In October of 1966, the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, California. Since then, the Panthers have been a driving radical force for Black liberation, self-defense, and community organization and self-determination. In this special episode of Rattling the Bars commemorating the 55th anniversary of the founding of the BPP, TRNN Executive Producer and former Lieutenant of Security for the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party Eddie Conway speaks with Black Panther Party archivist Bill Jennings about the legacy of the Panthers and how people are carrying on that legacy today.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Cameron Granadino
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this special episode of Rattling the Bars. We’re taking a minute to recognize the 55th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. So joining me today is Billy Jennings, Black Panther historian, activist, and lifelong member. Billy, thanks for joining me.
Billy Jennings: Thank you for having me.
Eddie Conway: Billy, just give me a little background on what’s going on in Oakland tomorrow, or on the 15th of October, Which will be the 55th anniversary. What’s happening in Oakland?
Billy Jennings: Actually, the whole month of October is Black Panther Party history month. And it’s solely because the Black Panther Party was started in October 1966. So, 55 years later, Black Panther Party members are coming together to celebrate our legacy, and we’ve had a number of events so far. The first of the month, we had an art show that started, that a steady flow of people are coming to on a daily basis at the Joyce Gordon Gallery. So this is an everyday thing for the whole month. Then in the night, last Saturday, we had the artists talk. Former members of the Black Panther Party newspaper, Emory Douglas, Malik Edwards from Washington, DC, Gayle “Asali” Dickson, and a young brother named REFA 1, spoke on the legacy of the Black Panther Party newspaper and artwork today. Brother REFA 1’s mother and father were Panthers, so he’s what we call a Panther cub.
He is one of the most premier muralists in the Bay Area. To his credit, his group has done six or seven big murals related to the Black Panther Party legacy. When you come to Oakland and you go downtown Oakland, you will be amazed to see Emory Douglas’s art in three or four locations, right in the center of downtown. It’s a big portrait of Bobby Hutton there, right on 14th and Broadway. Even the Marriott Hotel, which is a chain group, a chain organization hotel, they have a panther on their logo to honor the Black Panther Party in Oakland. So, the whole month long has been an educational period, and what we got going on this weekend is that we have a number of historical signs are being put up in historical locations. Like, we have a sign that’s going to be on a pole about the Free Breakfast for School Children Program.
Eddie Conway: Billy, you said earlier that part of this whole month celebration was about the legacy of the Black Panther Party. In your opinion, what is the legacy of the Black Panther Party?
Billy Jennings: The legacy of the Black Panther Party is self determination, liberation struggle, social programs, fighting to free our people. That is our legacy. Black Panther Party stood up for the oppressed people, and we did it in many types of manner. Our legacy is to fight for the community, be the guardians of the community, and help the community unify and get what they need.
Eddie Conway: Okay.
Billy Jennings: And we did that through social programs, Breakfast for School Children Program, free food programs, medical clinics—Black Panther Party had 13 medical clinics. Two are still open to this very day, one in Seattle, Washington, and a dental clinic in Portland. So our legacy still lives on in many types of forms. Just recently, most Americans might have read the article in the New York Times about the Disability Act in 1977. Many people didn’t know the Black Panther Party had anything to do with that. We had a spokesperson that went to Washington, DC, his name was Brad Lomax. He started the Black Panther Party in Washington DC, at Howard University, got ill, and had to take a couple years to recuperate. But he came out to California and he helped the disabled people lead their struggle in ’77 and ’78 so that they can have the Disability Act in 1977. So there’s a lot of legacy, history, about the party that hasn’t even been brought up yet.
Eddie Conway: And I will add to that, the need for… At that time, when the Black Panther Party was formed in ’66, there was a need to defend yourself. Organizers needed to defend their self. We were losing people in the rivers in Mississippi, people were being shot in their driveways, organizers were being assassinated, and one of the things that the founders of the party said was that if we were going to organize, then we needed to be prepared to protect ourself and defend ourself. So, I think one of the legacies is that Black people have a right to be armed and a right to defend their self, and that’s more evident today than it was at any other given time. And I think probably the other legacy of the Black Panther Party would be the international socialist ideology. That was the first time that in the Black community and in other communities that there was live examples of how socialist programs work, and it made those programs acceptable.
The community came together collectively and fed the children collectively. They came together collectively and did those things that you said in terms of the health clinics, the free bus rides to prisons, free clothes, free food programs. There’s a health clinic here in Maryland now that, even though the Black Panther Party didn’t start it, we created the foundation for it, and other people grabbed it up and built it, and it still exists today as the ambulance services and so on. So Billy, you have been keeping an archive. Talk about It’s About Time and the archives that you’ve been keeping.
Billy Jennings: Well, It’s About Time came about in 1995, about 25 years ago. I lived in Sacramento, California, which is maybe about 80, 90 miles from the city of Oakland. I left Sacramento in 1988 and moved to New York. Queens, New York. And while I was gone, they were having a housing development here in Sacramento, where many people from the Bay Area moved to Sacramento because they could sell their houses in the Bay Area for a large amount of money. And I also buy houses here, brand new house for $250,000, right? So when I got back, there was a large amount of Panthers here that moved here, living in different locations. So, our kids are all the same age and they kind of congregate together. So one day we were at a soccer game and one of our members said, “Hey, our 30th anniversary’s coming up.”
So we started organizing for the 30th anniversary, which was in 1996, and we stayed together ever since. From that point, I became the editor of It’s About Time newsletter. And I started sending out information about the party and so forth. 1998, we came online and started our website. And that was really the glue, that website. It was able to reach many Panthers all over the world. And so I just started gathering information on the legacy of the party, chapter by chapter. And so today, It’s About Time has one of the biggest collections of Black Panther, our material, around. We have newspapers, we have interviews taped on tapes, on DVDs. We have traveling exhibits. We’ve been to Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, London, Ireland, Tanzania, traveling with our exhibits. So the word of the Panther is still alive in many parts. Just in June, a few months ago, the Polynesian Panthers, who came into being in the 1970s, had their 50th anniversary.
They sent us shirts and statements of support. And when we had our 50th year reunion, they came over to Oakland, about 13 of them. So the Black Panther Party is worldwide, and our archive is worldwide. We get information from all over, put it on our website. So any young student in the community anywhere, or anybody doing research on the party, will have a viewpoint from that rank and file. Our website is focused at the rank and file. We don’t have a lot of stuff about Huey and Eldridge and stuff like that, because they are well covered. It’s the people like Steve McCutchen, it’s people like Aaron Dixon, different people in different geographical locations doing great work that people don’t know about, and that’s what we focus on. So we gather information. If you have any questions about the Black Panther Party, you can go to our website and hopefully you can find out. If not, you can always email me and I try to get back to people within 48 hours.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Okay, so, do you have any thoughts from your experience? I mean, you were the officer of the day at the national headquarters for a number of years, and you’ve been operating there in that area for a long time. Do you have any thoughts to share with young people today that’s thinking about organizing or that’s organizing now?
Billy Jennings: Yes, I do. I try to give them a little background to what they’re doing. Just like a lot of young people that are in Black Lives Matter, and different groups, and are talking about defunding the police. But I think I gave a little background to that, that that was a Black Panther Party idea that came out of the United Front Against Fascists in 1969, and at that time it was called community control of police, right? So we try to give background to people who are struggling, because their struggle is not new. The Black Panther Party fought on many fronts, economic fronts, dealing with the police. Just like you mentioned before, when the party first started, we carried law books with us. Not only guns, but law books. But history has dissected those law books right out of our arms.
We used to quote right to the police, because the police didn’t know the law. So, I would say to any person to do your research. Black Panther Party required me, to be in the party, to read two hours a day. And what I suggest people to do is look back into the legacy of the Black Panther Party in other groups and see how they operated. Because out of the red book, that the quote, “A fall into the pit is a gain in your wit,” right? So, mistakes have been made and different groups can learn from the mistakes the Black Panther Party made, so they won’t commit the same mistakes. So that’s the power of history, because history is a weapon.
