No Black Power organization has caught the fancy of the American academic as has the Black Panther Party (BPP). Much of what is known about the BPP revolves around the Bay Area specifically and the state of California generally. Of the scholarly books on the topic, only the cities of New Haven, New Orleans, and Chicago have been the sites of rigorous Black Panther scholarly inquiry. From the Bullet to the Ballot, although not an especially original title, is perhaps the best of the lot.
Through six chapters, Williams does a fine job of situating the Illinois state chapter of the Black Panther Party within the political and social milieu of the Windy City. Williams’s discussion of the Chicago Panthers’ goal of dismantling the regime of Mayor Richard Daley is especially meticulous and insightful. More than anything ever written about the Black Panther Party in Chicago, Williams offers a very detailed account of the chapter’s inner-workings. One is afforded a clear picture of the hierarchy and the chapter’s division of labor. The chapter’s community-survival programs are given the attention they deserve, something that accentuates the book’s importance. Writers get caught up in the Panthers’ histrionics so often that their work in the community gets short shrift. This is a pitfall that Williams avoids. It should also be noted that the photographs contained therein bring the principal characters alive and help the reader put names to faces. Williams provides more than a dozen photographs, adding a human element to this story, ironically something that is sometimes missing from texts in which people’s lives are chronicled. [End Page 149]
Midway through the book Williams offers a comparative analysis of the Illinois chapter of the BPP and the organization’s national headquarters, which demonstrates that, although they followed the model set by the national headquarters in the Bay Area, the Chicago Panthers operated in accordance with those circumstances, issues, and events that were particular to their city. Although Chicago Panthers faced some of the same issues as Panthers in Oakland, the two cities were very different in their demographics, and consequently issues could not be addressed in Chicago the way they may have been addressed in Oakland. Combating police brutality is one such example. The sheer size of the Chicago police department precluded the Panthers from attacking that problem in the way that the Oakland Panthers addressed it.
One of the most exciting and original chapters in the book is chapter four, “The Original Rainbow Coalition.” In this chapter, Williams finally sets the record straight about the origins of what many believe to be a Reverend Jesse Jackson creation. This chapter was by far the most enjoyable read as it chronicled the major actors in the creation of the Rainbow Coalition, as well as those on the periphery. One learns about its mission, objectives, and goals. I can think of no alliance outside of those built during the civil rights movement that contained more grassroots, yet star-studded, groups of various ethnicities, than the Rainbow Coalition. Williams paints a vivid portrait of those involved and what they accomplished in a city that was long considered one of the most segregated in America. Yet white Anglos, blacks, Latinos, as well as white ethnics, elected to join forces in an effort to dismantle the Daley regime. Those who aspire to elected office would find this chapter a worthwhile read.
Conversely, the chapter “Law Enforcement Repression and the Assassination of Chairman Fred Hampton” was the least exciting portion of the book. The political repression of the Chicago Panthers is ground that has been ploughed over and over again, though Williams does offer some tidbits that are probably unknown to many, even those who fashion themselves to be students of Black Panther Party [End Page 150] history. For example, on the use of non-police agents as informants Williams shared that the Chicago Police...