“I’m just really sick and tired of being sick and tired of watching us die, and I’ve been seeing it all my life,” said Pamela Hanna, a former Black Panther Party member addressing a crowd of gathered students.
The Department of African American Studies at VCU organized a panel discussion with three former members of the Black Panther Party on April 11 to explore the legacy and lessons of the group’s mission.
The Black Panther Party was a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization that F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover famously labeled “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
Despite their reputation, the Black Panther Party existed to be a force for good in marginalized communities. Though famous for their armed citizens’ patrols, which monitored the behavior of police in black neighborhoods, the Black Panthers also provided desperately needed social programs to their communities like free breakfast for children and community health clinics.
“We developed those programs around the needs of our communities. We called them survival programs because we need to survive America and to survive we need to organize,” said Sekou Odinga, a founding member of the New York chapter of the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army.
The Black Panther Party was a source of hope and pride for many African Americans, who were tired of feeling like victims to the system.
“I looked at these strong images of these strong sisters and brothers with black tans on and jackets and I said ‘I’m with that.’ I want to be on the side that’s going to fight for our dignity, our rights, our self-respect, not only for black people but for all people,” said Jihad Abdulmumit, former member of the Plainfield, New Jersey chapter of the Party.
The panelists emphasized the need to organize on a local level to affect change, and the importance of a sustained commitment to bettering your community. They argued that the civil rights movements of today differ from the Black Panthers because they are reactionary and therefore short-lived.
“Why do we not have the sustainability to keep the action going? Because a lot of it is emotionally driven,” Abdulmumit said. “If you’re not building anything you’re just waiting for the next emotional thing to happen, so until we overcome that hurdle we won’t be seeing too much progress.”
Abdulmumit currently serves as the national chair of the Jericho Movement, which advocates for the release of former Panthers who remain in prison, and for the release of other political prisoners. Both Abdulmumit and Odinga were incarcerated for decades because of their involvement in the Black Panther Party, and today work to educate the public on the existence of political prisoners in America.
“We need to strive to free our political prisoners, especially those who have struggled for us, those who are in prison for working for you,” Odinga said.
The panel marks the 50th anniversary of the year the Black Panther Party burst onto the national scene, when they famously stormed the California state capitol to protest legislation that was introduced to curtail their panther patrols. The party was formed during the era of when race riots over economic inequality and abuses by the police were sweeping the nation, and fifty years later the panelists said conditions for African American communities remain the same.
“My reason for joining the Black Panther Party is the same reason that you get involved and the same reason you’re here. Black children, black men, black people were being shot by the police. And that was 1969. And nothing has changed. Not one thing,” Hanna said.
Written by Megan Schiffres