Quantcast

Listen, Whitey!

Among the potential Black Panthers in this satirical photo shoot from Esquire magazine are musicians Roberta Flack, Les McCann and Oscar Brown, Jr. McCann and Brown were part of the movement and Flack recorded a version of the song “Compared to What,” though in recent years has shed all ties to her political past.

In the 21st century, the word “revolution” has lost its edge. Advertisements inform us there’s a revolution in hair care or describe a revolutionary new automobile. During the late 1960s and early 1970s when young whites spoke of revolution, they wanted to take “the establishment” down and stop the Vietnam War. For African-Americans, revolution meant the Black Panther Party or Black Nationalism. There were a number of revolutions taking place and none of them were going to make your hair smell terrific or provide a more comfortable driving experience.

My book Listen, Whitey! is about how Black Power influenced folk, rock, soul and jazz between 1965 and 1975 when musicians were viewed as revolutionaries and revolutionaries were considered pop culture icons; where Bob Dylan intersected with Huey P. Newton (the influence flowing in both directions), John Lennon hung out with Bobby Seale and Mick Jagger recorded a song about Angela Davis.

During the formative years of writing my book, I was honored to befriend David Hilliard and Elaine Brown, as well as meet Bobby Seale, Ericka Huggins, and other former Black Panthers living in Oakland—all of whom inspired me.

The Black Panthers are often interchangeable in many people’s minds with Black Power. The voices and images of Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, David Hilliard and Elaine Brown are as symbolic of the sixties as John, Paul, George and Ringo. And like the individual Beatles, the Panther leaders often had differing political ideologies and separate agendas. Yet, the Panthers were just one of many Black Power groups (although the most important and influential).

Far too often, the various personalities and organizations get lumped together. A victim of pop culture’s love of radical chic, Angela Davis (a member of the Communist Party) is often mistaken for a Black Panther. Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee enjoyed a brief coalition with the Black Panther Party, but had their own ideals and goals. Amiri Baraka aligned himself at various times with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X and Ron Karenga’s US, but ultimately his legacy is co-founding the Black Arts Movement.

It’s important to recognize key differences separating the Panthers from Black Nationalists. My book attempts to dispel the myth that The Panthers were anti-white. In fact, some of their financial support came from Bert Schneider, executive producer of the hippie classic Easy Rider, one of the highest grossing films of the 1960s. Schneider funneled part of his millions of dollars of revenue from pop culture marketing into maintaining Huey P. Newton’s so-called “subversive” activities.

Black Nationalists were prone to wearing dashikis and taking African names. The Panthers did not. While the Panthers and the Black Nationalists shared a desire of independence from white society, the Panthers always remained multicultural, encouraging the alliance of all non-whites. The Black Nationalists focused on a strong African identity, maintaining a cultural connection to their native origins. Black Panther Huey P. Newton loved the music of Bob Dylan, while Black Nationalist Amiri Baraka debated if certain blues and jazz music was black enough to listen to.

The phrase “black militant” gets thrown around a lot. Yes, there are photos of beret-wearing, shotgun-carrying African-Americans to back that up. Yet more people used a pencil, a book of poetry, a typewriter or a musical instrument to evoke change. But those images don’t make for good press. The Black Power Movement was not just political, but about humanity, about a way to live. Militancy is a label put on a group of people who simply wanted their equal rights.

Along the way, popular musicians picked up the mantle: Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, James Brown, the Isley Brothers and even Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, who released a pop song about Bobby Seale being “bound and gagged” at the Chicago 8 trial.

New artists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago emerged, changing the face of jazz—while established musicians such as Max Roach changed direction and reflected the events around them. Albums by female poets Nikki Giovanni, Jayne Cortez, Maya Angelou and Sarah Webster Fabio shed new light on black consciousness. Comedian Dick Gregory released albums that were entertaining, but as hard-hitting as the Black Panther Party newspaper. Religious leaders jumped into the fray as well. Reverend Jesse Jackson’s album included photos of him hanging with Amiri Baraka and Fred Hampton. Aretha Franklin’s father C.L. Franklin put a sermon to wax titled “The Meaning of Black Power.” The movement also responded regionally with 45rpm singles of protest music cropping up on small labels in Austin, Milwaukee, Chicago and Birmingham. Meanwhile, the Watts Prophets and Last Poets laid the ground work for the emergence of rap a decade later.

