KEEPING THEIR PAST ALIVE: Black Panthers’ mixed history can be seen from bus windows by visitors on a sojourn for the truth

By Vera H-C Chan and Nancy Belcher (Special to the Times)
THE FIRST HEADQUARTERS for the Panthers was in this building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Below, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton stand before the headquarters.

A signal light presides at the corner of 55th and Market streets in Oakland. It is a sprawling intersection on a mixed residential and business street, and traffic can hurtle through at daunting speeds.

Before the light was put in more than 20 years ago, crossing to the other side involved good eyesight, keen attentiveness and swift legs, because drivers were frequently going too fast to see you or, if they did, to slam on their brakes in time. All too often, children coming to and from nearby Santa Fe Elementary School couldn’t quite elude these cars, and between 1965 and 1967 two were killed while attempting to cross the street.

Here was the birthplace of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

On the corner, the federally funded North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center provided summer jobs for youths. Here, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, co-founders of the Panthers, wrote their Ten Point Program in October 1966 and developed its revolutionary agenda of social changes. Newton and Seale called for an end to police brutality and demanded adequate housing, employment and education for Oakland’s African-American community.

As its first community act, the party demanded a traffic light at 55th and Market. When the city postponed installation, the Panthers became unlikely armed crossing guards, shepherding children across the intersection.

“The police came and took over, which is what the Panthers wanted in the first place, ” relates David Hilliard, the party’s first chief of staff. The signal was installed shortly afterward. “We considered it our first community survival program.”

Contributions, not conflagrations

The light was one of several community services and programs that the Black Panthers were responsible for, but it’s not the dominant memory most people have. Armed men engaged in shoot-outs with police burn more vividly in the memory than people serving breakfast to children or escorting seniors to and from their errands.

But it’s the legacy of community service that Hilliard, 55, wants to impart to those who do not know about the party and to those who may have forgotten. He believes there is a story to tell about the party’s contribution to the civil rights movement, as well as its achievements in the community.

He finds it distressing that people have few positive memories of what the Panthers did 30 years ago; many only connect the name with violence.

“Kids today don’t even know who Huey Newton was, ” he says. “They ask, Is he a rock star?'”

Newton was Hilliard’s idol and friend since grammar school. Newton would have been 56 years old this Feb. 17, were he still alive, but drugs consumed his last years, and the social decay that he had resisted ultimately led to his murder when a drug dealer put three bullets in his head in 1989.

It was an ignominious end and, for Hilliard, a sad comment on the state of the community his party had tried, at least for a while, to make into a strong political and economic force.

“That is the tragedy; that’s the irony of the whole Black Panther Party history, that history does tend to repeat itself, ” Hilliard observes. “Huey Newton died a very degrading and very demoralizing death because of drug addiction. And that stuff still happens daily in this community.”

What Newton became and how he died, however, didn’t change the history in which a community’s struggle became a national movement. To tell the party’s entire history instead of letting one tragic moment define it, Hilliard began leading Black Panther Legacy tours to historic sites in Oakland last October.

Seen from all sides

“It was Fredrika Newton’s idea, ” Hilliard explained. Newton’s widow, who still lives in Oakland, explored various methods to institutionalize the Panther legacy and found the civil rights movement had become a billion-dollar tourist industry. “For us, it broke down alienation between the generations.”

The minibus tours reflect Hilliard’s intensely personal insight into this history with its positive and ugly sides. The legacy tour operates under the auspices of the nonprofit Huey P. Newton Foundation, of which Hilliard is executive director. It formed in 1993 to continue the Panthers’ social programs and to promote the teachings and social activism of Newton.

The foundation implemented the first Black Panther party curriculum (taught by Hilliard at New College in San Francisco), a bimonthly free book program and several book projects, including a women’s history of the party. It founded the largest Black Panther archive in the nation at Stanford University.

The tour has attracted a broad spectrum of participants, from CEOs and politicians to students and community members. International exposure has come from the BBC and Agence France-Presse.

Before each tour, Hilliard puts up a large canvas mural of Newton in the West Oakland library lobby where participants meet. The mural depicts the classic pose of Newton clad in the Black Panther uniform – slacks, shirt, leather jacket and the beret inspired by the French underground movement – gripping firearms in each hand, with two shields flanking his incongruous high-backed wicker throne. The lobby faces De Fremery park, the site of many Black Panther community service programs and demonstrations.

While on the bus

From his front seat on the minibus, Hilliard relates anecdotes and history over a loudspeaker as the tour winds through North and West Oakland neighborhoods. The first stop begins at that intersection of 55th and Market and the former site of the anti-poverty center, now the Ebony Lady Salon.

Most of the sites are viewed from the bus, although it stops in front of several party members’ homes Bobby Seale’s, where early public education classes were held and where plans were drawn up to send an armed delegation to Sacramento to oppose gun restrictions; Hilliard’s home where he lived when he and Newton attended school nearby.

Newton’s childhood home is also on the route. His family moved from Monroe, La., in 1945, just one of the thousands of black families who migrated to the defense industries in Oakland. Census figures from 1940 to 1960 count nearly a 120 percent increase of African-Americans. When students Newton and Seale first became involved in organized community protest at Merritt Junior College on Grove Street now empty buildings overshadowed by raised BART tracks on the renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Way Oakland’s population was almost 50 percent black.

