During the presidency of Barack Obama, the nation has experienced several historical and instrumental 50th commemorations which pertain to the African American narrative in the United States of American. For example, in 2013, the nation remembered the 1963 March on Washington. The year 2014 saw the commemoration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was a testament to 50 years of nondiscrimination in places of public accommodations. In 2015 the nation commemorated the 1965 March on Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. However, this commemoration was held in the shadow of a gutted Voting Rights Act which resulted from the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder 2013. Until the recent presidential election, hope was held out that Congress would pass new legislation to shore up the Voting Rights Act. Under the new regime, voting rights will be extremely vulnerable.
The commemorations of the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act take the nation back to the 1960s and the socio-political and economic environment of the time. For the most part, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is the primary focus of the commemorations aside from what the events attempted to accomplish. Nevertheless, there were many groups and individuals active around the time of Dr. King. On the Civil Rights side of the ledger, there was the Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP, and the National Council of Negro Women. Outside of the Civil Rights Movement, one can find the Nation of Islam, US, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Although all these organizations were working for the advancement of Black people in the United States, there was tension not only within the Civil Rights community, but there was also tension between the Civil Rights community and those outside the Civil Rights community. The most publicized tensions were between Dr. King and Malcolm X. However, there was also tension between Dr. King and Black militants. Black militants found expression in such terms as Black Power and “Burn Baby Burn.” Dr. King spoke and wrote about what he called “this marvelous new militancy” that was engulfing the Black community. He spoke in terms of a warning because he saw it as a major threat to the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. The most memorable embodiment of Black Militants was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
Five days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, there was a major urban riot that took place in Watts, California. The violence was in response to an issue of police brutality. It was, at that time, the deadliest most destructive urban disturbance that the United States had seen. Police brutality in the Black community had essentially become as common as breathing. Even the protesters in the Selma to Montgomery march were attacked by police authorities. As a consequence of police brutality in the Black community, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense founded. Names such as Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Rush, Elaine Brown, and Fred Hampton have become major components of the folklore surrounding the Black Panthers. As a young child, I recall being fascinated with images of the Black Panther Party. I would cut out newspaper and magazine photos of the Black Panthers and tape them to my bedroom walls. There was something about the leather jackets and black berets that captured not only my imagination but the imagination of the country. It did not take long after the Black Panther Party was created in 1966 for FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to brand the organization as the greatest threat to American democracy. This pronouncement was supported by what came to be known as the Counter Intelligence Program or COINTELPRO. This was an effort on the part of the FBI to destroy and discredit the Black Panther Party. The FBI not only used surveillance and wiretaps for this purpose but also recruited Black informants to collect internal data on the Black Panther Party.
Irony and the struggle to advance Black Americans in the United States are not lost on the 1960s. On the one hand ,you have Dr. King and Black Militants debating tactics of a struggle for the purpose of liberation. On the other hand, you had the FBI attempting to destroy both the nonviolent movement and the Black power movement. One can only conclude that any challenge to the historical order of White domination in America was perceived as a threat to the natural order of things and, therefore, had to be contained or destroyed. What we are left to ponder in regards to the 50th commemoration of the Black Panther Party is the specter of police brutality that gave rise to the organization fifty years ago. These past two years have seen the rise of more and more deadly shootings of unarmed or legally armed African American than at any other time in recent memory. Members of the Black Party often apologize for not having been able to do more. A famous quote implies that they moved a grain of sand. Perhaps the time has come to move another grain?
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”