Black Panthers: old v. young
London Sunday Times, 16 March 1997
A BATTLE for the soul of America's black power movement is expected to come before the courts next month as young activists accuse their elders of going soft and betraying the cause of "power to the people".
A group of young zealots has set up a rival Black Panther organisation called the New Black Panther party. They want to try to revive the radicalism of the 1960s, when the group struck terror into the hearts of white Americans and was described by J Edgar Hoover, the FBI chief, as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States".
The original Black Panthers, who took their ideology from Mao Tse-tung and Malcolm X but have since mellowed in their outlook, are suing the upstarts to prevent them from using the Panther name and logo of a pouncing panther. "The Black Panther Party Inc does not wish to be confused with the 'New Black Panthers', a group preaching racial division and the inappropriate use of arms to promote social change," said the lawsuit. A judge has ordered the new group to stop using the Panther name until the case is heard.
"I don't give a damn what judge issued an order," said Aaron Michaels, the 35-year-old leader of the new organisation.
Michaels, who has led a series of high-profile, armed confrontations with the Texas authorities since last summer, said he believed the original group of Panthers was jealous of the new organisation's success. "We've garnered the attention of the establishment."
He branded the original Panthers as "has-been wannabe Panthers", adding: "Nobody can tell us who we can call ourselves."
Michaels earned his revolutionary credentials after calling on blacks to use shotguns and rifles to protest against the chairman of a school board who had been secretly taped calling black students "little niggers".
A few weeks later, Michaels led a group of heavily armed Panthers to a black church near Dallas that had been burnt down. "You catch a cracker lighting a torch to any black church or any property of black people we are to send them to the cemetery," warned Khallid Muhammad, the controversial spokesman for the Nation of Islam, who had rushed to support Michaels and the new Panthers.
It was at this point that Fahim Minkah, leader of the Dallas branch of the original Panthers, initiated the lawsuit, accusing the new Panthers of "race-baiting and bully tactics".
"For these guys to walk around in their little berets and guns smacks us right in the face," said Charles Hillman, a member of the original Panther group. "These new groups are not consistent with what we were about," said David Hilliard, former chief of staff for the Panthers. "They are only spouting rhetoric."
Bobby Seale, who founded the Black Panther party with Huey Newton in 1966 in Oakland, near San Francisco, has turned up in Dallas to denounce the ideology and tactics of the new Panthers. He calls them a "black racist hate group".
Seale, famed for his tract Seize the Time, appears to have lost some of his old revolutionary zeal. These days he is best known for his barbecue cookbook, which he sells on the Internet.
The Black Panther party boasted 5,000 members in its heyday. It attracted artists and intellectuals who regarded the movement as the height of radical chic; Leonard Bernstein, the composer, hosted a party for the Panthers at his home in Park Avenue, New York, in 1970. But by the mid-1970s the Panthers had suffered appalling losses at the hands of the police and the FBI.
Some of the group's leaders, such as Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, were forced into exile. Newton was shot dead in 1989 outside a cocaine house in Oakland.
Of all the former Panther leaders, Cleaver has undergone the most profound transformation.
As "minister of information" for the Panthers and author of Soul On Ice, the firebrand book of revolutionary reflections, he was once the chief ideologue of the party. But he recently spoke out against so-called Ebonics, the attempt to legitimise an African-American language. He called it a "pathetic attempt to institutionalise dysfunction". Cleaver even wants blacks to forgive whites for having been slave owners.
"What made you dilute your approach to black empowerment?" demanded an angry black student of Cleaver at a lecture in Los Angeles recently.
"I've studied communism up close," responded the former revolutionary, who is now proud of having voted for Ronald Reagan. "Our form of government is better than any of the alternatives out there."