Black History Month college speakers axiomatically slant left. This February, Al Sharpton appeared at Adelphi University, Nikki Giovanni at Southern University, and Mary Frances Berry at Reed College, to name just a few. The right-most speaker this year was likely an elected Democrat, Harold Ford Jr., who also spoke at Reed. It’s little change in a decades-long trend; more troublesome is the continued use of the month’s events to showcase flatteringly revisionist views of the Black Panther party, and unrepentant Black Panthers themselves.
In the last month, Angela Davis (already much in demand for MLK day speeches) spoke at The College of New Jersey, Bobby Seale, Panthers co-founder, spoke at the University of Wisonsin-Milwaukee and DePauw University, Elaine Brown, former head of the Black Panthers, spoke at Smith and at Manatee Community College (yes, it’s real), and David Hilliard, former Panthers Chief of Staff, spoke at California Polythechnic and Arizona State University. Their lectures addressed topics from prison reform to the current state of civil rights and racism. All four are billed as civil rights advocates. Let’s consider what that means.
In 1970 Angela Davis was charged as an accomplice to conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide. She undisputably owned the shotgun used to murder the victim. She was acquitted, largely on the basis of testimony from fellow Panthers. The veracity of this testimony has been widely questioned.
In 1969, Bobby Seale was charged with ordering the torture and murder of an informant within the Black Panther party. His trial ended in a hung jury. Several other Panthers were convicted of the murder.
In 1974 Elaine Brown was accused of ordering the murder of Betty Van Patten, a Black Panther accountant. In leveling this charge, David Horowitz offer numerous colorful details about this “civil rights pioneer”:
I will never forget standing next to Elaine, as I did months later in growing horror, as she threatened KQED-TV host Bill Schechner over the telephone. “I will kill you motherfucker,” she promised him in her machete voice, if he went through with plans to interview the former Panther Chairman, Bobby Seale
In 1971, David Hilliard was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and conspiracy to kill in a 1968 gunfight with police officers, and jailed for three years. In his Cal Poly speech, he (of course!) criticized the popular perception of the Panthers as a violent organization. The Sun (San Bernardino) reported:
“Why we survived had little to do with the guns,” he continued. “It had to do with the community protecting us from total annihilation. Most whites don’t know the Black Panther Party agenda or ideology. They only saw the guns, the militancy. We survived and remained relevant because we always served the people, body and soul. Most of us who made it out alive owe a debt of gratitude to the community.”
All four dispute the popular (violent) presentation of the Black Panther party, while remaining largely unapologetic about their own pasts.
Black Panther rehabilitation at colleges isn’t confined to lectures.
Both UC Davis and UC Berkeley are featuring photo exhibits on the Black Panther Party, curated by former Black Panther and assistant to Huey Newton, Billy X Jennings. Jennings is frequently referred to as a “Black Panther Party archivist.” He runs a website www.ItsAboutTimeBPP.com, dedicated to “preserving and promoting the legacy of the black Panther Party.” He’s entirely direct about his intention to showcase the Panthers’ “social and educational work” to combat perceptions of Panther violence. The universities have clearly been credulous – UC Davis and Berkeley have been happy to offer gallery space to what appears to be a pure advertisement. Berkeley even organized an event featuring three other former Panther speakers to inaugurate their exhibit. The California Aggie, the UC Davis student paper, offered a revealing opinion from a university administrator in writing about their exhibit “The Black Panther Party Revisited”:
“Really, when people think about the party they think of the negative stuff, the violence, images that the media portrayed,” said Teresa Montemayor, assistant director for programs and marketing for Campus Union Programs and facilitator for the soft opening of the exhibition which took place Friday. “One of the goals is to educate people with the truth of who these people were, and these photos really bring history alive and tell a story.”
A hostile media didn’t created a negative image of the Black Panthers; their own resort to militarism and murder did. It’s unfortunate to see Black History Month commandeered to praise this sordid legacy at campuses every February.