The legacy lives on: Black Panther Party founding member Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard carries the message to San Diego youth
by Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard
I am one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party and was a member for eight years. Some of the important rewards about being a former member of the Black Panther Party include opportunities to pass on our history and legacy to the next generations and to learn what young activists in other communities are accomplishing. This give and take of information, which is not adequately shared in mainstream media, is vital to continuing the struggle for human rights and against this oppressive “injustice” system which exists here and worldwide.
Recently, a dear friend and former BPP member, Professor Roberta Alexander, invited me to San Diego for an event organized by a group of young community activists and visionaries called Pillars of the Community. This group was founded by her son, Paul (Khalid) Alexander, also a professor. He organized this event because these young people were extremely interested in how they could apply lessons learned from the Black Panther Party to their work as activists today.
In June, my wife, Carole, and I went to San Diego and spent several enjoyable days before the event seeing some of San Diego’s sights, hosted by members of Pillars of the Community. A highlight was meeting with Paul and other members of the group at a dinner at his home.
We learned that a large part of the work of Pillars of the Community (POTC) consists of running several programs, one of which is assisting formerly incarcerated people living in Encanto and other parts of southeast San Diego with re-entry back into society. Other programs are also directed toward at-risk children, in particular those with incarcerated or otherwise unavailable parents, and also unemployed community members.
We also learned that some of their programs include training community members in dealing with law enforcement and understanding and knowing their constitutional rights, hosting nationally and locally recognized activists and authors for conversations about civic engagement, and job coaching. In addition, they have a summer pilot program entitled “Reclaiming Our Stories” geared towards helping people in the community tell their own stories and expose how the criminal justice system has impacted their lives.
Some of the important rewards about being a former member of the Black Panther Party include opportunities to pass on our history and legacy to the next generations and to learn what young activists in other communities are accomplishing.
To see details on these and other programs, please go to POTC’s web-site: http://potcsd.org.
One of POTC’s most active campaigns is called #Justice4SD33, which is a coalition of groups that formed in response to the San Diego District Attorney’s use of an obscure Prop. 21 penal code – PC182.5 – as an excuse to round up 33 young African-American men. Penal Code 182.5 allows for the prosecution of active gang members if they promote, assist or benefit from the crime.
Two of these young co-defendants, Aaron Harvey and Brandon “Tiny-Doo” Duncan, started a working coalition called #Justice4SD33. Pillars of the Community, working together with other community organizations, have had great success in bringing media attention to their cases, and 30 of the 33 cases have been dropped.
We met Aaron, whose case was dropped, and his brother, Alonzo, whose case is pending, and were impressed with the strength and organizing abilities they have learned and utilized. #Justice4SD33 is not slowing down and the coalition is determined and committed to fighting against gang documentation and injunction laws, which are racially profiling, targeting and criminalizing brown and black youths.
Pillars of the Community, working together with other community organizations, have had great success in bringing media attention to their cases, and 30 of the 33 cases have been dropped.
You can read more of Aaron Harvey’s story here, https://www.facebook.com/SDBlackAgenda/posts/338701049669926:0, and here, http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2015/mar/16/gang-conspiracy-dismissed-tiny-doo-harvey/.
Another delightful highlight of my trip to San Diego was a visit to the African Museum. I went with Professor Darius Spearman and met the knowledgeable owner, Professor Chuck Ambers, curator and historian. The museum has a vast number of exhibits, including Ancient Nile Valley Civilization, African Latin-American Connection, the Bookstore/Gift Shop and so much more of interest. Here is the information on the museum: African Museum, Casa del Rey Moro, www.amber.com, 2471 Congress St., San Diego, 619-220-0022. Professor Chuck Ambers’ email is email@example.com.
The event itself, at which I participated as guest speaker, occurred on Sunday, June 7, 2015, at 11 a.m. and was listed as “A Conversation with Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard, Hosted by Pillars of the Community, at Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, 404 Euclid Ave., San Diego.”
The audience consisted of community members, both young and older, educators, students and activists. Professor Roberta Alexander presented a great introduction, which included some background information about the Black Panther Party and my work in the Black Panther Party. My presentation then followed with some more detailed information, including history on how the BPP developed and evolved.
Some of the questions I was asked to give information on included the following:
- “How did we in the BPP go about community organizing?”
- “How did we develop the survival programs?”
- “What was the impact of the BPP?”
In addressing these questions, I related some history of the BPP in San Diego – including how the breakfast program was targeted by the FBI’s Covert Program (COINTELPRO) as part of their plan to destroy the Black Panther Party. I also described how, in 1968, the FBI took steps to disrupt the BPP in San Diego by creating hostility between the US Organization of Ron Karenga and the Panthers.
FBI Director Herbert Hoover sent out a memorandum to his field officers that a “state of gang warfare” existed between US and the BPP. As a result of this and other actions, two San Diego Panthers, John Savage and Sylvester Bell, were killed by US members. Churches which permitted Panthers in San Diego to use their facilities for the BPP Free Breakfast for Children Program were also targeted.
The FBI put pressure on the Bishop of the San Diego Diocese and forced Catholic priest Father Frank Curran to withdraw his support of the BPP Breakfast Program. This was a part of San Diego history that most of the young people present were not aware of, as much time has since gone by, but they were very responsive and seemed eager to learn. They must have understood that information is the raw material for new ideas!
I believe that we all mutually enjoyed and benefitted from my time there and I must say it was especially encouraging for us to see what the members of Pillars of the Community and other young activists there in San Diego are accomplishing. I wish Pillars of the Community much success with their community programs and in their struggle for human rights and freedom from oppressors.
It was especially encouraging for us to see what the members of Pillars of the Community and other young activists there in San Diego are accomplishing. I wish Pillars of the Community much success with their community programs and in their struggle for human rights and freedom from oppressors.
In closing, I will add that although we now have so many tools at our disposal for communication, because of a lack of coverage by mainstream media, intent to keep us ignorant and isolated from each other, some of us may become at times disconnected and disheartened. When we do connect and share information and accomplishments with each other, this can be powerfully rewarding as it not only creates bridges and understanding, but can be uplifting, inspiring and reaffirming. It gives us the hope and the strength to continue the struggle and reaffirms our belief that power does indeed lie in the hands of the people.
Elbert “Big Man” Howard is a founding member of the Black Panther Party and is an author, lecturer and community activist in Sonoma County and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.