When I lived in Baltimore and went to events sponsored by the anarchist bookstore, often I’d notice the presence of one or two ex-Panthers, stray corks bobbing in an ocean of youthful whiteness. They stayed to themselves, never spoke or asked questions and usually would leave quickly afterward. These men would always show up at events dealing with the Black movement of the 60s and they listened intently but silently to speakers such as Muhammed Ahmed (formerly known as Max Stanford) on tour promoting his book “We Will Return in the Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations 1969-1975.” The men were never well-dressed and in fact, looked like they had struggled since; the type of men that an old Baltimore radical once said, “could use a little victory in their lives.”
I used to run into these men when I was a street outreach worker in Baltimore too. They were regular fixtures in shelters, sidewalks and jails. But no matter how hard their lives had been since, when we’d discuss the Panthers and the 1960s movements, I’d see their faces light up and they would talk freely about those days and what those days had meant to them. Memories of listening to Archie Shepp and Coltrane, black-light posters, dashikis, “Power to the People!” and the black fist hairpicks everyone carried back then, days when anything seemed possible and everyone called one another “Brother” or “Sister.” One man, Roderick Brown – and I use his name because I am sure he is dead now – had become a vociferous born-again Christian, but when he was high, would start riffing Mao, Huey Newton and Lenin in preacherly cadences; amusingly, it was a tell-tale sign he had relapsed. A few had survived by converting to the rigid dogma of the Nation of Islam or Moorish Science. Who can ever tell for sure when personal problems merge into social problems and no longer become individual but collective experiences? I don’t know when that line gets crossed but I do know in their lives these men crossed it.
These working-class rank and file Panthers or Panther supporters have been largely written out of histories of the Black Panther Party. This history has been defined by the college educated ex-Panther, those who after the Panthers died, went and earned or finished degrees and thus had the social capital to be able to write analysis. To my knowledge, although there are thousands of them, no one has gotten oral histories from the type of men I mention here, what participation meant to them and where their lives went afterward.
Now, this omission isn’t intentional or part of a conspiracy of silence but just part of the normal way history gets written. As James C. Scott has pointed out in his theory of “hidden transcripts,” what is left for historians to later sift through is the written record, the manifestoes, books, calls to actions and leaflets of official leaders and organizations; those rank-and-file participating in events or actions rarely leave written records behind. I think this is basically true and looking back, I now deeply regret not having sat down with some of these men and capturing their story.