The Black Panthers were complicated, says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lowell Bergman. “The image is never the reality.”

The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland in October 1966. Reflecting on its legacy 50 years later, Bergman says the Panthers’ image — or the pursuit of that image — was part of both their success and their downfall.

The Panthers emerged the year after Malcolm X was assassinated and almost two years before Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. Bergman says they unleashed a raw emotional power.

He should know. Bergman, who directs the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, covered the rise and fall of the Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s, including chronicling the FBI’s war against the party for Rolling Stone.

An iconic image of the Panthers — armed and dressed in leather jackets and black berets — instantly captivated the public’s imagination. But it wasn’t just the public that was paying attention. The Panthers became a focus for law enforcement, from local police departments to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

“You could tell they were changing the game, given the amount of attention they were getting from authorities,”  says Bergman. “These people were interested in political change, and that was really threatening.”

That attention, he says, came directly from the then-revolutionary act of turning the Second Amendment on its head. Bergman says, that move showed the intellectual brilliance of party leaders.

“They represented not people who were self-educated like Malcolm X,  or university- or college-educated like  Martin Luther King.”

Instead, they turned to the populism of Marxist theory. “They described themselves as the lumpen proletariat, meaning they are not the workers — they are the people below the workers,” discarded by society, Bergman says.

“They quoted Che Guevara, saying what they were doing was exhausting all legal means before they declared open revolution. And that got people’s attention.”

They had another radical idea, to exercise their right to police the police. “They were the dashboard cams of the 1960s,” Bergman says.

The Panthers used the image of the armed black man to pose questions about police brutality and civil rights. The response was an FBI target on the Panthers’ backs and the transformation of their leaders into media darlings.

In the end, Bergman says, both of those factors played a significant role in the Panthers’ disintegration in the early 1980s.

“There were cocktail parties in Hollywood and Beverly Hills” says Bergman. “It was the Radical Chic, and the Panthers’ leaders played to that.”

But as they became media stars, their various factions deteriorated, competing for power as well as headlines. Many in the rank and file, Bergman says, were swallowed up by the splintering party, paying the true price of their leaders’ fame.

It was those who believed in the cause rather than the cult of celebrity, Bergman says, who were left dead or in jail long after the spotlight on the party had been switched off.

Bergman points to the case of Geronimo Pratt, a Vietnam War hero who was jailed for 27 years before his conviction was overturned. After the furor over the Panthers died down, he says, those like Pratt were left to suffer the consequences.

“Very little attention has been paid to many of those people,” Bergman says.

  • Lola Themola

    Heard Bergman on the radio saying Pratt was forgotten until a Judge decided, primarily on the evidence that one of his accusers was a police informant, to overturn his conviction. Bergman didn’t mention in the interview the years of dedication by thousands of political-prisoner activists and Lawyer Stuart Hanlon that finally forced the justice system to reconsider his conviction. Perhaps he includes this in the film. https://ww2.callawyer.com/story.cfm?pubdt=NaN&eid=17151&evid=1

  • lspanker

    Funny how there’s no mention of the numerous murders committed by Black Panther Party members. Nice job of whitewashing history, KQED – you all must be proud of yourselves.

  • trite

    I think the bearing of arms by the Panthers and the “turning the Second Amendment on its head” may have made many Americans fearful; many resorted to guns to defend themselves, leading to the massive statistics of gun deaths in the US each year.

Author

Sandhya Dirks

Sandhya Dirks is the East Bay enterprise reporter at KQED, focusing on stories about equity, identity, culture and the changing city.

Prior to joining KQED in 2015, Sandhya covered the 2012 presidential election from the swing state of Iowa for Iowa Public Radio. And at KPBS in San Diego, she broke the story of a sexual harassment scandal that led to the resignation of then-mayor.

She got her start in radio working on  documentaries about Oakland that focused on the high drop-out rate in public schools and mistrust between the police and the community. Her work on “The Drop Out Dilemma” won the Sigma Delta Chi Award Award for radio documentary.

Sandhya is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, where she won a Patsy Pulitzer Preston Documentary Fellowship for her investigative film about international adoption. She’s reported for NPR, Latino USA, and PRI’s The World, and she’s taught audio story-telling at Mills College in Oakland.

Sandhya lives in Oakland with her two cats.

You can contact her with story ideas and comments at sdirks@kqed.org. Follow her on twitter: @sandhyadirks.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor