- Nine Lives of a Black Panther: A Story of Survival by Wayne Pharr
In the spring of 1993 when I was a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at USC I had the opportunity to meet with and speak to Wayne Pharr in his real estate office for more than two hours about his experiences as a member of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party. Much of what he shared with me that day and in subsequent conversations can be found on these pages; still I learned a great deal from reading this memoir. While Pharr’s account is not as gripping as Aaron Dixon’s My People Are Rising or Flores Forbes’s Will You Die with Me,Pharr’s book is still a fascinating read.
Like many memoirs Nine Lives of a Black Panther: A Story of Survival takes the reader on a journey that ends in the here and now, but unlike many memoirs his does not begin with either a story of his birth or a chronology of his childhood. Instead Pharr elects to take the Quinton Tarrantino approach by introducing readers to the teenage Wayne Pharr and an event that would leave him shaken, yet undeterred in the fight for Black liberation. Specifically, this autobiography opens with a chilling narrative of one of the most infamous Panther-police shoot-outs in Black Panther lore. That Pharr lived to tell about it is no small feat.
What many readers might find most useful is Pharr’s accounts of the inner-workings of the Southern California chapter of the BPP. Until the publication of this book the chapter’s history as presented in other works was disjointed and sketchy at best. Even Picking up the Gun, a memoir by Earl Anthony, another LA Panther, left a great deal unveiled. Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power offered more on the LA Panthers but still left this reader wanting. Pharr fills that void with this book. Indeed a work of this type is long overdue as much of what is known about the BPP in California obviously centers around the Bay area, while the offices in and around the Los Angeles metropolitan area have been given short shrift by scholars. Pharr gives the reader, especially scholars, a good solid knowledge base on the LA [End Page 184] Panthers. Something that was again, heretofore, nonexistent. Pharr describes the hierarchy, the various levels of leadership, and the chapter’s major and minor players. Pharr also describes the day-to-day work carried on not only by himself, but other Panthers as well. His accounts of Panther activity in the various offices in the Southern California area is refreshing and again useful for scholars who endeavor to embark on research projects that require them to ferret out the happening in Watts, Compton, or other such places.
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is chapter 6, “A Necessary Step Toward Justice,” where Pharr lays out in bold relief the Us-Panther relationship in LA and the rancor that developed over time. One of the more troubling chapters, on the other hand, is chapter 9, “Divide in Conquer.” Pharr is the first Panther that I know of who has come forward and implicated fellow Panthers in the murder of Captain Franco Diggs in early 1969. No other work tackles this matter in the manner that Pharr does, yet he chooses not to go as far as he could have perhaps due to a lack of proof. After all, it’s not what you know, but what you can prove. Since Pharr was perhaps unable to prove exactly who killed Captain Franco he decided to leave it where he left it. However, given that Pharr and Roland Freeman were extremely close friends, it is unlikely that Pharr was unaware of the finer details surrounding Captain Franco’s death, details that Freeman, a section leader and the “driving force behind the Broadway office,” conveyed to me in the...