Tuesday April 13, the university’s cultural studies program sponsored a panel discussion with former members of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and other black activists. Panelists Diane Fujino, Matef Harmachis, Dequi Kioni-Sadiki and Hank Jones spoke about their book, “Black Power Afterlives: The Enduring Significance of the Black Panther Party,” which is available to order through Haymarket Books. The book serves as a useful timeline of the Black Power movement, from the founding of the Black Panther Party to the present day.
Jones, a former BPP member, explained how the brutal murder of Emmett Till in 1955 prompted him to act. He joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee before joining the BPP at the age of 27. While most of the men joined the group between the ages of 17 and 23, Jones was already married and a father of three when he joined. He was attracted to the Party because he “went from theory to practice.” Jones criticized the way media attention to the Party focused solely on the fact that it was an armed group. He stressed that Party members had to defend themselves because no one else was going to do it. He explained that in the mid-1960s, African Americans were “marginalized, ignored and unserved.”
Although she was never a member of the BPP herself, Kioni-Sadiki seeks to educate people about the legacy the Party has left. The BPP has created more than 60 survival programs, including free breakfast for children in school and free health clinics. She said that many social programs Americans have today were first created by the Party and that no one had heard of sickle cell anemia until researched by the Panthers. The move also paved the way for lead testing.
Several panelists made sure to highlight the important role women played in the BPP.
“The role of women in the Black Panther Party is downplayed,” Jones said. “They were the backbone of the party.”
Recognizing that men are generally the face of the Party, Jones added that “we [the men] were too busy dodging bullets and on the run and locked up. The women made the party work ”.
Kioni-Sadiki noted how words like “radical” and “extremist” distort the reality of the struggle for freedom.
“We are taught that there is something wrong with being radical,” she said. “But you can call me radical whenever you want. ‘Radical’ means getting to the root of the problem.”
Her husband and former Panther, Sekou Odinga, served 33 years in political prison. As she celebrated her release in 2014, many former Panthers are still or died in prison. Harmachis noted how Chip Fitzgerald died after 51 years in prison.
In 1969, J. Edgar Hoover, the former director of the FBI, considered the BPP to be the greatest internal threat to the country. Several panelists noticed how, once Hoover made this public statement, the Panthers had targets on their backs.
“We were more than just an armed group,” Jones said. “We were a reaction to police violence.
Jones explained how the Party was an integral part of the security of the black community in these towns. In addition to the various survival programs created by the Party, they are also said to protect the elderly in their communities by escorting them to run errands.
Jones reminded members of the public that there is still work to be done in the United States to make African Americans really feel safe. Jones and Sadiki-Kioni spoke of the disturbing rise of fascism in the country, which can be explained by the “systems under threat” – the systems in question being the myriad American institutions that perpetuate systemic racism. He closed the discussion by saying, “This is not a free country. Not even close.
To learn more about BPP and its legacy, Harmachis recommends Lee Lew-Lee’s documentary, “All Power to the People,” which is available for free on Youtube. For additional educational resources on oppression and black history, panel members suggest the following: zinnedproject.org, rethinkingschools.org, abolitionistteachingnetwork.org, Freedomarchives.org and the Schomburg Library for Research and Culture black.