Voices of the Black Panthers Book Reviews #2

Book Review: The Black Panthers Speak, Edited by Philip S. Foner, new Foreword by Barbara Ransby (Haymarket Books: Chicago 2014)
(first published by J.B. Lippincott Company: Philadelphia & New York, 1970)

Review by Jo Manby

The Black Panthers Speak is a bibliographic archive of correspondence, news, rules, speeches and poems – the documents that underpinned the fabric of the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) organisation.

The 2014 republishing of The Black Panthers Speak, an essential documentary history of the BPP, is indeed timely. Compiled and edited by Philip S. Foner (1910-1994), this is a new edition with an updated foreword by the writer, historian and political activist Barbara Ransby. When first published in 1970, the volume sought to counter the many misinterpretations that the BPP was subject to.

close up image of the book title

As Foner pointed out in his original introduction, there have always been sources of information about the work of the BPP, but they had mainly been the misrepresentations of the media and it was difficult to find the BPP’s own outputs. This book, step by step, remedied the situation by reproducing a wide range of original documents and images.
Immediately following the introduction, the Black Panther National Anthem is reproduced, after which the first section presents Black Panther Party Platform and Program, aRules of the Black Panther Party. The 10-point platform and programme were prepared by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in October 1966, in North Oakland, California. Rules were added subsequently as required.

In 1970 there were 26 rules. The Platform and Program, What We Want: What We Believe, includes aims such as ‘an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people’; ‘freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county, and city prisons and jails… because they have not received a fair and impartial trial’; and ‘all black men to be exempt from military service’ (p.3).

Section 2, The Black Panther: Voice of the Party, reproduces editorials, articles, poems, commentary and letters that have appeared in the BPP’s newspaper. The front page of Volume 1, Number 1, from April 1967 appears, with its headline article, Why Was Denzil Dowell Killed, subheaded “I believe the police murdered my son” says the mother of Denzil Dowell. Free by Any Means Necessary is a poem ‘For Huey, Bobby, Eldridge’ by Sarah Webster Fabio. Ending Section 2 is On Criticism of Cuba, from December 1969, making the distinction between revolutionary criticism and reactionary criticism and wishing victory for the Cuban people.

Huey P. Newton Speaks follows, showcasing ‘representative articles, interviews, and messages of the Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party… Most of them were written or taped in prison at Los Padres, California…’ (p.39). These cover topics such as In Defense of Self-Defense: Executive Mandate Number One; The Correct Handling of a Revolution; and Functional Definition of Politics.

Bobby Seale was the Chairman of the BPP and co-founder with Huey P. Newton, and in Section 4 his various explanations of the ideology of the BPP are set forth, including Black Soldiers as Revolutionaries to Overthrow the Ruling Class. Eldridge Cleaver was the BPP’s Minister of Information and at the time Foner compiled this volume, he was living in exile in Algiers. However, he still spoke out on ‘fundamental issues confronting the people of his native land’ (p.97). Here he gives a Message to Sister Erica Huggins of the Black Panther Party, subtitled Excerpt from Tape of Eldridge Cleaver Breaking his Silence from Somewhere in the Third World, and in which he urges Erica to be strong despite the murder of her husband John Huggins, Deputy Minister of Information, who died alongside Deputy Minister of Defense, Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter.

After speeches and interviews from David Hilliard and Fred Hampton, Section 8 is entitled Black Panther Women Speak, an important element here, since the BPP was notable in its non-sexist approach and its encouragement of gender equality. The remaining sections comprise: Community Activities; Black Panthers in Court; and Alliances and Coalitions. The volume is essential reading for anyone wishing to judge the BPP for themselves and anyone taking part in the struggle against racism.

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