This article will feature in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance
The civil rights movement was arguably one of the most important moments in American history, and both its legacy and its limits have been made evident through the resurgence of Black Lives Matter after the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Moreover, this period of history has become ingrained in popular memory as Black history is given more space on the memorial landscape. Popular memory has been bolstered through the creation of heritage sites such as statues and museums, with one of the most famous examples being the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016. However, the Black Panther Party and Black Power as a whole, are often not given this space: they are deemed separate from the civil rights movement and thus, not worthy of commemoration. For instance, there are at least thirty statues of Martin Luther King across the United States, but none to Black Panthers.
The Black Panther Party for Self Defence was founded in 1966 in Oakland California by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. This new Party aimed to end police violence and provide opportunities for Black communities across the country. However, the Panthers are not remembered this way and despite the wide array of scholarship on the Panthers, they remain a monolith in popular memory and public commemoration: The Panthers armed themselves against police brutality and therefore, the most common image of the Panthers is one of violent revolutionaries. There is a deeply ingrained fear of radical Black resistance, seen most recently in condemnations of Black Lives Matter protests, that have prevented commemoration of the Panthers at public heritage sites. Nonetheless, there have been numerous efforts to commemorate the Panthers and include them in the national narrative.
For instance, The National Park Service pulled funding of over $100,000 intended for a national memorial to the Black Panthers in Oakland. The funding was awarded to the University of California Berkeley and would honour the cultural legacy of the Panthers in the San Francisco Bay Area. The grant was rescinded after Chuck Canterbury, head of The Fraternal Order of Police, wrote a letter to President Trump expressing concerns over the memorial; Canterbury asserted that the United States should not honour groups that advocated violence against the Police, citing an incident in which a Black Panther was accused of killing a police officer.
Canterbury’s comments are testament to fear of the Panthers and their legacy of violence. Historian Jane Rhodes argues that the image of violence among the Panthers adheres to the historical stereotype of the “threatening black male figure” and allows for easy dismissal of the party by playing into historic, racially motivated fears. The controversy over the memorial was not the first instance of a clash between the Black Panthers and the Fraternal Order of Police, which is one of the biggest American police unions: in 1969, Black Panther Fred Hampton was shot and killed by the FBI in his Chicago Home. Chicago Alderwoman Madeline Haithcock supported an initiative to name a local street after Hampton, but the Fraternal Order of Police came out in strong opposition. There is no further news on the National Parks Project, and it is unlikely that we will see a National Panther memorial. Canterbury’s comments and subsequent rejection of the project indicate a desire to adhere to a nonviolent and easily digestible narrative of America’s racial history, one which ignores radicalism. Moreover, this legacy of state violence against the Panthers has not been investigated in memorial and heritage sites: The Panthers were brutally harassed for years by COINTELPRO, an intelligence arm of the FBI; as a Federal attempt to oppress political groups deemed too radical. The violent relationship between the Black Panthers and the state explains why a national memorial does not exist. One of the main goals of the Panthers was to “police the police” and end violence against Black Americans. Despite the continued relevance of this issue, the Panthers’ anti-police sentiments have led to their exclusion from the memorial landscape, ignoring the notion that for many Black Americans, arming themselves was the only option within a white supremacist system.
Despite this rejection on the national stage, there have been various local efforts to commemorate the Panthers. Most of these sites are located in Oakland, but the Black Panthers of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, succeeded in 2012 in erecting an historical marker to the city’s branch of the party; it was the first branch of the party in a southern state. The Winston-Salem marker emphasizes the Panther’s community service; the Winston-Salem Panthers aimed to “put shoes on the people’s feet, put food in the people’s stomachs, and put clothes on the people’s backs.” Not surprisingly, the marker was met with contention. In 2015 a citizen of Henderson, North Carolina created a petition to have the marker removed but because the marker is protected by law, it will not be removed. This site is the only historical marker to mention the Black Panthers specifically and marks a massive success for the Panthers and their legacy. However these heritage sites are battlegrounds of inclusion, and there is continued anxiety over who to include in national commemoration.
Regardless of the simplified understanding of the Panther, these commemoration efforts illustrate a desire for a more inclusive memorial landscape and a push to include radical resistance in this landscape: these efforts are acts of defiance against a continually oppressive and racist regime. Recent cries to dismantle white supremacy and policing will perhaps lead to more of these sites being created.
By Anne Stokes
“Winston-Salem Chapter of the Black Panther Party.”
“National Parks Service Cancels Project Honouring Black Panther Party’s Legacy.” https://www.okayplayer.com/culture/black-panther-party-project-canceled-national-park-service-police.html