- The Black Panther Party in a City Near You ed. by Judson L. Jeffries
This book is the third and last in a series of anthologies edited by Judson L. Jeffries. The purpose of the series, as the introduction to the present volume puts it, is "to paint a more complete portrait of the Black Power movement's most widely known organization" (p. 3). The series pursues this goal by collecting historical essays by a number of authors on local Black Panther Party (BPP) organizations chartered as official branches or chapters by the headquarters in Oakland, California. Hence, the first volume, Comrades: A Local History of the Black Panther Party (Bloomington, Ind., 2007), includes articles on BPP branches in seven locales: Baltimore, Winston-Salem, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. The second, On the Ground: The Black Panther Party in Communities across America (Jackson, Miss., 2010), focuses on six branches: Houston, Seattle, Kansas City, Detroit, Des Moines, and New Orleans. The present volume, shorter than the previous two, considers only four party organizations in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Dallas. Each volume contains a short introduction coauthored by the editor (Jeffries) and another historian and a conclusion by a different author—never the editor. Jeffries is nonetheless a constant presence throughout the series, authoring or coauthoring nine of the seventeen total essays, including two of the four in the third volume under review.
The premise of these volumes is that, while the BPP continues to receive a great deal of scholarly and popular attention, that attention has been disproportionately focused on the national leadership and on the Oakland, Chicago, and New York chapters. (To begin balancing the coverage, the series contains no articles on the Oakland, Chicago, or New York Panthers.) Jeffries and his collaborators propose that historians have ignored most of the local BPPs to the point that the overall understanding of the party is distorted. The sense that the Panthers were a broad, diverse, multifaceted movement, responding to local as well as national conditions, is all but lost; the contributions of local leaders and especially the local rank-and-file participants remain largely unknown. [End Page 745]
The solution offered is to present case studies of different BPP branches; the essays, while not entirely parallel in content and form, deal seriously with the realities of each local organization and its respective "foot soldiers" (p. 8). The intentional and unapologetic employment of case studies—once the lifeblood of the New Social History but recently somewhat out of favor—is refreshing, as is the reliance on personal testimony in an effort to write history from the bottom up. In the four case studies in this volume, the overall approach bears real fruit.
For example, images of Panthers armed for self-defense or engaged in violent struggles with the police are dominant tropes in the popular and scholarly imagination. These tropes do correspond in varying degrees to the early years of the Panthers in Oakland, Los Angeles, and Chicago, but in the locations examined in this volume, the picture is quite different. Here the BPP "survival programs," such as offering breakfast for children, setting up health clinics, leading community advocacy efforts, and engaging in various forms of political education, defined the organizations. Additionally, the essays show that different locales experienced divergent responses at different times from the local black community and from the local power structure, especially between 1967 and 1972. For example, despite the apparently promising conditions for BPP growth in some places, local organizing yielded weaker responses than it did in areas with seemingly less favorable conditions. Atlanta was a center of the civil rights movement, but the BPP had trouble building its movement in that city. Likewise, Washington had a lively history of movement activity, but it was slow going there for the BPP. The concluding chapter speculates that, in both of these cities, the relatively large and affluent black middle...