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6 DECLINE AND FALL It was arrogant of us to imagine that we were going to save the people. It is the people who will save themselves. If any kind of vanguard movement like the Panthers should point up the contradictions in the system...they do it through newspaper articles or through the conventional process not through violent acts. —Huey Newton, August 1980 As a reform organization the Panthers argued for the black community to receive its fair share of the conventional political pie. The reform mission included an intensely fought 1973 Oakland mayoral election, increased interaction in mainstream political affairs, and a surprising involvement with the spiritual community. The vast majority of members believed in these missions, and they worked diligently to carry them out. Nevertheless, the bright beginning of the Oakland election campaign was also the beginning of a series of devastating scandals that also engulfed the survival programs. An older and decreasing membership was forced to confront the reality that the community no longer found them relevant. Other, more attractive political options existed. Government welfare efforts dwarfed the financially strapped survival programs of the party. The Black Panther Party had come into existence , flourished for a while, and then went out of existence. The community took note of its work and moved on. The reform effort began with the dismissal of murder charges against Seale and Huggins in New Haven. They returned to California in May 1971 to rejoin the BPP. Newton placed Seale in charge of the survival programs, and soon thereafter Seale coordinated a rally where one thousand bags of groceries and 118 / chapter 6 four hundred pairs of shoes were given away. The party pressed ahead with these activities, and ten thousand bags of groceries were given away in March 1972 during a three-day Black Community Survival Conference in Oakland. Contributions by community businesspeople and proceeds from sales of the newspaper picked up the cost of the event.1 The Panthers wanted to turn the survival programs into a governmentsponsored initiative as a demonstration of their power and the viability of the new political direction. They needed to be in political office to achieve this goal. In May 1972 Bobby Seale and the new minister of information, Elaine Brown, announced that they were going to run for mayor of Oakland and city council, respectively.2 It was not the first time that Panthers had run for elective office. Eldridge Cleaver had run for president in 1968 on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket along with Huey Newton for Congress and Seale and Kathleen Cleaver for the California State Assembly.3 This time the emphasis was different. The 1968 campaigns were widely understood to have been a consciousness-raising effort. The Panthers intended to win in 1973. Electoral politics were a logical step because victory would be seen as justification for the 1971 political transition. Newton believed that the Panthers had to reorganize themselves in order to run a credible campaign. That meant a major shift in national resources to Oakland. The attempt to win political power in Oakland translated into a simultaneous diminution of local resources nationwide. Many local chapters and branches were closed to move members to Oakland for the campaign. Some Panthers resisted this move because they were reluctant to leave communities where successful local programs existed. In addition, they had comrades in jail who needed their support. The resisters left the BPP, taking their discontent with them.4 The leader of the Illinois chapter, Bobby Rush, was a notable exception. Rush supported the central committee and believed that electoral politics marked a return to the party’s original vision of community service.5 The members who were shifted to Oakland exhausted themselves going door-to-door registering voters, passing out campaign literature, and staging rallies. The results were impressive. By the last week of March they had registered thirty-five thousand new voters.This boosted the black proportion of the electorate in Oakland to 50 percent of the overall total.6 decline and fall / 119 The Panthers also began reaching out to the black middle class after years of criticizing them for mindless materialism. Seale acknowledged that the BPP needed to provide a framework in which the black middle class could work.7 But it was a limited concept because he was only encouraging them to donate their time to the community programs, not be a part of the decision-making process. Power sharing or political input...


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MARC Record
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