David Hilliard, a founding member and Chief of Staff of the Black Panther Party, told the crowd at Skinner Memorial Chapel that young people in the 1960s were attracted to the Black Panther Party, not because of the military bravado, but because of the deeper community service initiatives the party modeled.
“We were not terrorists or crazy militants,” Hilliard said Friday, while giving the week’s convocation, “I can testify to our movement; the community loved us because we were public servants.”
Hilliard is a world-renowned authority on the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and on the life of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. As an eyewitness and organizer for the Black Panther Party—as well as a scholar, studying the party’s social influence—Hilliard has authored several books on Newton and the Black Panthers.
Since 1993, Hilliard has directed the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, a grass-roots community-based non-profit organization committed to preserving and fostering Newton’s intellectual legacy.
Currently, Hilliard teaches at Merritt College, Laney College, and New College, and lectures frequently throughout the United States.
On Friday Hilliard explained the social programs and community activism that he said the U.S. government and media failed to recognize.
“As a Black Panther Party member, you were always waking up early and helping people,” Hilliard said. In 1969, Hilliard himself organized a social program through the Black Panther Party that provided free breakfasts and medical care in black communities.
Hilliard said the party had at least 60 separate community service programs that were at the heart of the Black Panther Party initiative.
“[The Party] would not have survived under the oppression against our movement had we been anything but a community service organization,” Hilliard said. “We suffered the wrath of the government like no other organization in the history of this country.”
In June 1969, then director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said the Black Panther Party “…without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security.” Hoover also pledged that 1969 would be the last year of the party’s existence.
Hilliard said that the party was not a threat to internal security based on military strength, but based on the success of social programs, like the Free Children’s Breakfast Program, that was successfully filling niches that the government was unable or unwilling to fill.
Though Hilliard asserted that the Black Panther Party was more than a black militant organization, he said he does not apologize for the military bravado.
“We were under attack with no response from the government,” Hilliard said referring to police violence against blacks across the country, “we wanted to end that, and in most cases we did.”
Hilliard said Newton often carried a gun in one hand and a law book in another, “We understood the law and we never broke it…We saw ourselves as part of the community.”
In addition to becoming a visible provider of community aid, the Black Panther Party proved itself as a powerful media, economic, and political force. In the late 1960’s the party’s newspaper generated weekly revenues of over $187,000 within the United States. On top of large gifts from celebrity donors, grassroots fundraising enabled substantial national attention.
Hilliard said that in the 1960’s and 1970’s the Black Panther Party was responsible for helping more than 90,000 people register to vote. In 1973 Black Panther leader Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, garnering 42% of votes cast.
“That was the first time that a black person had challenged a 110 year reign of Republican mayors in Oakland,” Hilliard said of Seale’s campaign.
As a witness to the politics and organizational structure of the Black Panther Party, Hilliard attempted to diffuse misconceptions regarding the party’s acceptance of other marginalized groups of Americans—more than once he asserted that the party valued women as both members and leaders.
“Women were not only party members, but were in positions of leadership. I personally take offense at claims that we were chauvinists. [Women] were not our lesser half, or our better half, they were the other half; they held 50 percent of the movement. There are women who will tell you there was no chauvinism.”
An audience member asked Hilliard about his interpretation of party leader Eldridge Cleaver publishing a statement denouncing James Baldwin’s homosexuality. Hilliard said the party made a push towards acceptance in the 1970’s, and that Cleaver’s comments could not be associated with the entire party.
“In 1969 Huey Newton wrote on gay and women’s rights, and he encouraged the party to embrace them. The movement represented all people. The panther was black, not our politics.”
A full recording of Hilliard’s address is available online at: http://apps.carleton.edu/news/audio_video/