Interviewer: Louis Massiah and Terry Rockefeller
Production Team: B
Interview Date: October 14, 1988
Camera Rolls: 3013-3016
Sound Rolls: 306-308
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Elaine Brown, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 14, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Who were the Black Panthers, I mean in terms of the people that joined the organization? You talked before that they were combination of classes, people from the street, also people of education. Just, talk about that.
Well, um, we were a combination of people, I don't know if we were a combination of classes. Because our analysis would have been that, ah, Black people didn't fall into, for example the bourgeoisie, so it would be hard for us to have that class represented. But I would say that the party was an eclectic blend of people in terms of, um, but we were all unique. We were all, um, I think that we were all unique. We were all, we all came from different places. I mean, John Huggins for example, from New Haven, from sort of middle class, ah, background, uh. Bunchy Carter on the other hand from the streets of Los Angeles, um. And everywhere, you know, in between. But I would say our greatest appeal was to, ah, those people who were, who are now called the underclass, or what we called the lumpen proletariat, or people from the streets, and from the poorer working classes.
What was it that brought, what was it that brought you to the Black Panther party, what, what, what caused you to join?
Well, you know, obviously a question like that has, ah, you know, a process answer. I mean, you can't just say, well, one particular thing did it. But I would say if there wasn't mo--the most impactfull[SIC] thing for me was, well, there were two things. One, was meeting a man named Bunchy Carter in Southern California. Ah, who was, ah, he, by self-definition the mayor of the ghetto. And who I referred to always as an artist and a poet. And who was, ah, the head of the Slauson gang, who was out of the streets, who was magnificent. And you could not be around Bunchy Carter and not want to be a part of whatever it is he was a part of, in my opinion. But those times, remember, were very, very excited, excitable and exciting, and so you wanted to do something. And I was already do--involved in something called the Black Congress. And I was always doing some kind of peripheral work around the quote movement. But when I met Bunchy, I knew that I had to be in the Black Panther party. I started doing some work with the party. But not until after meeting Eldridge Cleaver, and ah, after he was shot and Bobby Hutton was killed, did I formally say that I was committing my life to the Black Panther party.
Could you talk a little bit about philosophy,
What did it mean to be a Black Panther? What was a Black Panther?
Well, as an individual, and I assume that's what you mean, it meant, you really, it meant committing your life. I mean, that's how we saw it. It meant that we had to surrender up something of ourselves, our own lives. Because we believed that the struggle that we were involved in, which we thought of as a socialist revolution, ah, would take our lives. And so we had to surrender that. We had to make a kind of commitment. Now whether we realistically thought we would die, most of us, I think, did, after a time. Um, but, so it meant surrendering our lives to something greater, which was the notion of, of getting rid of oppression, and ah, and all the things that oppression meant and mean in this country for Black people and other people, ah, in the country. And on a, um, so it meant, it meant not involving yourselves in, what, in yourself and whatever you did as a human being, whatever you were about. It meant really seeing yourself as part of a whole, ah, and part of an entire process, and that you were a soldier in the army. And that's how we saw ourselves, as a soldier in the army, and an army that was about, bringing about revolution, a vanguard army, as we considered ourselves, um, to introduce socialist revolution into the United States of America.
You had talked before how, about how Huey borrowed from different, ah, different people in putting together the Panther, ah, the Panther policies, and also some of the Panther style. Could you talk about that? What were some of the influences on Huey Newton and talk a little bit about Huey P. Newton.