The Original Last Poets’ Right On! on Juggernaut Records is an inspiring opus. The album’s cover appears like any soundtrack, with producer and director movie credits and a Cannes Film Festival mention as well. We’re informed that this music, performed by Gylan Kain, Felipe Luciano and David Nelson, is “an expedition into inner self for the listener.” Right On! also features the first-ever parental advisory warning on an album: “For mature audiences only.” The back includes the bold statement “A Woodstock in Poetry,” followed by a testimonial from Amiri Baraka: “Right On! is the beginning of new movies, where Black and 3rd World [sic] art is going. Poetry/image/music; this is the new electric drama form. Revolutionary revelation. All future movies will begin with this.”

Iconic Images of Black Power

Between 1965 and 1975, Black Power grew from a social-political underground movement into a significant force in American pop culture.

Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power speech in the hot Southeastern summer of 1966 was followed by the formation of the Black Panther Party in the fall of that year in Oakland. African-American athletes made sure the Black Power salute was seen around the world during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. In 1971, The Partridge Family brought beret-wearing black militants into white middle class homes across America. During this decade-long strange trip, several iconic images come to mind.

On Oct. 16, 1968, at the Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos (two of the world’s fastest sprinters at that time) won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter race. After receiving their awards, they stepped onto a multitiered podium on the grounds of the Olympic stadium. As the American National Anthem began to play, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and then, with each of them wearing one black glove (Smith on his right hand, Carlos on his left), they raised their fists high in the air, giving the entire Olympic stadium and an estimated television audience of 400 million people the clenched fist Black Power salute.

A renowned photograph of that moment has been reproduced countless times in the decades since as an indelible statement of Black Power—including the Oct. 26, 1968, issue of the Black Panther Party newspaper, published just 10 days after the event.

Such was the growing popularity of the Black Power clenched fist that the August 1969 issue of Liberator (a political magazine) featured an advertisement from TCB Products that for $4.50 would sell you a 6-inch high “Power Symbol” fist that was hand-carved in mahogany. For $5.75 you could purchase a 9-inch version—add 50 cents for postage and handling.

Another classic image of Black Power is the 1967 photo of Huey P. Newton sitting in oversized wicker chair, wearing the Panther uniform of a beret and leather jacket, holding a shotgun in one hand and a large African spear in the other. Thousands of these posters were distributed by the Black Panthers to fuel the “Free Huey” campaign following Newton’s arrest for the October 1967 shooting of two Oakland police officers.

As a result of the shooting incident, Newton was convicted of manslaughter and after a lengthy and much publicized legal battle, was ultimately acquitted and released in August 1970. The iconic image of Newton sitting in the wicker chair has been reproduced numerous times as a poster and in various publications since then. It is without a doubt the single most famous photograph of any Black Panther member.

By 1970—probably to the chagrin of Huey P. Newton—the black beret entered the pantheon of mainstream American pop culture: the weekly television sitcom, via the white bread musical comedy show, The Partridge Family. In an episode entitled “Soul Club,” broadcast on Jan. 29, 1971, the loveable all-American Partridge Family find themselves in a ghetto of inner-city Detroit to perform in a club run by down-and-out blacks played by comedian Richard Pryor and actor Lou Gossett, Jr.

Keith Partridge (David Cassidy) writes a new “Afro-styled” pop tune in celebration of the family’s newfound surroundings, but the song requires a horn section and conga drums. Freckle-faced youngster Danny Partridge (Danny Bonaduce) convinces the local chapter of the “Afro-American Cultural Society” (aka the Black Panther Party) to come to the rescue with their members who play horns and drums. The Partridge Family and the Panthers perform Keith’s song together as part of a ghetto street fair. As the episode comes to a close and the family is boarding their bus in search of more fun and games, one of the “Afro-American Cultural Society” leaders arrives at the last minute to present Danny with a black beret and announces that Danny is now an honorary member. Danny suggests that he open a local chapter when he gets back home and everyone laughs.

The only thing more bizarre than this sitcom storyline is the fact that in 1997, TV Guide picked this episode as number 78 in the 100 Greatest TV episodes of all time (along with other wacky events such as Andy Warhol appearing on Love Boat). In the words of TV Guide, “This may be the most outlandish episode on our list; it’s certainly one of the best-intentioned.” Say what!?!

Angela Davis should thank the FBI for placing her #1 on their “Ten Most Wanted List” in August 1970, a month before this LIFE article. It changed her from an outspoken academic into a popular folk hero. Decades later, she still commands large speaking fees at universities across the nation due to articles like this.

The Black Forum Label

Even among diehard collectors of Motown’s vast output, Motown’s subsidiary Black Forum label remains obscure. It is overlooked in most Motown biographies, and no Black Forum recordings have ever been included in any Motown label anthology.

