Party

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

Black Panther Convention at the Lincoln Memorial, June 1970. Photo: Library of Congress.
Black Panther Convention at the Lincoln Memorial, June 1970. Photo: Library of Congress.

In her conclusion, Robyn C. Spencer asserts that in writing The Revolution Has Come she wanted “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 the betrayal by people, ideas, and the very organization they were committed to” (p.202–203). The Black Panther Party and its leaders, especially Huey Newton, are, along with Malcolm X, perhaps the most iconic representatives of the surge in Black nationalism and militancy of the 1960s and 1970s.

In popular culture and the public imagination, the members of the party are powerful Black (mostly) men dressed in sharp leather suits and berets, sporting prominently displayed firearms, and standing up to, while also becoming victims of, police brutality and federal harassment. Historians pursuing a bottom-up approach to telling the story of the past have complicated this image by documenting the work of party chapters outside Oakland, their connection to other grassroots radicalism in their communities, and most important the development and fortunes of the survival programs. Spencer seeks to go further and to excavate relations within the party itself, to understand how the members remade their lives, struggled with interpersonal relations, and tried to embody the empowered community they were seeking to create on a day-to-day basis.

In many ways, Spencer’s narrative reshapes how we see the Black Panther Party. To start, she sheds light on the Oakland context and how it affected different phases of the party’s history. Spencer captures the ferment of local grassroots community organizing against economic inequality and racial segregation that included civil rights, the War on Poverty, and multiracial protest organizations. As Clarence Lang also demonstrated, in St. Louis, in the early to mid-1960s, the lines between organizations and between “rights” and “power” could be thin and people moved easily from one issue or strategy to another. The Black Panther Party was just one organization to arise from this seedbed, and by tracing its diverse roots Spencer is able to show how the party was influenced by its milieu.

Moreover, by emphasizing the party’s coalition-building in the late 1960s and 1970s, Spencer enables us to see its work not in isolation but as part of a broader movement. The Bay Area was home to a wide range of liberation movements by people of color, antiwar organizations, and left-wing groups. The “Free Huey” campaign built bridges to these potential allies, and Spencer shows that rank-and-file Panthers understood and appreciated the need for multiracial coalitions both philosophically (as a class-based revolutionary organization) and practically (for the money and connections white friends could bring). Those alliances helped fuel the political campaigns of party leaders: first in Cleaver’s run with the Peace and Freedom Party in 1968 and then in races for local seats in 1972. The survival programs also drew on resources in the broader community through fundraising, cooperation from local churches, and the sometimes less-than-completely-voluntary donations from Black-owned businesses. Notably, it appears the Panthers thrived most and made their most positive contributions when they were most engaged with fellow Oakland residents in community and political programs. Thus, as much as she sets out to reveal what it meant to live in a revolutionary party, Spencer also illuminates how the members lived in this particular urban community. While the party was shaped by ideology, leadership, and the harassment of federal authorities, the members and their activities were also products of the Oakland environment and their relationship with the ongoing struggles there.

Black Community Survival Conference, March 30th, 1972, Free grocery distribution (Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries)

Spencer also shows that living in a revolutionary organization meant living under persistent attack, and she reveals the toll that could take on the day-to-day experience of, and relationships between, the members. Local and federal authorities identified the Panthers as a threat almost immediately. The story of the harassment, legal attacks, and murders of party members has been a pronounced feature of scholarship on the party, and Spencer gives it much space here, but she also elaborates on the internal response to the campaign against them. The Panthers had already built a system of membership requirements, training, rules, and punishments to control its growing and far-flung membership. The repression against them led to a more vigorous implementation of discipline. Leaders began to tighten control over chapters. There was a crackdown on dissent, which was seen as disloyal and subversive. Potential agents provocateurs needed to be identified and expelled. Indeed, there were waves of purges, often stemming from personality conflicts at the top. Members went through increased political education with frequent quizzes, and in daily life there was a collapsing of the “personal and the political” (p.133) as daily schedules, appearance, and even demeanor were monitored. Punishment for infractions of rules could include verbal criticism, physical abuse, and uncontestable expulsion. Meanwhile, legal problems put a strain on resources, causing a decline in the living conditions of rank-and-file members.