Well, the influences as I, as I, as I know them, um, were that, for one, our uniform of course was clearly right out of, ah, Che Guevara, and that whole, ah, guerrilla movement, um, in, um, in, ah, South America and in Cuba, what have you. Um, our, ah, our name came from a, an organization in, ah, in ah, Mississippi, a Lowndes County freedom organization, which was a voter rights organization, or our symbol, the panther, because Black people couldn't vote. And ah, when they, they would give, ah, literacy tests so that they began to say, OK, look for this symbol, the Black panther at the polling place, and you'll know who to vote for. So we used the Black panther symbol. And we used the, um, the, ah, borrowed a lot from the, um, Nation of Islam ten point program and platform for our ten point program and platform. Um, but what differentiated us was Huey's, ah, thrust toward the use of arms. Ah, in other words, the Black Panther Party's real, the difference between us and say everyone else in the United States, in terms of, ah, other than, you know, the Che Guevara, was that we really believed in that, that, that struggle would, would require armed violence, and armed force. And so we were prepared and we were armed to do that. And so that was all pieced together, um, but it wasn't pieced together, I mean, it can't be seen that way, it has to be seen as part of a process. It was a time and, and, and we used, these were symbolic things, these were not the substantive issues. The substantive issues came from, from the mind, in many cases, especially at the beginning of the party, ah, of Huey Newton. And um, when you ask me about Huey, of course, the first thing that comes to mind, to my mind, was that, ah, I always thought of Huey as a genius. I always thought of him as a brilliant theoretician who really understood, um, concepts, and the concepts that we had to, that we had to engage in, in order to win. And so um, in brief, I would say that Huey Newton was the guiding force behind the party because he was, ah, talking about arms, talking about socialist revolution, and putting that out there. And then, of course, doing certain acts, um, going to Sacramento, although Huey personally didn't go to Sacramento, um, defending Betty Shabazz or protecting Betty Shabazz, and this sort of thing. And getting the attention of everyone, ultimately, of course, ah, the, being the center of the Free Huey movement, ah, having been involved in that shootout with the police in Oakland in 1967. So I think that Huey became not only in form but in substance, um, the real spirit of the Black Panther Party, the drama, the dynamic, the energy that the Black Panther Party had that, that made it unique as far as I'm concerned.
Last night you were talking about the Last Temptation of Christ, and that moment when Christ was about to die. And you talked about it in terms of your realization as a Panther that you might die at any time. Can you remember that moment when you realized that your life was in jeopardy and how that transformed you? When you realized that you might die?
Well, I don't want to backtrack too much, but I'll just say that, um, I was a matter of, ah, probably 40 or 50 seconds away from being shot when John and Bunchy were killed at UCLA in 1969. Um, although that wasn't very impactfull[SIC], I mean I didn't, I mean, it just happened, and I didn't feel it. I mean, there were gunshots and I sort of remember all of that, but it's, it's, you know, it's a mist. But that afternoon, after they were killed, we went back to, ah, the house where Erika Huggins was to tell her, and to sort of regroup and figure out what we were going to do. I mean, two people have been killed. Um, and as we began to sort of organize ourselves, we had to, we felt we had to leave that particular house. Ah, we looked out the window and there were like 150 cops coming in, ah, from, trying to come into the house, coming in from the rooftops, and, ah, ah, and there were only four women in the house at the time, Erika and Joan and, and another sister named Janice, ah, and myself, and Erika's baby, Erika and John's baby, three weeks old. And there were two men outside and we were forced down, we just said, well, they're coming in the doors, they're going to kill us, they said, oh, we'll kill, the police said, if you don't, ah, if you don't come out of the house, we're going to blow their heads off, and they had shotguns in Geronimo's ear and Nathaniel Clark's ear, Geronimo Pratt, Nathaniel Clark, and so we just hit the floor. We said, this is it, we're going to die today. And the first thing you realize, is that you think, well, I hope I can handle this, I hope I can handle the pain, I hope I can handle whatever's going to happen to me. Because it's really a strange thing, because I would never have thought I would be that brave or that, that calm. I would've thought I was, would have cried or something. And they kicked in the door, and they put the shotguns in our heads and stuff. And, of course, obviously I wasn't killed because here I am. But it was then, that and John Huggins whom, who was very close, whom I was very close to, sort of said there's nothing else I can do. I've just got to, um, I've got to do this because it is, it is, um, it is my life. That's it. So you just do it. And you just say, that's the moment. January 17th, 1969, for me, was that nodal point, if there's any identifiable nodal point where I said, OK, I'm going to probably die in this stuff, but it's worth it.
How did you see the Panther party transform--you were talking about guys in the Slausons in L.A., and also folks in Oakland, around the country. How did you see it transforming young Black men and women?
