On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review Oct. 18, 2002/ 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Robert Leiter

Why is the NYTimes defanging the Black Panthers?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Can it be that journalists will buy any story dished out to them, as long as there's a hint of drama - and even better, generational strife?

Take, for example, a front-page piece that ran in The New York Times on Oct. 8 about the fate of some of the founding members of the Black Panther Party. No, they didn't have a prolonged shoot-out with the police, which was their trademark back in the 1960s and '70s. It seems, instead, that there's a rival group calling itself the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and the original Panthers don't like how the younger guys are making them look. It seems the young Turks have been trafficking in "extremist, racist and anti-Semitic" remarks.

As Times reporter Dean E. Murphy puts it, founding member Bobby Seale, who's 65 these days, along with fellow Panthers David Hilliard, Elaine Brown and Huey P. Newton's widow, Fredrika, are afraid that "their contentious yet storied legacy in African-American history is being sullied by a new and harsher brand of Pantherism."

That's why these former radicals have "hired a trademark lawyer and have begun a fund-raising campaign to put the New Black Panther Party out of business and to preserve the Oakland-born Black Panthers, who formally disbanded in the 1970s, as the only real thing."

It turns out that the new Black Panthers aren't all that new. They've been around since 1989, and for the past decade or so the older Panthers just thought of them as a nuisance. But what's ticking off the elders these days is that the new kids on the block have begun to take their "message of militant black nationalism into the mainstream media as never before."

For example, the leader of the New Black Panthers, Malik Z. Shabazz, a 35-year-old Washington lawyer, appeared last fall on a three-hour C-SPAN broadcast of a National Press Club news conference, during which he called the United States and Israel "terrorist states."

"We have to make it plain that the Zionists control America, lock, stock and barrel," he told reporters. "The European Jews have American under control." Hilliard told the Times that the new Panthers have "almost done irreparable damage to our credibility with their racist and anti-Semitic behavior," said Hilliard, who was the party's chief of staff in the 1960s.

Shabazz has dismissed the oldsters as "jealous and failed revolutionaries unwilling to acknowledge an emerging generation of younger black radicals."

The new group insists that "no one has the right to dictate how the Panther identity is claimed, particularly since the panther image was originally used by a black political party in Lowndes County, Ala."

I don't get it. Is the history of the old Panthers really "storied," albeit "contentious?" For any of us who witnessed a little history in the decade of the '60s, these guys were a bunch of violent thugs, as well as being some of the most creative anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist and racist rhetoricians in the business. In fact, they taught the left some of the things we're suffering from right now as we struggle to defend Israel from the most recent delegitimization campaign.

We all know that George Orwell was right - that any part of history can be airbrushed out to suit the agenda of those telling the story. But can the ever-present media defang - literally - old Panthers just by portraying them as befuddled, graying old men?

The Panther story is not just part of African-American history; it's part of American history, the history of the black-Jewish relationship and the history of the academy in the 20th century. And believe it or not, some of us can remember all that.

JWR contributor Robert Leiter is Literary Editor for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002 Robert Leiter