On October 27, 2017, news that the National Park Service (NPS) withdrew its pledge to fund the University of California at Berkley’s proposal for the Black Panther Party Research, Interpretation and Memory Project (BPPRIMP) became public.
This almost $100,000 grant was the brainchild of the local NPS in Richmond, which approached the University of California at Berkeley with the potential collaboration. Historian Ula Y. Taylor, a renowned expert in African American history, took a leading role in developing the proposal and identifying consultants with deep roots in exhibition, conservation and music education and with firsthand knowledge of the Black Panther Party (BPP) as members. The resulting grant is rooted in community education, the acknowledgement of historic sites, the collection of oral histories and the creation of a publicly available annotated bibliography to guide future research. It aims to enhance knowledge of the local and regional history of the Bay Area, promising to “discover new links between the historical events concerning race that occurred in Richmond during World War II and the subsequent emergence of the BPP in the San Francisco Bay Area two decades later.” It is conceived broadly in the humanistic tradition and aims to encourage critical thinking and civic engagement. In fractious times, it offers the possibility of bridging “generational, cultural and regional gaps in dialogue on race relations, economic inclusion and opportunity, and other critical imperatives that divide diverse populations.”
The fate of this grant reflects the ways in which history continues to be a battleground for the Trump administration.
Although the NPS has not made a public statement about its rationale for defunding the BPPRIMP, it is not difficult to connect the political dots between conservative outrage and the NPS’s withdrawal of support. Criticism in conservative media outlets coupled with a letter written to President Trump by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) shaped the context for the NPS’s withdrawal of funding support. The FOP’s letter has been uncritically quoted in the press, leaving its depiction of the BPP as a “violent and repugnant” organization that made little contribution to US society, to stand unchecked.
The BPP was one of the leading organizations of the Black freedom movement. Its advocacy of self-defense in the face of violence and police brutality; successful community survival programs providing free food, clothing, medical care and services to anyone who needed it; popular newspaper “The Black Panther”; and anti-imperialist ideology inspired thousands of people to join and helped define radical protest in the 1960s. From Germany to India to Australia, the Panther model has been adopted by oppressed people working toward political power and economic justice. Like many organizations at the time, the Panthers struggled with addressing sexism within their ranks, and creating an internal structure which maintained both discipline and democracy. Their anti-capitalist politics and mass base earned them the enmity of local police forces and the FBI, which launched COINTELPRO, an unprecedented campaign of political repression against the organization.
The history of the Black Panther Party cannot be extricated from the story of the US past.
The Panthers’ history includes confrontation with the police, and several members of the organization remain incarcerated. Because of their oppositional politics, the intense repression the organization faced, and the politicized nature of their court proceedings, these Panthers are considered political prisoners. Many are supported by organizations like Amnesty International, the Jericho Movement and international human rights activists like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. Some Panther political prisoners like Geronimo Pratt and Robert King were released due to wrongful conviction after spending decades in prison. Others, like Sekou Odinga, Albert Woodfox, Marshall Eddie Conway and Sekou Kambui, were freed after long legal battles in cases which brought to light informant testimonies, inadequate legal counsel, human rights abuses within prison, prolonged solitary confinement and punitive denial of parole. Veronza Bowers — the former Panther spotlighted in the FOP letter due to his arrest for allegedly killing a park ranger in 1973 — had his parole denied in 2005 by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. In 2009, a judge ruled this denial evidence of bias by the US Parole Commission. After over 40 years in prison, Bowers remains behind bars, continuing the legal battle for his freedom. Political prisoners are an inextricable part of the Panther’s history, and the history of political repression of dissidents in the US is well documented. The FOP’s attempt to collapse the BPPRIMP’s broad vision into a referendum on the Bowers case is an attempt to stifle history.
The NPS’s swift and unexplained reversal is particularly troubling, given the agency’s recent public proclamations around inclusion. On the NPS’s centennial in 2016, the agency was criticized for a history rooted in Indigenous removal and a close association with conservationists like Madison Grant, who were well-known white supremacists, white nationalists and eugenicists. The Interior Secretary acknowledged that “with only a sliver of national parks and historic sites focused on women, minorities and underrepresented communities, there’s more to be done.” That same year, the NPS chose radical poet and activist Sonia Sanchez as poet laureate to highlight the fact that “in addition to breathtaking landscapes, the national park system includes places of cultural heritage and the struggle for social justice and civil rights — places of inspiration, dialogue, and healing.” Likely this context, and the strength of the proposal, shaped the initial decision to fund the BPPRIMP.
This commitment collapsed in the face of political pressure from above. Much like debates about Confederate monuments and misinterpretations of the causes of the Civil War, the fate of this grant reflects the ways in which history continues to be a battleground for the Trump administration, especially on issues of race. President Trump’s hostile policies toward immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community and others have emboldened white supremacist protesters who have rallied in places like the University of California, the sponsoring institution for this grant. These policies rest on crafting a shrill narrative of disunity, peddling false equivalences and distorting history. The New York Times recently editorialized that the administration exploits “racist myths and deepening racial divisions for perceived political advantage.” By recovering a history of radical resistance to racism, militarism and imperialism and rooting it in “places” (conservation efforts) and “voices” (oral histories) that would be accessible to the public, the BPPRIMP serves as another mechanism to challenge racist history lessons.
Despite the continued campaign of distortions and misrepresentations, the history of the BPP cannot be extricated from the story of the US past. The Black Panther Party’s records have been archived at repositories all around the country; their history has been included in the National Museum of African American History, where more than 1 million visitors have been exposed to BPP-related artworks and artifacts in their collection; school teachers all across the country have included the Panthers in their curriculum; and professional historians have written over 100 prize-winning articles and books on different aspects of the organization’s history.
There has been a resurgence of Panther history from the grassroots as Panther history has been critically analyzed for its ideological legacy, motivational moments and cautionary tales. Panther chants and quotes spill off the lips of a new generation of activists in the Movement for Black Lives; former members continue to provide the political memory of radical struggle with their writings and activism; and grassroots movements against mass incarceration are increasingly dovetailing with the movement to free political prisoners in the US. Increasingly, the Panthers are being critically engaged outside of the classroom in digital humanities projects, walking-tour apps and public history projects. They stream into living rooms in award-winning documentaries like Stanley Nelson’s Vanguard of the Revolution and Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Bibliophiles can even encounter them in popular young adult novels. Every school child who goes to school in the morning and gets a hot, free breakfast in a program originated by the BPP is swallowing a piece of Panther history. To allow the FOP and conservative outlets, an administration whose distortion of history is often front-page news, and a government agency unwilling to implement its own mandate for diversity to derail the BPPRIMP, would be a travesty.