Well, you know, the Panther party first of all was dominated by men. So it, it, no point in talking too much about the women, because there weren't a lot of women in the party, the party. There were a lot of women, but there weren't a lot of women. I mean, we were, the party was dominated by men. And it was a male-dominated organization in terms of attitude and everything, and the paramilitary, ah, you know, atmosphere and so forth. But I think that, the simple fact is the Black Panther gave all those gang people, the Slausons in L.A., the Peace Stone Nation in, in um, in Chicago, it focused their attention away from what they were doing, and onto this more serious issue. In other words, the reason gangs form is not just so that people can have camaraderie, as many sociologists would like to suggest. You know, there's this sort of, everybody's happy just being a part of something. Well we could be part of something other than a street gang, and go around robbing and maiming and mugging people and stuff and so forth. But there was that sense, and I know from Philadelphia, from, from the Avenue Gang and Norris Street, and all the gangs in my neighborhood, that it was, it wasn't just a matter of belonging, it was standing for something, it was having territory, it was having a sense of your own dignity in a, in a world that denied your existence. What the Black Panther party said is you can do the same thing--
How did you see the Panthers transforming men and women who joined the party and you were talking before how it gave them a sense of strength to stand up to the faces, those forces of oppression.
Well, I think that the Black Panther Party appealed ah, primarily to ah, brothers on the street because we, we wanted to. Um, the party did not reach out and say well, we want to have men and women. The party reached out mostly to men, ah, to young, Black, urban um, men who were on the streets who knew that there were no options somewhere in the lives, who were gang members because that was all you could be in order to find some sense of dignity of your, about yourself ah, from, you know, as I mentioned to you, the Slausons, which Bunchy Carter was a part of, to the Peace Town Nation in Chicago, to, you know, Norris Street and, and Avenue in, in, in North Philadelphia. We reached out to these people because we had something for them to do with the rest of their lives. So that was, that they were, in most, in most cases they were used to violence, they were used to, ah, struggle, ah, they were used to just fighting just to keep alive. And so we were, we, we offered them the opportunity to make their lives meaningful. You know, we, ah, Huey used to always quote Mao in saying, you know, to die for the people is heavier than Mao-Tai[SIC], meaning to, to die for, for nothing is lighter than a feather. So we used to always say that if you're going to die on the streets, to die for nothing, ah, but to die for the people is something heavy. And so, something heavy in the sense of meaningful, weighty. And, and a lot of brothers did make their commitment with that conscious understanding that coming away from the gang was, was, was something that they were ultimately building something for, ah, for themselves and for their, their community, and they, they just did. I knew people, for example, ah, little Tommy Lewis in L.A., who was just, was killed by the police, 17 years old. And he couldn't read when he came into the party. But he wanted to be in the party so bad, he learned to memorize, and he would say he could read stuff, even though he couldn't. So he, we had an impact on that element, on that so-called lumpen proletariat, on that totally alienated element in the Black community, the young Black male.
And you as a woman, what was particular, what brought women into the party?
Well, for me, it was the idea that Black men were actually deciding that they wanted to be men as I, as I put it, in the sense of, um, I was denounced as a matter of fact by some of the women's groups because, um, you know, the question of feminism seemed to not allow for this element, this return to the, the return to the community of the Black male. And I had grown up in a neighborhood where there were two fathers that I could name off the top of my head, that we knew of, that were still in the home and married or whatever. The rest of, most people I knew, and most people in most Black, many Black communities had divorced parents long before these statistics were popular. Or fathers who, the image that we had at least was the father wasn't there. Or the father didn't do this, or there was the, the Black male who was the weak figure and so forth. Here were men who were saying, "Listen, we are willing to take charge of our lives. We are willing to stand up, we are willing"--I mean, there was the appeal that Malcolm had in many ways, and it was the appeal that other people have had, but, but for me, the Black Panthers were the, the ultimate. And so it was the men that I saw and the sense of being part of them and being ha--so happy to see that they cared about me, and I as a child who had no father at home, that had a certain subjective appeal to my psyche and to my emotional need, to say yes, there were men in this world who, who cared, ah, Black men, who, ah, who cared about the community and wanted to, to do something and were willing to, to take it to the, to, to the last, ah, degree.
Could you talk a little--
Could you talk a little bit about Malcolm X and his influence on your feelings and your thoughts and also on, on the party, how, how Malcolm influenced the party?
