On Monday evening, professor and author Waldo Martin discussed misconceptions about the Black Panther Party at the Lindquist Alumni Center.
Martin, a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, highlighted his book “Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party,” which he started writing in 2004 with co-author Joshua Bloom.
The Weber State University History Department hosted the event as part of a series celebrating Black History Month.
“I think it’s really important that students have an opportunity to reflect on areas of American history that are often overlooked,” said Brandon Little, WSU history professor.
Martin said the book grew out of multiple research projects he and Bloom were working on when they discussed what an actual Black Panther Party book would look like.
The Black Panther Party developed during the Black Liberation Movement in 1966-82, its main goal being to achieve political and social equality for black people throughout the U.S.
Huey Newton founded the movement, which was known for socialist ideas and threats of violence. It is said the Panthers would often show up to public protests carrying loaded shotguns.
Martin spoke about this “armed self-defense,” which was a major theme of the party. Dating back to reconstitution in the South, society had issues with blacks carrying guns. He pointed out that the only time the National Rifle Association supported a restriction on open-carry laws in California was during the time of these protests.
“More police and government officials killed Panthers than Panthers killed police, that’s just a fact,” Martin said.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panthers a great threat to American society and began his COINTELPRO program to “expose, disrupt, misdirect or otherwise neutralize” groups the FBI found subversive.
Martin told a story of FBI officials breaking up free breakfast programs put on by the Panthers, sometimes going in and taking food from children at gunpoint.
Despite the violence, Martin said the Black Panther Party is misunderstood and unfairly demonized in the media. He said everyone wants to focus on the shootouts, but there is more to the Panthers than that.
“This is contested history, it’s vexed history,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of debates about this day, but, given the evidence, what is the best way of thinking about it?”
Martin said he tries to clear up misconceptions about the Panthers in popular culture. Jeffrey Richey, an assistant professor of history, mentioned “Forrest Gump” as an example of the negative portrayal of the Black Panthers. “It’s an example how popular culture affects the way we feel about history,” he said.
Martin spoke for about an hour, then signed books and talked to students and faculty.
“It’s arguably the best and most extensive book on the subject,” Little said.
He told the crowd how, throughout the Civil Rights Movement, there were different battlefronts and different strategies to fight for rights, stressing that there wasn’t just one strategy, that the battles for freedom or equality must be fought on multiple battlefields.
“Freedom can’t be given,” Martin said. “It has to be seized.”