by Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard
Looking back at the Black Panther Party is like looking at a large landscape of people, locations and events in time and space. For me, that time was between the years 1966 and 1974.
As memory fades increasingly with age, I won’t try to document in detail specifics such as the names of people and the exact dates of events. However, I do remember working with some of the most dynamic, resourceful and dedicated community organizers on the planet.
Oakland, California, became the birthplace of the Black Panther Party in 1966. A small group of young Black men got together and explored ideas of ways to confront racial injustice. Hanging out on the campus of Oakland City College and North Oakland was the core group of individuals who initially made up the Black Panther Party: Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Li’l Bobby Hutton, Reggie and Sherman Forte and me, Elbert “Big Man” Howard.
I first realized the immense impact the Black Panther Party was starting to have in 1967, when a Party member who had just returned from New York came by the Grove Street office and reported that a BPP chapter was developing in Harlem. That brother’s name was Pennywell and he did not stay around very long after that. I believe he returned to New York to continue to organize.
From that time on, the Party grew very rapidly in California with chapters and branches opening in Richmond, Vallejo, Marin City, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, Fresno and several in the Los Angeles area. To the north, we had chapters open in Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. Easterly and in the south, other chapters opened in Denver, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, Houston, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Memphis, Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta, Detroit, Winston-Salem, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Jersey City, New Haven, Bridgeport, Boston and there were numerous others, too many to enumerate in this short article.
I remember working with some of the most dynamic, resourceful and dedicated community organizers on the planet.
At any rate, the people involved in the BPP are what is most important. I am speaking in particular of those young men and women who did the work and most of all, those who paid the price with their lives and imprisonment for years upon years, on trumped-up charges.
Many Panthers were forced to leave the states and live in exile, rather than face imprisonment or death. Pete O’Neal, leader of the Kansas City Chapter, fled to Africa with his wife, Charlotte. They ended up in Tanzania, where they have continued to work for the people and teach, based on their experiences in the Black Panther Party. They have an orphanage and a school there and a music studio.
Assata Shakur, who worked in the BPP Free Breakfast Program in East Harlem, New York, escaped to Cuba after being shot by police in New Jersey, at which time Zayd Shakur was killed. A million-dollar bounty has been placed on Assata by the U.S. Department of Injustice but so far she has been able to survive outside the reach of the U.S. bounty hunters.
The people involved in the BPP are what is most important. I am speaking in particular of those young men and women who did the work and most of all, those who paid the price with their lives and imprisonment for years upon years, on trumped-up charges.
Over the last 50 years, many dedicated and hard-working comrades have moved on or passed and gone. However, everything they stood for still remains. Despite overwhelming odds, these young people made things happen in their communities. They created change.
Over the last 50 years, many dedicated and hard-working comrades have moved on or passed and gone. However, everything they stood for still remains.
Here are some basic lessons learned from the BPP of 50 years ago which should apply to community organizers today:
1) Be open and willing to change; if something doesn’t work, be flexible enough to try another way.
2) Always listen to others, whether you use their suggestions or not.
3) Admit to your mistakes and correct them.
4) Never, ever lie.
5) Always deliver on your promises.
6) Make a life and death commitment to your beliefs.
7) Practice what you preach.
8) Be willing to face death for what you believe in and spit in the face of your oppressors.
Elbert “Big Man” Howard is a founding member of the Black Panther Party and is an author, lecturer and community activist in Sonoma County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.