Well, ah, as for me, um, I, I didn't think about Malcolm X when Malcolm X was, ah, was in his prime, so to speak. Because, um, I, like a lot of other Black people, but I can speak for myself, I was totally unconscious or uncaring about what happened in any meaningful way in terms of Black people. I just wanted to get out of the ghetto that I lived in, which was North Philadelphia. And um, Malcolm didn't have anything to do with that. I saw myself as getting out because I would become a part of, ah, a White, ah, you know, thing, or something like this, I would be different, a different kind of negro, you know. So, I didn't hear Malcolm when Malcolm was, was, ah, alive. Malcolm was assassinated in 1965, and ah, up until that point I remember hearing him. I thought he had more to say than the civil rights people in that sense, because I knew that he was not saying let's be non-violent. Um, but I didn't see him as significant one way or the other to my life at that time. Ah, as for the party itself, however, we borrowed almost everything we had in terms of our style and our substance from Malcolm. Our style at least, um, the, the idea for example of saying that, um, by any means necessary. That was Malcolm's phrase, and we used that, that Machiavellian reference, and said, yes, we would accomplish the freedom of Black people, we would accomplish the revolution by any means necessary. Of course, the implication was by violence, including by violence if necessary. And ah, there was a presumption always that it was. The other thing that Malcolm did is that he was an influence on the urban Black. I mean, Martin Luther King basically was a Southern Black. And you had brothers and sisters especially, but brothers, I mean, brothers more particularly, right on the streets of, ah, Harlem and North Philly and Detroit and, you know, um, L.A., and Oakland and what have you, who, Malcolm--ah, Martin Luther King did not reach, ah, but Malcolm did. The voice of Malcolm reached them and in many ways reached them through our, our effort. Because that was the, those were the people that we appealed to, the Northern urban Black, from the streets, and that was Malcolm's constituency too. So in that sense, we had a similar constituency. And then thirdly, we did a lot of other things that Malcolm would--Malcolm had certain tenets and principles that he believed in. Um, beyond just protection of women, and what have you. But there were things like, we never spoke independently. When we were in the Black Panther party, if there were ten of us, only one spoke, and only one voice was heard, so we couldn't be divided, because Malcolm was very clear about how the White man would try to divide our, our, our ranks. And so we were very clear about not being divided. And that was a very important part of the Black Panther party. And so I think he, his vision and his spirit were, were pervasive in, in our activities daily, on a day-to-day basis.
What were some of the influences that Huey Newton borrowed from or learned from in putting together that, the program, and also in how to develop the style for the Black Panther party?
Well, the style, and as I've mentioned to you before, I think that it's important not to be too focused on style. Um, ah, although that had an impact on how people thought about the party, ah, but it wasn't the party. The, the question of wearing the beret, I mean, that clearly came from Che Guevara. Um, the question of the Black Panther symbol, it came from the Lowndes County, Alabama freedom organization, um, which was a voter rights organization. Ah, the, the, the initial militance, if you will, which is not to be confused with what we considered to be revolutionary activity, which we borrowed from all revolutionary, socialist revolutionary organizations throughout the world, came from the, from the Deacons for Defense, ah, who were, ah, a group of Black men in the South, who said, we're not going to be non-violent, and if you come in our neighborhoods we're going to take care of you. And basically did accomplish something, in the sense of people respected them, and the Whites who were hanging people and stuff did not go into territories where the Deacons for Defense operated. So all of that, ah, combined--and the ten point program and platform, um, we virtually borrowed from the Nation of Islam, which always printed it on the back of their newspaper. Um, except that there was a final point where we differed, which was the complete and, uh overthrow of capitalism, which was a part of our program and not a part of theirs. But yes, we borrowed, ah, Huey, um, who was the, the, ah, spirit of the party, and who was the guiding force in the party, um, used some of those symbols for the party, but the party, of course, evolved to become its own, ah, its own entity.
What were the expectations of women in the party, and was it any different from the expectations of men?
No. Um, I don't think we saw ourselves differently in the beginning at least. We thought that we were revolutionaries, um, and we thought that we would, ah, we would, ah, participate in the same level as men. The one thing we did know is that we weren't really, there was really no difference in the beginning at least. At least we thought of ourselves as, as, as the same as the men in terms of our commitment, and in terms of what we had to do. So our expectations were that we really thought, of course, as, as did the men, that, um, that we would introduce, ah, revolution into the United States.
How did the survival programs come about, and also would you talk about how they worked? How you got people for the food programs, how you got people to donate food? And, first begin with the philosophy of the survival programs.
