[Marxism] [Fwd: [SIXTIES-L] Flawed Classic Displays Mumia’s PantherPassion]

Carrol Cox cbcox at ilstu.edu
Mon May 10 15:16:18 MDT 2004

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: [SIXTIES-L] Flawed Classic Displays Mumia's PantherPassion
Date: Mon, 10 May 2004 13:52:00 -0700
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Reply-To: SIXTIES-L at topica.com
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Flawed Classic Displays Mumia's Panther Passion 	 	 	


10 May 2004
Written by Todd Burroughs and Ollie Johnson

Book Review:

We Want Freedom: A Life In The Black Panther Party.
By Mumia Abu-Jamal, South End Press, 267 pages.
$18.00 paperback; $40 cloth
ISBN: 0-89608-718-2 (paperback); 0-89608-719-0 (cloth)

Mumia Abu-Jamal invites conflict. So does the Black Panther Party. Both
inspire virulent, even violent, debate about race and resistance in
America. It's no wonder that Abu-Jamal's "We Want Freedom" is a powerful
literary and political event.

As a teenager, Abu-Jamal was a member of the Black Panther's
Philadelphia branch from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. His new
book, released on April 24, his 50th birthday, provides an artful
synthesis of scholarship and personal observations.

Abu-Jamal is an internationally known radio commentator, newspaper
columnist, and author of four books. Convicted of the first-degree
murder of a white Philadelphia police officer more than 20 years ago, he
wrote "We Want Freedom" from death row. He began his journalistic career
at The Black Panther, the Party's national newspaper.

He explains in dramatic, precise and often poetic prose how Blacks have
confronted white supremacy directly throughout American history. He
writes that the Party was founded during a time when many American
Blacks "saw themselves in the villages of resistance and saw their
ghettoes as little more than internal colonies similar to those
discussed in Frantz Fanon's analysis [in his classic book, "The Wretched
Of The Earth"]."

Abu-Jamal is clear on the Party's lure during a time of great youth-led
social change:

"It meant being part of a worldwide movement against U.S. imperialism,
white supremacy, colonialism, and corrupting capitalism. We felt as if
we were part of the peasant armies of Vietnam, the degraded Black miners
of South Africa, the fedayeen in Palestine, the students storming in the
streets of Paris, and the dispossessed of Latin America."

Abu-Jamal gives a valuable social history of Philadelphia to show why
the Party could, and would, take hold there. He takes nearly one-third
of the book to make clear the idea that African Americans had fought-and
not always nonviolently-for their freedom. Abu-Jamal points out that
such battles spanned from the beginning of the African slave trade to
the self-defense organizing of the Louisiana-based Deacons For Defense
and the Watts rebellion of 1965. The Black Panther Party formed shortly
after that event. Abu-Jamal argues the Party was popular in Philadelphia
because Black residents there "came of age with the deeply felt
knowledge that they could be beaten, wounded, or killed by cops with
virtual impunity."

Abu-Jamal describes the rally where the Philadelphia Panthers first
appeared publicly:

"[B]etween fifteen and twenty of us are in the full uniform of black
berets, black jackets of smooth leather, and black trousers
We thought,
in the amorphous realm of hope, youth and boundless optimism, that
revolution was virtually a heartbeat away. It was four years since
Malcolm's assassination and just over a year since the assassination of
Martin Luther King Jr. The Vietnam War was flaring up under Nixon's
Vietnamization program, and the rising columns of smoke from Black
rebellions in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and North Philly could still be
sensed, their ashen smoldering still tasted in the air."

Abu-Jamal tells familiar stories with great skill-the naiveté of Panther
leaders, the state-sanctioned murders of Chicago Panther leaders Fred
Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969, the FBI's role in the Party's split
between supporters of co-founder Huey P. Newton and Minister of
Information Eldridge Cleaver. He is unapologetically critical of the
FBI's "snitches" (Earl Anthony, George Sams, Louis Tackwood, William
O'Neal, et. al.) sent into the Party to disrupt and destroy it. His
history of the FBI clearly shows how decades of practice infiltrating
progressive movements served the Bureau well when Black leftists donned
black berets and black jackets and began to act in ways they thought
would make the late Malcolm X, their new Black nationalist martyr,

In addition to extended personal recollections, another of the book's
highlights is Abu-Jamal's commendable voicing of Panther women's
experiences. One of the women recording her Party experiences to
Abu-Jamal is Naima Major, who recalled how, at 17-years-old, she sought
out the Party to escape what she called "petit bourgeois mediocrity":

"I went to a 'Free Huey' rally at the federal building in SF [San
Francisco], and met many brave Panthers. Went on a mission with Kathleen
Cleaver in Hunter's Point because my beloved was one of her
self-appointed guards. Captured body and soul by the rally and the love
and energy of Black people. My favorite retort to almost anything soon
became, 'And how does that free the people?' I was dogmatic and
insufferable, but could dance you down at a house party!"

The memories and views of Afeni Shakur, Barbara Easley Cox, Audrea
Jones, Safiya A. Bukhari, Regina Jennings, Frankye Malika Adams,
Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown scream for a Panther anthology all
their own and make many Black scholars, such as this book's reviewers,
even more impatient for Cleaver's forthcoming memoir.

Abu-Jamal remembers not only working with Party women as fellow
warriors, but also working under its strong Black female leaders. He
posits that although the Party was far from being free of sexism, the
idea that it was misogynistic is a historical projection from outside
critics and disgruntled Party members.

