Book Review: My People are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain by Aaron Dixon (Haymarket Books: Chicago 2012)
Review by Jo Manby
Despite the presence of a Black president in the White House, America persists in incarcerating unprecedented numbers of Black and ethnic minority males. The Sentencing Project states that ‘for Black males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day’. This autobiographical work, My People are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain reminds us of the issues the Black Panther Party (BPP) stood for, most of which, including this and other racial injustices, remain unresolved today. Aaron Dixon gives us a first-hand account of the BPP’s history.
Dixon founded the Seattle chapter of the BPP in 1968 aged 19. In his memoir, My People are Rising, he recounts the progress of his own political activism within the context of his generation, creating a social history of the Black liberation struggle of the latter half of the twentieth century and perfectly summarising the impact young Black men and women had on their communities across America at this time.
Dixon’s story is told roughly chronologically, beginning with the structure and personalities of his own family, dating back from ‘Mariah, a small, bowlegged Black slave woman in Durant, Mississippi, where she lived, toiled, and died thousands of miles away from her ancestral homeland’ (p.4) to his own father’s last years of World War II, stationed on a Mississippi army base where he experienced the Jim Crow racism of the segregated South at first hand.
Dixon writes about immense shifts occurring across the world and the South of the United States, filtering into his own life in the form of that Cold War childhood fear of nuclear Armageddon; the sight of Martin Luther King Jr. on TV; joining a rally against ‘redlining’ in 1961. In his chapter, Slow Awakening, Dixon covers the violence of the decade of the sixties, when President John F. Kennedy and then Malcolm X were both assassinated.
Memories of the Watts Uprising and the rise of Black Nationalism lead into Chapter 7, Stokely Comes to Town, with Dixon recalling Stokely Carmichael promoting Black Power and hearing him speak in 1967, a transformational experience that left Dixon charged with anger. He joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or ‘snick’ as it was nicknamed). Arrested for unlawful assembly and jailed for the first time, he heard the announcement that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Dixon and his friends saw Stokely Carmichael on TV ‘in Washington, DC, holding a .22 caliber pistol and shouting, “It’s now time to burn, burn, baby, burn”, as crowds of young people rampaged through the streets of DC’ (p.73).
Several days after the assassination, Dixon and around 20 Black Student Union (BSU) and SNCC members drove in hired cars to the second annual West Coast BSU Conference and heard Bobby Seale, chair of the Black Panthers, addressing a crowd after the funeral of Little Bobby Hutton, shot when he was unarmed during some heavy-handed police presence. Dixon, afterwards, was elected ‘“defense captain”’ (p.83), which filled him with the pride of being a part of something historic but also with fear about what the future might hold.
Chapters 12-17 report on the events of July 1968 in Seattle, from details such as the “10-10-10” tactic (p.107) used to divide and organise BPP sections, subsections and blocks, to the progress of relations between the Seattle chapter and the police, Dixon’s trial and the FBI’s various provocation methods.
In the next section, Cointelpro Is Unleashed, Dixon describes the FBI ‘counterintelligence program created in 1956 at the height of anticommunist hysteria, now geared up to focus… on destroying the Black Panther Party and other radical groups’ (p.165). The party meanwhile was moving onwards and upwards: ‘opening up medical clinics, Busing to Prison Programs, ambulance services, Pest Control Programs…. All the while, Panthers were constantly being arrested, constantly going to jail, and sometimes being outright murdered’ (p.182).
This is an engaging, thoroughly readable memoir of a man who ‘had always been an adventurous, rebellious type, and in ten years as a revolutionary… had become addicted to the adrenaline rush of danger, of barely escaping death’ (p.310). The book includes monochrome photographs and five appendices including the reproduced contents of the 1968 Seattle Chapter information pack. Dixon’s memoir animates the BPP’s history into dazzling, vibrant life.