Finally, over time a near cult of personality came to surround Newton, who was increasingly cut off from a demoralized, poorly financed, and disempowered rank and file. Spencer paints a dismal tale of how repression can warp the inner life of a social movement, exposing the betrayal of the ideals of mass empowerment and equality. She also suggests that hierarchical organization, with its rigid discipline and power concentrated in the hands of a few men at the top, contributed to the lack of flexibility to respond more productively to attacks against the party.

What kept the party going through nearly a decade of constant harassment and conflict? In several places, Spencer makes clear that it was women in the organization. Running as an undercurrent throughout the narrative is a consideration of gender and the place of women in an organization shaped by masculinist assumptions, rhetoric, and practices. Spencer argues Black women were attracted to the party because they saw it as a vehicle for their own struggles against poverty and powerlessness, and they regarded it as less patriarchal than its main rivals, especially the Nation of Islam. When men were killed, incarcerated, or expelled, women were left to run the programs, and indeed it was revealed they had been doing that already. In periods of stress when the organization turned to developing a closer connection to the Oakland community and to modeling a revolutionary way of life, women were at the forefront. In particular, they were the backbone of the community survival programs.

But women were also subject to more restrictions in the party rules even in their personal lives, and the rhetoric and imagery used by the members persistently reaffirmed a preference for masculine leadership. Even Elaine Brown, the most significant female Panther leader, was eventually forced out of the organization. Spencer concludes that, despite periodic debates over gender roles and efforts to promote equality in gendered areas of life such as childrearing, the Party never fulfilled its rhetorical commitment to ending sexism.

Black Community Survival Conference, March 30th, 1972, Ericka Huggins (Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries)

Spencer’s focus on women’s stories and her heavy use of oral histories with or writings by female members help her achieve her goal of revealing the inner life of the party while also bringing to mind a missed opportunity for completely fulfilling the book’s promise. Perhaps because women’s voices are traditionally marginalized in the written record, and were certainly so in the Party hierarchy, these retrospective insights from female members carry great weight in Spencer’s narrative. By its nature oral history is suited to painting a picture of day-to-day living with mundane details that do not make it into the written record. Most importantly, such interviews fill in the emotional stitches that help historical narratives capture the feeling and experience of life. For me, the most telling passage of the book comes near the end of the story, when Spencer shares women members’ insights about the sense of isolation, loneliness, and frustration about gender dynamics they felt as the party was disintegrating. It is a window into the emotional struggle of people living inside a movement and worrying over its demise.

Because the purpose of these forums is to propel conversation, I will end with an observation stemming from my one disappointment with the book. In many ways Spencer fleshes out the life of the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party, achieving her goal of digging into life inside a revolutionary movement. But I found little evidence of joy in the picture painted. Perhaps that sublime emotion is not possible in times of almost continual tension brought on by surveillance and attack. Perhaps the problem is, as Tim Tyson wrote, that “Historians find it hard to be peddlers of hope,” and thus we falter when it comes to telling stories of joy.

But I wonder if a more prolonged focus on the community survival programs would have brought out memories of a sense of fulfillment, at least. Scholars of social movements must tell stories of defeat and failure all the time; unfortunately, that is part of the task of documenting the struggle for justice. An honest history requires a reckoning with the fact that the fight for human rights and empowerment has a long way to go. But if we are to understand how people continued to struggle anyway, then the story of the daily lives of grassroots activists must include moments when they felt delight, or at least momentary satisfaction. Without them, how can their stories inspire others to pick up the fight?

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Tracy K'Meyer

Tracy E. K’Meyer is Professor of History at University of Louisville and also serves as Co-Director of the Oral History Center. Her research interests center on modern U.S. social movements, especially against racism, and the role of progressive faith-based activism. She is the author of several books, including Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980 and From Brown to Meredith: The Long Struggle for School Desegregation in Louisville, Kentucky, 1954-2007.