Newton As More Visionary Than Flawed

Perhaps the most important contribution of "We Want Freedom" is its
perceptive, sensitive analysis of Huey P. Newton. If the Party is a
"Malcolmist" party, as the author argues, Abu-Jamal is clearly a
"Newtonist," since he shows great admiration for the theoretical ideas
of Newton. Abu-Jamal discusses how Newton's personal background and
experiences contributed to his complex personality. Newton's fear,
courage, brilliance and other traits led to his outstanding leadership
qualities. They enabled Newton to play the central role in creating the
Party and stamping it with his vision. Newton's political and
ideological evolution was reflected in the Party's growth and
transformation. Abu-Jamal links the organization's different stages
(nationalist, internationalist, intercommunal and others) in large part
to phases in Newton's development.

Abu-Jamal's emphasis on Newton's fascination with the law and his
legalistic approach to politics, i.e., reading law books, referring to
the constitution and United Nations in the Party's 10-Point Platform and
Program, defending Panther activities [such as policing the police,
carrying guns, etc.] as legal, constitutionally protected activities is
very important and needs further exploration. Abu-Jamal notes that
Newton's bold attempts to work within the law were routinely
characterized as illegal behavior by law enforcement and the mainstream

However, Abu-Jamal's presentation of the Party is unconventional-and,
perhaps even controversial-by his historical de-emphasis of Panther
leaders other than Huey P. Newton. Curiously, Eldridge Cleaver, Elaine
Brown, and David Hilliard seem to be more prominent Panthers than Bobby
Seale in Abu-Jamal's account. Abu-Jamal is probably correct that Newton
was the most important Panther despite his imprisonment from 1967 to
1970, and exile in Cuba from 1974 to 1977. But, unfortunately, Abu-Jamal
underestimates the indispensable role of co-founder Bobby Seale.
Abu-Jamal's perspective may reflect his personal recollection, but that
does not make it historically correct. By most accounts, Seale was the
person most responsible for transforming the Party from a local group to
a national organization during Newton's imprisonment.

Abu-Jamal compares Newton and Cleaver when writing of the Party's
bi-coastal "split," in which both men wound up leading a separate
faction in violent opposition to the other:

"[B]oth men were fashioned in ways that made them particularly
vulnerable to the FBI shenanigans
. Both were remarkable men, with
abilities and strengths that made them indispensable for the tasks
thrust upon them by history. Yet, like all other mortals, they had
vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and tendencies that, when exploited, could
open the door to disaster."

This sympathetic view glosses over the violently abusive, egomaniacal
and misogynistic qualities of both men. Abu-Jamal is aware of Newton's
largely negative portrayal in Hugh Pearson's "The Shadow Of The
Panther," the controversial 1994 book that has been largely discredited.
Abu-Jamal, who doesn't mince words about describing the Party's decline,
nonetheless seems determined to counter Pearson's sketch of Newton by
not delving deeply into his teenage hero's considerable problems and
violent actions.

Although Abu-Jamal tries hard to divide history and personal perspective
in "We Want Freedom," the filter is clear: he is unapologetically
answering negative portrayals that he feels disproportionably dominate
the public image of, and the scholarship about, the Party.

Substance In A Time of Superficial Commemoration

Even with these flaws, he has combined social history and memoir with
stunning results. "We Want Freedom" represents a major contribution to
our understanding of the Party and the Black Liberation Movement. His
penetrating study has properly placed the organization within the
centuries-old struggle of African and African American armed resistance
to slavery, white supremacy, and racial oppression.

This book should inspire scholars and activists to continue
investigating and documenting the experiences of Black power leaders and
organizations. It should also persuade us to revisit events such as the
Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia in
1970 and the contemporary need to build interracial coalitions of
liberals, progressives, radicals, and revolutionaries around a program
of social change.

Writing from a maximum-security cell he says is the size of a bathroom,
Abu-Jamal has done a great service. Unlike much of today's Black
activism, the Black Panther Party was neither an armchair study group
nor a paper organization feeding on televised press conferences and
so-called "leadership summits"; it was an international organization of
local chapters committed to serving the people, defending the people,
fighting for the people, and struggling with the people.

During this decade full of Civil Rights Movement anniversary nostalgia,
the Black Panther Party-a group as controversial, subjective and
powerful as this book's author-should also be remembered and celebrated,
regardless of the conflicts those recollections create.


Ollie Andrew Johnson III, Ph.D. (johnsono at alfred.edu) is the NEH
Visiting Lecturer in African American Studies at Alfred University. He
is the author of Brazilian Party Politics and the Coup of 1964 (Florida)
and co-editor of Black Political Organizations in the Post-Civil Rights
Era (Rutgers). Johnson contributed a chapter to The Black Panther Party
Reconsidered (Black Classic Press), edited by Charles E. Jones. Todd
Steven Burroughs, Ph.D. (tburroughs at jmail.umd.edu) is an independent
researcher/writer based in Hyattsville, Md. He is a primary author of
Civil Rights Chronicle (Legacy), a history of the Civil Rights Movement.
Burroughs is also is a contributor to Putting The Movement Back Into
Civil Rights Teaching (Teaching For Change), a K-12 teaching guide of
the Civil Rights Movement. He is writing a biography of Abu-Jamal.


For Editors/Fact-Checkers:

Black Panther Newspaper Quote is from Mumia's "That Another Hand Reach
Out To Pick Up The Gun," The Black Panther, April 6, 1970, page 17, Vol.
4, No. 18 (according to Mumia Abu-Jamal's FBI file, Vol. 2).


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