Well, um, Huey, um, started out naming the programs that we, that we developed, our survival programs, from the theory that, ah, we, this was survival to the point of revolution. So, but the breakfast program, which was not called a survival program initially, but called the breakfast program--
Lets start again, make sure you keep eye contact
Could you talk about the survival programs, what was the philosophy of them, how did they come about, and how did you carry them out?
Well, the survival programs were initially, the concept came from Huey, ah, ah, in the sense that, ah, he would say that we're going to develop these programs, and their function would be for the survival of the people, to the point of revolution. But the breakfast program, which was a part of that whole group of social programs, social welfare programs, was not called the survival program, but it became a part of that whole package eventually. The breakfast program, of course, is the most well-known of the Panther programs, breakfast, breakfast for children, under the philosophy that, um, simply that children could not learn, and Black children were not learning in school, despite the inferior educational process, they couldn't learn anything without having, ah, food. And so we started the breakfast program. The first one was started in a, ah, ah, church, um, Father Boyle's church in San Francisco. It was funny, because we couldn't get a lot of Black preachers and ministers to give us, ah, space, and that's who we reached out to, we wanted the churches to open their doors, because they did, they had clearly the facilities to handle cooking and having a number of children. And then other breakfast programs eventually spread from there. Father Neil in Oakland and, and others in, in the other chapters and branches throughout the, ah, the country. The idea was, ah, obviously, twofold, for the specific purpose of serving those people who were directly benefit--benefited by our programs. But also, secondarily, to influence the minds of people, to understand not only that the Black Panther party was providing them this, but more importantly that if they could get food that maybe they would want clothing, and maybe they'd want housing, maybe they'd want land, and maybe they would ultimately want some abstract thing called freedom. And so the idea of the survival program was a political organizing tool which most people misunderstood because they thought it was an end in and of itself, and it was not an end in and of itself. It was, um, it was the point at which people could be introduced to the political process, through the breakfast, through our food programs, through medical clinics, through legal defense programs, busing to prisons, ah, clothing, um, ah, so forth. We had so many different programs, and each chapter, of course, reflected its own particular--particulars, but generally speaking we all had these kinds of programs with the intent of serving the people and with the intent of providing them a political, becoming, putting them into the political process.
How did you finance it? How did you get the resources to make these survival programs work?
Hit and miss. I mean, we, we financed, there was no financing of anything. We, you know, we didn't get government money. We, we ultimately did at some point. But during those early years, we, we, we, ah, certainly were not interested in getting government money. But what we did was we begged and borrowed and stole, basically. That's how we got the money. Anyway we could.
And we got donations, just to add that. We had donations of, ah, in-kind donations as they used to say, in that some kind of poverty program lingo. We would get, ah, food donated. We would get service donated. In other words, the church would donate the space and the use of their kitchen, and we would wash dishes, and people would donate, ah, people to come and volunteer to cook one breakfast. And so we just, we did it hit and miss. We did it anyway--and it was, it was a total process of community involvement. But we literally begged, borrowed and stole.
Could you talk about the Panthers entry into the anti-war movement and taking a stand against Vietnam. Also, working in alliance with White radical groups. How did that come about and what were some of the events that you remembered?
Well, the, the Black Panther party was never a nationalist organization. Um, in the sense that we, our purpose was not to build a Black nation. We felt that the oppression of Black people was our primary, more subjective interest. And that interest could best be served by the freedom and the, ah, destruction of oppression for all people. So therefore that would include other people of color, women, and anybody else who was disenfranchised and was oppressed by the system that we felt was the real perpetrator of all of this, ah, harm and ill, which was a system of capitalism in the United States and ultimately of imperialism. So when we recognized early on that the war in Vietnam, ah, had nothing to do with Black people and our oppression, that we were doing no more than being cannon fodder--our first position was not to take a position against the war, but to suggest that Black men not go into the war. And so we promoted, if you look at some of our early papers, you'll see us promoting Black men saying, "Don't go to the war." We would never allow our own Panthers to be drafted. We would send them down to the draft boards in Panther uniforms with Panther papers, and say, yeah, I'm ready to go and of course the draft board would be glad to have them leave as opposed to go to Vietnam. So, generally speaking, we tried to discourage Black people from being a part of the war because we were cannon fodder, and we did not have an enemy in the Vietnamese people. We were one of the only Black organizations addressing the question of the war. But we were not anti-war activists in the sense that we thought there should just be peace in Vietnam. Our position became very clear and very strong as it evolved. And that was victory for the Viet--Vietnamese, victory for the Vietcong, which was not a very popular position. But nevertheless we did participate in a number of anti-war movements and demonstrations. But our line was very strong, and that was victory for the Vietnamese and, ah, destruction of, of U.S. troops in, ah, in ah, Vietnam.