Even the 30-song, double-CD released in 2007 entitled Power To The Motown People: Civil Rights Anthems and Political Soul 1968–1975 includes no Black Forum artists nor even a mention of the label in the booklet’s overview of Motown during the Black Power era. And yet, the cover features a clenched fist salute as its main artwork and a photograph of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale are inside the jewel case. There’s also a sticker telling us that this CD includes “30 Militant Soul Anthems.” OK then, where are selections from Elaine Brown of the Black Panther Party or poet/activist Amiri Baraka? Each had released albums of songs (rather than speeches) on Black Forum during the period covered on the compilation.

The label released eight albums between 1970 and 1973. The albums were a speech denouncing the Vietnam War by Martin Luther King Jr., a very heated address on race relations by Stokely Carmichael, and interviews with black soldiers fighting in Vietnam conducted by a Time magazine correspondent. There was also a narrative by writers Langston Hughes and Margaret Danner, an LP of poetry including Amiri Baraka, members of the Last Poets and Stanley Crouch, as well as an album of songs featuring Amiri Baraka as a vocalist backed by free jazz musicians. The final two releases were Ossie Davis and Bill Cosby speaking in front of the first Congressional Black Caucus, and the aforementioned singer-songwriter LP by renowned Black Panther Elaine Brown.

Honkies For Huey

One of my favorite passages in Black Panther David Hilliard’s illuminating autobiography This Side of Glory is when he describes “Honkies for Huey,” which grew out of the “Free Huey” movement, as white leftists began coming forward to support Huey’s trial stemming from the shooting of two Oakland policemen. Apparently this Berkeley-based organization printed up buttons saying “Honkies for Huey” and at a meeting recalled in Hilliard’s book, one of them asked Eldridge Cleaver, “How do you think we honkies can help?”

On a related note, Cleaver had aptly pointed out in his book Soul on Ice that the early 1960s Civil Rights protests by black students on southern college campuses had inspired northern white students to politicize themselves. He wrote, “In countless ways, the rebellion of the black students served as a catalyst for the brewing revolt of the whites.” Indeed, a pre-Yippie Abbie Hoffman first got inspired as an organizer for SNCC, and a 1968 essay for Esquire magazine (on the Chicago Democratic Convention protests) by notorious Postmodernist William S. Burroughs stated, “Black Power: Find out what they want and give it to them. All the signs that mean anything indicate that that the blacks were the original inhabitants of this planet. So who has a better right to it?”

Black Panther field marshall Don Cox got a taste of high society whites supporting the cause at the infamous Black Panther fundraiser chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s 1970 Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. Hosted by symphony maestro Leonard Bernstein, Cox’s frank conversation shocked the celebrities assembled at Bernstein’s Park Avenue mansion (including director Otto Preminger and anchorwoman Barbara Walters). He told the earnest honkies gathered,

Our Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton, has said if we can’t find a meaningful life…you know... maybe we can have a meaningful death... and one reason the power structure fears the Black Panthers is that they know the Black Panthers are ready to die for what they believe in, and a lot of us have already died.

Bernstein asks if Cox feels embittered by all the wealth surrounding him at this party. Cox replies:

“No man…I manage to overcome that…I used to get very uptight about things like that, but…I don’t get mad about it personally. I’m over that.”

Well,” Bernstein replies, “It makes me mad!"

While it’s easy to bash these limousine liberals, I’m reminded of what singer/songwriter Gene McDaniels told me when I first started writing this book, “Black people don’t like blacks like me, it’s only white liberals like you who think I’m cool.”

Companion Soundtrack CD

Through Light In the Attic Records, I also compiled a companion soundtrack CD (also titled Listen, Whitey!). What’s exciting about this album is the diversity and selection. While I’ve tried to encompass a range of personalities, it’s important to remember that the people featured on this album are individuals with their own perspectives, ideologies and political focus—obviously all fighting for the same goal of respect and freedom, but in no way should they all be lumped together. This diverse set of musicians, activists, poets and singers didn’t necessarily speak for or to each other.

It’s also important to please remember that this project is not about Blaxploitation. For those who don’t understand, I’ll let the words of House of Representatives Congressman Bobby Rush (Deputy Minister of Defense of the Chicago Black Panther Party when Chairman Fred Hampton was murdered) explain, “One of the things [that the] film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song did, was it made being a revolutionary hip. And the Panthers made being a revolutionary hip. But Superfly made being a drug dealer hip.”

For anyone paying attention, that’s a big difference.

Pat ThomasListen, Whitey: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965–1975 is available now from Fantagraphics. He’ll present words, images and sounds from the book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Mar. 1 at Washington Hall.

See more in Music
See more in the February 2012 issue   →