Eddie Conway: Okay. All right. And I would add to that, one of the things that caused the destruction of the Black Panther Party was the United States government, the COINTELPRO operations, and their inability to deal with changing the conditions in the Black community. So they opted to destroy the Black Panther Party rather than to see the Black community gather a level of power and independence and use its resources. So we still have that same problem with the government today. And that problem will be around tomorrow. So, like you say, young people need to look at the example, study from it, learn from the mistakes. But don’t take it as a defeat, because they have to recognize that the Black Panther Party, a few thousand, ten thousands maybe, was fighting a government that was an empire.
Billy Jennings: Yep. Because COINTELPRO… During the time I was working at century headquarters, I was working directly with Huey P. Newton. Actually, I was his aide during 1971. And during that time, it came out in the Watergate papers that Huey P. Newton was on the public enemies number one list. And because I was his aid, I was targeted by the FBI, and I was drug into court for draft evasion. But, due to the fact that they discovered COINTELPRO in 1970 in Philadelphia, and my lawyer at that time got a copy of it. And when I went to court, he asked the government for every document they had on me. Because every document they had on me had to be about you, because that’s who I was working with. So when I went to court, they dropped my case because they didn’t want to reveal how closely they were watching Huey P. Newton.
So all of the programs, no matter what our programs were, who we was helping, the government did not like it, because we were causing contradictions for them. The Breakfast for School Children Program was a contradiction to them. Here we are, this Black group feeding thousands of kids. The government’s not feeding anybody. But during that same time, they’re shooting rockets to the moon, burning up millions of dollars. And people say, hey, nobody lives on the moon. You need to do something about the kids in the community. So that’s how the government was forced into the breakfast program, because the government was forced into opening up more hospitals in the Black community because the Black Panther Party was doing so. We forced the government to divulge information, do more research on sickle cell anemia. The Black Panther Party was a force, and behind us and supporting us was the community. They liked what we were doing; the [government] was anti-people.
Eddie Conway: And I just want to add one thing too, because you had said it earlier about the Polynesian Panthers, and I think it’s important to understand that Black Panther Parties sprung up in India, Black Panther Parties sprung up in Israel. They sprung up in Africa, in the Caribbean, in Europe. Black Panther Parties sprung up all around the world. And sister and brother companion parties like the Brown Berets, et cetera, also sprung up and took the example, and took the platform in most parts of the Black Panther Party. Even though they had different names, they were Brown Berets or Red Berets or Rainbow Berets or whatever. There were even senior citizen Black Panthers–
Billy Jennings: Gray Panthers.
Eddie Conway: –The Gray Panthers. So the legacy lives on in the sense that the Black Panther Party reached a lot of people, and that in itself terrorized the government because of the ideology that was spreading about unity. And it was a serious effort to always paint the Black Panther Party as being anti-white and being a Black nationalist, racist organization. But because we worked so close with the antiwar movement, the Peace and Freedom Party, and other white organizations—here were even White Panther Party, there was the White Panther Party.
Billy Jennings: Well, that’s because the party was a vanguard. We set the example.
Eddie Conway: Yeah.
Billy Jennings: And the tone, when the Black Panther Party newspaper came out, we showed them how a community paper should look. The Young Lords, the Young Patriot party, all these different groups’ papers are modeled after the Black Panther Party. Our 10-point program is universal. That’s why we moved away from just saying Black power and moved the power to the people.
Eddie Conway: Yes.
Billy Jennings: We are more—As we learn, we got more humanistic in our views, and people picked that up and adopted our 10-point program all over the world, saying they started following our example. So the Black Panther Party was a powerful force, left a heavy footprint for anybody to follow.
Eddie Conway: And we are going to end on that note right there.
Billy Jennings: All right, Conway, all the power to the people.
Eddie Conway: All power to the people.
Billy Jennings: Alright I’m out, I’m out.
Eddie Conway: Thank you for joining me.
Billy Jennings: Okay.
Eddie Conway: Thank you for joining this special episode of Rattling the Bars, recognizing the 55th anniversary of the Black Panther Party.