In our first local Town Hall of the NBC Learn "Finishing the Dream" series, a Chicago museum exhibit about the Black Panthers provides the setting for a frank discussion between students and community leaders about the legacy of the Black Panther movement.
What Did the Black Panthers Really Accomplish?
MARION BROOKS, WMAQ-TV NBC-5: In the mid 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement took a turn with the rise of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. Preaching self-defense, Hampton's movement clashed with authorities. His 1969 killing by police raised questions about police motives and tactics. Officers said they heard gunshots inside Hampton's West Side home – a claim that Black Panther members refuted. The evidence later showed most of those bullets fired by police were aimed at Hampton's bedroom, where he was asleep.
FRED HAMPTON: [IN CLIP] You can shoot a liberator but you can't shoot liberation. If you do, you come up with answers that don’t accept, explanations that don’t explain, solutions that don’t solve, and conclusions that don’t conclude.
JORIE LUELOFF, WMAQ-TV CHICAGO: [IN CLIP] Good afternoon. The twenty-year-old chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, was shot and killed in a pre-dawn shootout with states attorney's police on-- in his West Side apartment. Another party member, twenty-two-year-old Mark Clark of Peoria, also died in the shootout, which left four Panthers and two police officers wounded. States attorney’s police say they were fired upon when they tried to enter the apartment at 2337 West Monroe on a search warrant, issued for possession of illegal weapons. Three more Panther Party members are in police custody in connection with the shooting.
KEITH KLEIN: [IN CLIP] Officer Carmody, when you knocked on the door, what happened?
EDWARD CARMODY: [IN CLIP] Well, I didn’t actually knock. I heard our officers at the front announce their office, and shots fired. So I kicked in the back door. And as soon as the door opened, I could see shots being fired at us at the back door.
BOBBY RUSH, BLACK PANTHER DEFENSE MINISTER: [IN CLIP] Fred Hampton was murdered. There were no gunshot wounds, there was-- was not gunshot bullet holes outside of the apartment. If there was a gunfire the pigs had to fire in the apartment so there are no woun-- holes outside the doors. They said they kicked down the doors. The locks are still in-- intact on the doors. We’ll prove it-- the cameras were over there today they-- take-- took-- they took pictures of it. We’ll prove that these pigs murdered Fred Hampton while he was asleep. They attempted to wipe out the Black Panther Party. And after they-- if they succeed in this, black people allowed them to succeed in this, then they’ll move all black people in general just like Hitler did in Germany.
LESTER HOLT: And we're going to start this part of our discussion with Dr. Conrad Worrill. And reflecting forty years later and we talked earlier in-- in our program about the-- the different approaches to Civil Rights. When you look at what the Black Panthers did, how-- how do they stand, what do they accomplish, and is it relevant to anything we see today?
DR. CONRAD WORRILL, EDUCATOR AND ACTIVIST: The Panther, the Black Panther, was the symbol of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. They picked it up at Oakland, California, in 1966. We all know they went to the state house armed, because they began talking about self-defense. This impacted a generation of young people across the United States. And Panther's chapters just sprout up all over the United States. Fred Hampton, locally, became the chairman of Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. He was one of the potential great leaders who was a great articulator, a great organizer, and had a brilliant mind. Fred Hampton was inspired by a transition in the movement around a slogan called “Black Power.” So a new slogan captured young people, and we were moving away from being the Negro people, moving into being the black people, and moving into being the people of African descent.
CLIFF KELLEY, TALK SHOW HOST, WVON RADIO: The other thing – and Conrad, of course, was there and he knows all of the facts obviously, Lester. But the other thing, the Panthers are always looked at as somewhat out there, revolutionaries with weapons. They had breakfast programs. They educated children. They did things that the public schools wouldn’t do, but that’s not what people thought the Panthers were about. J. Edgar Hoover said that the Panthers were the worst threat to the United States. You’re talking about racism? This is an extreme situation. This was a murder. That’s all it was.
DR. CAROL ADAMS, C.E.O., DUSABLE MUSEUM: It was indeed. And really when we talk about the influence, you see now government social policy that really stemmed from things that were done by the Black Panther party. It sort of harks back to the discussion we have earlier about, if you’re going to go ahead and do the things you need, if you’re going to do the things your community needs yourself instead of waiting for somebody else to do them. They saw a need for breakfast programs, so they provided breakfast. They saw a need for free medical clinics, so they provided that. It spoke to the young people. And I would see in succeeding generations youth who had been a part of those programs, and I saw how they impacted their thinking and made them activist and made them conscious of what they should do and what they could do in their communities. So I think it was a powerful example. And –
KELLEY: I just think it was unfair to them.
ADAMS: -- we have that very door here in the DuSable Museum.
BROOKS: This is an amazing exhibit. We encourage everybody to head out to DuSable to check it out. Doctor Adams, it’s beautiful. Let’s hear from one of the students right now.
ALEXANDER SEWELL: My name is Alexander Sewell. I’m a junior at Roosevelt University. My question is, what specifically can future young leaders take from the Black Panther Movement in order to implement change and eradicate some of the social injustices that we see today?
KELLEY: What you can learn from what the Panthers did? First, everybody, as the director said, need to see this exhibit. It is great. But to let people know, young people such as your age, that you can do the same thing. African Americans came out politically and did something we never thought they would do. They got rid of Hanrahan, the one who put this together, the murder, and elected a white person – a white Republican – Republican, that’s the big part, in Cook County as the State’s Attorney. That sent a message to a lot of the politicians. That’s what you young folks can do now. But if you do the same thing that they were doing, reaching out to people in the community as was mentioned, not only educational things that they did, but the breakfast. The government wasn’t doing those things then. The government wasn’t doing what the Black Panthers were doing for the community.
The Black Panther Party was born in Oakland, California, in 1966, a little over 50 years ago. Its history holds vital lessons for today's movement to confront racism and police violence, yet textbooks either misrepresent or minimize the significance of the Black Panthers.