Can you talk about some of the times you spoke, the sense of the alliances with White radical organizations, and some events?
Well, of course, ah, clearly Eldridge Cleaver was the main, ah, main, ah, person who supported this notion of, of alliance with White radical organizations. I mean, he coined the phrase Mother Country Radicals. And this was something that, that went in, was really in line with our thinking anyway. Because in general the party, as I say, was not a nationalist group. So we saw the interconnection between the various struggles. Many of the White radical groups, of course, were populated by more middle class, ah, in some cases, even upper class, if that term could be used, ah, Whites, but nevertheless they had sincere hearts and commitment at the time to support our struggle. So we had two kinds of White groups that we coalesced with. One, the, ah, peace and freedom types, ah, pe--ah, various groups who we worked with on a day to day basis. And there were others who were support groups. Ah, there were many Panther, White Panther support groups, White groups of people, groups of White people who supported the Black Panther party. And so, um, ah, not only financially, but also politically and in their own communities. They did work within White communities, or they supported the work that we did in the Black community. Or they were in coalition with us on specific issues. For example, I remember we had a United Front against Fascism conference in which the Peace and Freedom was a co-sponsor of. And ah, we saw this as keeping in line with our position that the oppression of Black people was directly connected to capitalism and not to the question of, ah, nationalism or racism.
Could you talk about your alliances with SNCC, specifically what influences Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown may have had on you and what influences you may have had on him, and the Black Panther Party may have had on SNCC.
Well, the Black Panther party of course, we saw ourselves as the vanguard of struggle. The SNCC organization was a civil rights organization primarily dedicated voting rights and activity in the South. Um, Stokely, of course, took a position that White people had no real role to play, took a very hard line nationalist position. But the Black Panther party, um, was what we considered to be the vanguard of revolution. So we were, ah, to the left of SNCC in that, if you were to use a political scale, we would say that we were to the left of SNCC and, SNCC and therefore we were truly what we thought of as the vanguard. We recruited Stokely Carmichael, as my recollection, in the sense of, we said, look, he had popularity, we had this, and we were basically talking about the same things, although he had a different perspective as the head of SNCC. So we asked him, because he had some ties in Africa, and because he had an international and a national image, to participate in the Black Panther party, to be a kind of ambassador for the party when he went into, into Africa. And of course Rap Brown and others were part of that. The Free Huey movement, however, at the time, in 1968 particularly, was so profound, and it was so big, that everybody wanted to get on board. And so it wasn't difficult to see the coalitions forming. And it was more of a, more than a coalition, it was really a uniting and a melding of the various Black quote militant forces in America.
How do you you account, when you think back on the impression Fred Hampton made on you, how do you account for the strength and the growth of the Chicago Panthers.
Well, I mean clearly Fred Hampton was the, the, the essence of what we called the Illinois Chapter focused in Chicago, based in Chicago. I mean when you, when you realize that Fred Hampton, for the time he was in the party, he was only 20 and 21 years old, for the time he was alive. Um, I met Fred the first time when, when we, ah, I'd just left a funeral, one of the many funerals out of Southern California, with David Hilliard, and we had gone back to criticize Fred for his, I wasn't about to criticize him, but, but, but, but David Hilliard was, for having denounced the Weather Underground, Weathermen, whatever they were called at the time, for trashing parts of Black community of South, of, of, of, ah, Chicago. And Fred's line was very hard. He took a line that, that these people did not belong in that community. That they had brought the police down. That the Black Panther party was being blamed, so they were doing two things, they were affecting the community directly and indirectly, they were affecting the relationship the community had with the Black Panther party was getting very angry. So we went to see Fred, and, you know, and, and Fred was, you know, here he was this, he was basically a kid, I mean when you really think about it, I mean. But um, and that night, that I first met him, we came in late, and, and he had this big bed, and he and Deborah, his, his wife, they, they had gotten this bed, and everybody made a big thing about this bed that, that Fred and, 'cause Fred was kind of chunky, and Brenda was, rather Deborah, rather, was, ah, was fat with his baby, and ah, so there was a big number made about this bed, because Fred Hampton didn't go to sleep anyway--
the growth of the Chicago Panthers.
