Mainstreaming the Panthers
A group of earnest young twentysomethings from the East Bay Conservation Corps gathers this early, sunny June morning at a public library branch in West Oakland. In a matter of minutes, they'll begin a three-hour tour that focuses on Black Panther history in Oakland. The man who will lead the historical tour, David Hilliard, a former Black Panther chief of staff and, currently, a candidate for Oakland City Council, is busy making coffee, heating muffins, and doing last night's dishes at his house a few blocks away.
As Hilliard prepares for the tour of historic Panther sites of his choosing -- the "Black Panther Legacy Tour," Hilliard calls it -- the former radical talks to me about Panther history, and who he believes has earned the right to tell it. And who hasn't.
In his view, the Panther legacy has been twisted. "People denounce the community service aspect of what we did and focus only on the militant aspect," Hilliard complains.
Beginning in 1993, when Hilliard copyrighted the Black Panther name (along with the likenesses and recorded and written works of famous party members, including founder Huey Newton and prison leader George L. Jackson), the reformed radical established himself as the pre-eminent former Panther in charge of shaping, maintaining, and protecting the memory of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
For the past year, he has taught classes on Panther history at Merritt College in Oakland and New College in San Francisco. In 1993, the year he copyrighted the Panther legacy, he issued a memoir, This Side of Glory; Warner Bros. optioned the book as the potential basis for a movie.
Three years later, Hilliard and Fredrika Newton, the widow of legendary Panther founder Huey Newton, established the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation and sold the late Panther leader's papers and artifacts to Stanford University. Published reports put the sale price at $200,000, with all money accruing to the foundation.
Last year, as Hilliard settled on his next political move -- a run for City Council from the West Oakland flatlands where he grew up -- he established yet another tool for projecting his desired version of Panther history: the Legacy Tours.
As he draws the Panther name and story ever further into his control, Hilliard is radically recasting the Panthers' image. Upset at those who reduce the Panthers to their eventual mainstream media image -- frightening, gun-toting militants -- he has tried to counteract the propaganda with counterpropaganda, casting the Panthers solely as a positive force. That is, he has focused on the social programs the Panthers created, and has portrayed them as helpless victims, explaining away Panther-related violence as solely the result of a well-documented FBI campaign of dirty tricks, infiltration, and harassment.
In the process, Hilliard has purposefully avoided any discussion of the equally well-documented dark side of the Panther disintegration: the killings and beatings ordered or carried out by Newton, and the burgeoning criminal enterprise he ran in the 1970s. And as Hilliard goes about fashioning the Panther story into his desired shape, he is also jealously guarding the legacy from those he considers interlopers of dubious intent.
He's deeply offended by those who blithely tell the Panther story, take the Panther name, or control the dissemination of Panther artifacts without the requisite props, and without seeking proper permission.
"My right to do this is indisputable," he says, pouring me a cup of extremely good coffee. "My right is in being a founder of the Black Panthers, in having suffered, in being shot at, in watching my friends killed, in going to prison. This is a legacy forged in blood; it's a blood-stained history. I knew Huey since he was 11 years old. I knew Fredrika since she was a kid, too.
"This is our history. It's not something that's up for grabs."
The legitimacy of the Panther copyright hasn't been tested in court yet. But Hilliard says it soon will be, and then those he terms "vultures," "gold diggers," and "suckers," those who are trying to make money off of and distort the story of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, will be called to account for their crimes of revisionism and commercial exploitation.
"We will have our day in court," the 57-year-old Hilliard says with steely conviction. He places a lot of different people in this class of unworthy exploiters of history: Khallid Muhammad, the former Nation of Islam leader who, after being kicked out of the Nation, formed the New Black Panther Party, with outlets in New York and Dallas; the Black Panther Vanguard of L.A.; a man in New York who sells Panther memorabilia without having sought a franchise agreement from Hilliard; and, right here at home, a man who has been Hilliard's adversary for several years, eccentric Panther aficionado Michael C. Swift.
Swift lives in an Ashby Street compound in Berkeley amid a clutter of Panther artifacts and other black history relics, some of obvious historic and archival value, some merely icons of Swift's strange and far-flung ideas about what constitutes legitimate historical linkage. All of it is piled willy-nilly in an attic, or lying around on the floor of his "office," in no particular order, amid laundry and, at least when I visited last week, the heady smell of high-grade marijuana.