At her command, the Black Panthers had been summoned to Oakland, Calif. It was August 1974, and Elaine Brown was taking over as chair of the Black Panther Party, the first and only woman to lead the revolutionary organization.
Brown had been chosen to lead the Panthers by founder Huey Newton before he went into exile in Cuba to avoid charges of killing a 17-year-old prostitute. (His trial would later end in a hung jury.)
It was a pivotal moment for a woman in the black power movement. Although women had been a dynamic force for social and racial justice, they had often been overshadowed by men. No woman had led the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Of course, the Black Panthers were far more militant than mainstream civil rights groups, alarming many Americans with their credo of black liberation and armed self-defense.
In Oakland, armed Panthers would listen to the police scanner, then race to the scene of arrests to deter police brutality. In 1967, they carried loaded weapons into the California State Capitol building to protest legislation to make their patrols illegal.
For the Panthers, choosing a woman to lead the party was in itself revolutionary.
Surrounded on stage that day by the Panthers’ security squad, Brown, who had been Newton’s lover, looked out into the audience of party members and with two succinct sentences took her place in history.
“I have all the guns and the money. I can withstand challenge from without and from within,” Brown told the party, according to her 1992 memoir, “A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story.”
“I haven’t called you together to make threats, Comrades. I’ve called this meeting simply to let you know the realities of our situation. The fact is, Comrade Huey is in exile. The other fact is, I’m taking his place until we make it possible for him to return.”
She warned against a coup. “If you are such an individual, you’d better run — and fast. I am, as your chairman, the leader of this party as of this moment. My leadership cannot be challenged. I will lead our party both above ground and underground. I will lead the party not only in furthering our goals but also in defending the party by any and all means.”
The group answered with a chorus of right on’s, she wrote, including a declaration of support from “Larry, a body guard who held a .45 automatic pistol under his jacket.”
Brown is 74 and still making news. Last month she won a $3.7 million lawsuit against an Oakland City councilwoman she accused of elder abuse and assaulting her at a restaurant in 2015. On Monday, the jury awarded Brown $550,000 in punitive damages, according to her attorney Charles Bonner.
“It’s been 50 years since I joined the Black Panther Party,” said Brown, who continues to work for social justice and criminal justice reform. The country, she said, “has taken many steps backward,” including its high incarceration rate of black people. “I’m struggling along to try to create some kind of change in the abysmal condition we continue to find ourselves in. That is where I’m coming from.”
Brown, who once worked as a cocktail waitress at the Pink Pussycat club in Hollywood, was in her mid-20s when she joined the Black Panthers. At the time, Newton had been convicted of killing an Oakland police officer during a traffic stop and sentenced to two to 15 years in prison. But the conviction was eventually overturned by an appeals court.
“When the force of the Free Huey movement erupted in 1968,” Brown wrote in her memoir, “I was driven to decide whether to be ‘part of the problem or part of the solution.’ ”
She edited the party’s official newspaper and, according to the National Archives, became a member of the party’s central committee as minister of information, replacing the expelled Eldridge Cleaver.
In 1973, Brown, who was an acclaimed singer, was commissioned to record songs by Newton, creating the album “Until We’re Free.” She wrote the party’s national anthem, according to the University of California at Berkeley Library Social Activism Sound Recording Project.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense had been founded on Oct. 15, 1966, by Newton and Bobby Seale to protect black communities from police brutality, according to a 1996 Washington Post article.
“People often forget Huey Newton was a law student in 1965,” former Black Panther David Hilliard said during a 2006 panel discussion at the University of New Mexico. “Newton and Seale patrolled with law books in one hand and a gun in the other.”
Hilliard, who has written a book about his time in the Panthers, said the party called for universal health care, education, decent housing, free medical care and transportation for seniors.
“We did not practice racist ideology,” Hilliard said. “The system was discriminatory and violent. Our slogan became revolution and survival, pending transformation of society; survival pending revolution.”
The Panthers required members to attend political education classes, follow the party’s disciplinary rules and memorize the 10-point party platform that called for “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace,” according to a University of California at Berkeley report.
“WE BELIEVE that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us,” read the platform, which advocated for “an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people.”
The party, which at its height had more than 2,000 members in chapters throughout the country, created free school breakfast programs and provided sickle-cell anemia testing, legal aid and adult education.
But its militancy made it a target of law enforcement officials. On June 15, 1969, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared that “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”
Hoover created a secret agency to destroy the party with a mission to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” party members, according to FBI records.
In a 1969 memo, Hoover wrote that the party’s breakfast program was a problem because it “has met with some success and has resulted in considerable favorable publicity for the BPP . . . and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities . . . to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”
By 1970, many of the party’s leaders had been imprisoned or killed in gun battles with police, including Bobby Hutton, who was shot more than 12 times by Oakland police after he had surrendered and stripped down to his underwear to prove that he was not armed. On Dec. 4, 1969, Fred Hampton, 21, and Mark Clark, 22, were gunned down by Chicago police as they slept in an apartment, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Brown inherited a party, she wrote, that “was the target of the most violent aggression of the police forces of America.” Although battered, “it was still breathing fire. It was at once a lion to be tamed and a terrible sword of freedom to be honed. In August 1974, when I assumed leadership, the Black Panther Party was the only armed revolutionary organization operating inside the United States of America.”
During her tenure, Brown installed women in key administrative positions, which evoked outrage from some men. In her book, Brown recalled an exchange: “ ‘I hear we can’t call them bitches no more,’ one Brother actually stated to me in the middle of an extraordinarily hectic day. ‘No, [expletive],’ I reasoned unendearingly, ‘you may not call them bitches “no more.” ’ ”
In 1977, a few months after Newton returned from exile in Cuba, he approved the beating of Regina Davis, who was administrator of the Black Panthers’ school, for a minor transgression.
Brown wrote in her memoir that after Davis was hospitalized with a broken jaw from the beating, Brown felt she could no longer stay in the party. “The beating of Regina would be taken as a clear signal that the words ‘Panther’ and ‘comrade’ had taken on gender connotations,” Brown wrote, “denoting an inferiority in the female half of us.”
Brown confronted Newton about the beating, but he refused to back down. Brown decided to resign. She hastily packed her belongings and left Oakland for Los Angeles.
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