Fred was, um, of course, the most, probably one of the most dynamic human beings I had ever met. I met him first in Chicago, ah, when, ah, David Hilliard sort of took me there directly from the gravesite of another Panther. We were at a funeral, we got on a flight to Chicago, right, met Fred. And the first thing you remember about Fred is that Fred really--he was down in the trenches with everybody. And his house, that house in the West Side was, it was a horrible place to live. But he didn't live above, or elevate himself above, he lived like the rest of the comrades in the party, which was pretty poorly except for, by that time, this unique thing, which was that big bed that he and Deborah--and everybody laughed about the big bed that they had. And the other thing about Fred was that in the, during the day we got up with him in the morning, we had come in around two in the morning, he was up all night, which was apparently typical, and around six in the morning, we, we go out, we drive along to some schoolyard or something, and there were like 200, 300 people waiting there for Fred to show up. And the phenomenal part was that, I mean, these are all people from the streets, I mean, who are not going to get up and go to work, or anything else, and never had no discipline, and never would, but there they were. And it was six--six-thirty in the morning, freezing Chicago weather. And Fred would have them out there doing push ups and jumping jacks, and getting themselves energized for the, the, ah, the day's work. Which included making the breakfast, which included selling papers, which included working in the medical clinic, which included a bunch of stuff. It was a very day to day kind of a thing, the Black Panther party. And you have Fred out there rallying them. And he'd say, he'd say, he'd say, "All right, all right, all right, power to the people." Everybody'd say, "Power to the people." He'd say, he'd say, "Now, I, I'm not going to die on no airplane." Everybody'd say "No." "I'm not going to die slipping on no ice." They'd say "No." He'd say, "I'm going to die for the people, because I'm going to live for the people." They'd say, "Right on." He'd say, "I'm going to live for the people because I love the people." They'd say, "Right on." He'd say, "I love the people, why?" They say, "Because we're high on the people, because we're high on the people." And that was Fred Hampton, when you saw this, this was 21 years old, it was unbelievable. You could not not be moved by Fred Hampton. It was, he was, ah, like Martin Luther King, you just had to see Fred Hampton mobilize people who wouldn't have moved for anything else that I could imagine on the planet, and much less to get up and cook breakfast, some big old strong guy out there doing push ups, talking about I'm going to die for the people. And that was Fred Hampton, that was the spirit that I saw in him, only two months before he was assassinated.
How did you learn about his death and what did you do?
I was in New Haven working for the Bobby Seale, Erika Huggins, ah, campaign for their freedom. Ah, they were in prison at the time, in jail on, ah, charges in New Haven. And I was in the bathtub, maybe I shouldn't say this, but I was, I was pregnant, and ah, and I heard about Fred, I heard about it , that was later. But I heard about Fred's death, and I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it. And I didn't know what we were going to do, so, nobody knew. Because this was the year that J. Edgar Hoover said he would kill us, and we all thought, when Fred was killed, it was like the end of the year, and there had been so many assassinations and so many deaths, and so many funerals, and we thought, they really are trying to close out the year their way. They really, they walked into this man's house and killed him. We all knew what had happened. There's no question about it. Fred Hampton was a political organizer. Fred Hampton was not a, an individual who was threatening anybody per se. Um, and for them to have isolated him, and killed him, we knew that we were all in jeopardy, and we all felt very sad about it, and we were all devastated by Fred's death.
What was the funeral like? Paint a picture for me.
