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To those of us who were alive and sentient, the name Huey P. Newton evokes an era of mass resistance, of Black popular protest and of the rise of revolutionary organizations across the land. To those of subsequent eras – youth in their 20s – the name is largely unknown, as is the name of its greatest creation: the Black Panther Party. It is up to the oppressed of every generation to plumb the depths of history and to excavate the ore of understanding, to teach us not what happened yesterday, but to teach us why today is like it is, so that we may learn ideas to change it.
Nelson’s film documents what those who lived through it already know – that the Panthers quickly became a mass movement throughout the country. Their message of unqualified resistance to racism, armed self-defense and anti-capitalist revolutionary politics galvanized the creation of chapters of the Party in nearly every city and state of the U.S. Much has been written by and about the Panthers. But Nelson’s film is the best short introduction to the Party to date.
This brief introduction to Selma’s bottom up history can help students and others learn valuable lessons for today. As SNCC veteran and filmmaker Judy Richardson said: “If we don’t learn that it was people just like us – our mothers, our uncles, our classmates, our clergy – who made and sustained the modern Civil Rights Movement, then we won’t know we can do it again. And then the other side wins – even before we ever begin the fight.”