The tour includes Bobby Hutton’s home and a tape-recorded eyewitness account of his death. The 17-year-old Hutton, the first man recruited for the party, died following a gun battle on April 6, 1968, two days after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Bullet holes can still be seen in the side of the house, which was bombarded with tear gas and set on fire after a 30-minute gunfire exchange.

“It sounded like a war, ” says Hilliard, who was hiding under a bed in the house next door. Hutton, shot by police while he was surrendering, became the first party member to die at the hands of authorities. Nearly 25,000 people attended his funeral and memorial rally, where the speakers included actor Marlon Brando.

Down the street from the former site of Merritt Junior College, the party opened its first office in 1967. Now the building houses It’s All Good Bakery, owned by Kim Cloud. Cloud, who gives free cakes to tour participants, ate in the Panthers’ free breakfast program.

The children’s free breakfast program began in 1969 at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, now St. Andrew’s Baptist Church. At its height the party had 40 chapters in different cities conducting hot breakfast programs; it became a model that was later adopted by other government agencies across the nation.

It was the party’s first in a series of community programs that included free clothing, food, medical care and sickle cell anemia testing. Hilliard says more than 100,000 people were tested during the Panthers’ prime years.

Gilded cages

When the Panthers outgrew that space, the party moved to its second office. Here they were targeted in a drive-by shooting by two inebriated off-duty policemen, supposedly enraged that Newton had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, not first-degree murder, in the death of officer John Frey.

By the time the party moved to its fourth office in an attractive Victorian home, J. Edgar Hoover had declared the Panthers the No. 1 threat to national security. Hilliard recalls that this house was turned into a fortress with sandbags lining the walls and thick steel plates covering the windows at night.

“We were always under the pressure of imminent police raids and that kind of stuff, ” he says. “It was very unnerving to be in a Black Panther Party office during that period.”

The tour circuit passes by the Alameda County Courthouse, site of frequent “Free Huey” demonstrations that put the party and Newton into national prominence; and the penthouse apartment overlooking Lake Merritt where Newton lived after his release from prison.

The Panthers were criticized for using party funds to keep their leader in a lavish place but Hilliard says, “We put Huey in here for security reasons. We knew the police would not come and kick down the doors of the place where Charlie Finley (then owner of the Oakland A’s) lived.”

The Black Panther community service programs ended in the late 1970s and the party disbanded in 1980, according to Hilliard some of its members in prison, some in exile, some dead.

“This stuff perpetuates itself”

Bus passengers make their final stop at the corner where Newton was murdered. Two faded stencils of a man in a paramilitary pose mark the sidewalk. His killer, a drug dealer, was convicted of second-degree murder two years later. His court testimony, Hilliard recalls, included the startling admission that he had been one of the kids who ate at the free breakfast program.

It is at this last stop that Hilliard always looks around and sees the past that motivated and brought down the Panthers. “When I come down here, you know, this is really the low point of this whole trip because a lot of these kids, when I look at them, I see their mothers and fathers. Because I grew up here. This stuff is cyclical; it goes on and on. It perpetuates itself. For me, this is like seeing ghosts.”

In repeating history, though, Hilliard believes the legacy tours have inspired and encouraged this next generation. Already young people have visited the foundation to inquire about the Black Panther history and to ask about volunteering. Currently, 12 are training to be docents.

In addition, he says, “We just get a plethora of requests for interviews from students who are doing their project on the Black Panther Party.” Hilliard recently was interviewed by a student from Osaka, Japan. The Web site at www.blackpanther.org draws international attention as well.

“Naturally, given that kind of response, we need some locality where this history is centralized.” The foundation is working on a permanent home in the former Merritt College site and has received positive response from Oakland politicians. In addition to the Stanford archives, the foundation would have additional documents, a library and offices where visitors and residents can be educated about their past.

“Something good and something positive that came out of their communities other than drug dealing and the violence that permeates our community these days, ” Hilliard says. “These were the communities where politicians, athletes (such as) Bill Russell, Lionel Wilson, Ron Dellums, the Pointer Sisters, these were good things, positive things that happened in our community.”

For the next generation, it means the steps they take are not just through a decaying neighborhood, but through historical landmarks.

TO GET ON THE BUS

The next public Black Panther Legacy Tours are scheduled for Feb. 28. Black Panther Legacy Tours are scheduled at noon on one or two Saturdays every month. If demand is too great (the maximum number the bus can hold is 36) a second tour at 2 p.m. handles the overflow. Advance tickets cost $20 for adults and $15 for students; tickets purchased on the day of the tour are $25 for adults. Call 986-0660 for advance reservations. The foundation also offers self-guided driving tours for $10.

The tour begins at the West Oakland Library, at 18th and Adeline streets. At the conclusion, Hilliard heads a question-and-answer session in a small conference room in the library.

To get to the library, take Highway 24 to Interstate 980, exit at 18th Street and immediately turn right (west). It is about six blocks to Adeline Street.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features

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