Well, as I, as I talk about it and I've thought about it many times. Um, the funeral--of course, you have to imagine that four days, I was in Chicago four days after Fred was murdered. And um, and you could touch his bed, and your finger could become moist with his blood still. And you know, and there was Deborah, and we, she and I had talked about this, we're both pregnant. And she had been in that bed, that bed had rocked with, rocked the life out of him, blood on her, he had fallen on her. And you saw all that right there, and there--but, on the streets of Chicago, everywhere, thousands and thousands of Black people coming through the house, coming through the streets, um, everyone just wanting to know what do we do now, that Fred is gone. And you had these, um, these loudspeakers the Panthers had put on these trucks, and running through the streets with Fred's speeches, listening to Fred, organized people, people crying, just unabashedly, openly in the streets. And then the funeral. Where you had thousands of people for blocks around listening to the speeches. Listening to this one give praise to Fred, and that one give praise to Fred, many of whom hadn't known him, but everybody wanted to be there because it was Fred Hampton. And then at, at the end, as I, as I, as I've said many times, the most profound thing occurred, and that was the, at least 2,000 members of the Peace Town Nation, in full regalia, red berets, the Black jackets, whatever, and they're going by, and they're looking in Fred's open casket, and they're, they say, ""To the Nation, Fred."" And you had to see it, because you know that these people were totally alienated from society, and they had found one person who meant that much to them. It was profound.
What was the song? Someday We'll All Be Together. How did that fit in?
Right. Well, Fred, um, Fred liked that song, you know, um, I'm gonna, I'm gonna tell you. Motown, I have to tell you very briefly, was, I always said to, I said it once, many times, that Motown was the sound of the urban, urban rebellion, urban Black rebellion. It was the sound of Watts, and ah, Detroit, and Black people rising up and taking charge of their lives in urban arenas. So, when Diana Ross and the Supremes put out "Someday We'll All Be Together." Fred liked that, because it had that, of course, double meaning. And for him, it had a political meaning. We, we did that we took a lot of the, especially the Motown songs and we'd translate them into political terms. And so Fred loved that song, and, and after he was assassinated, um, all through the streets of Chicago, on top of hearing Fred say, "I'm going to die for the people because I love the people", you would hear Diana Ross singing, "Someday we'll be together." And you hear that brother in the background, "Say it, say it, say it again." And it was, everybody, everybody understood, we would be together and Fred had done that. He had binded[SIC] us in some way, and we were all committed, even more than before, and so they made a mistake assassinating him. At least at that time, we felt that they did.
How did that year of 1969 start? How did you grow and live through that year with the awareness of the death and the enemies you had?
Well, it started with, um, the assassinations of John and Bunchy, in, in Los Angeles, John Huggins and Bunchy Carter. And it, for me, every month I went to a funeral. Ah, I became a professional singer at funerals, I mean that's what I did. And that's what we all did. We, we even laughed about it. But when Hoover stated, in the beginning of the year also, that that would be the last year the Black Panther party would exist. He just made a statement, we said, he means it. We didn't think it was a joke. And we knew that we had to confront that. And we were serious about it. We had what we called the Executive Mandate Number One, which was that no Panther could every allow himself to, or herself to lose a gun-- INTERRUPTION. CUT]
Go on with Hoover's announcement and the deaths.
Well, 1969, in the Black Panther party was a very rough year for all of us. Ah, Hoover did state, ah, without question that we were the single, ah, greatest, ah, threat to the security of the United States, internal security. And that this would be the last year the Black Panther party would exist. Ah, we, we took it seriously, but we thought we would be able to handle ourselves. We had this, um, this, um, law in the party called Executive Mandate Number One, issued by Huey, sometime before, saying that the Panthers, first of all, always had to be armed. And that if we were ever caught on the street, or in our homes by the police, that we were to defend ourselves right then and there. And we knew that and we took that seriously. As a result of a combination of all of that activity, Hoover's part, and our defense and our ability and willingness to defend ourselves, we lost a whole lot of people. Ah, I went to a funeral every year in 19--every month in 1969, and I would've gone more often than that, except that I was, that was only in L.A. Um, there was no joke about what was going on. But we believed with our hearts that we should defend ourselves. And there were so many that did do that. Um, so many that died, um, that by the end of the year, the raid on the Los Angeles office by the, ah, Los Angeles Police SWAT Team, which was introduced with the Black Panther raid, ah, a five and a half hour attack on our office with tanks and ah, paramilitary, ah, I mean, ah, rifles and so forth, um, we knew that we were not playing around, this was, this was serious, and we'd probably all die, but that was what we were about. We knew we had to do, we had to pay the price, if we wanted to be the vanguard. As a matter of fact that's what Fred used to always say, that we had to pay the cost if you want to be the boss, and Fred used to say that, and we knew that. And we learned it. And we accepted it, and we dealt with it.
--speak about that song--