King Samir Shabazz, chairman of the Philadelphia branch of the New Black Panther Party, is gaining notoriety around the city. Shabazz is known for shouting his message on the subway, South Street, at the Clothespin by City Hall and in one instance in front of a Fairmount Avenue polling booth. That message? “The white man is the devil!”
The New Black Panthers should look familiar. They borrowed their name, logo and much of their "black power" rhetoric from the original Black Panther Party, which gained notoriety by organizing for the self-defense of black neighborhoods in the late '60s and early '70s. The New Panthers’ 10-point program is based on a similar document written by the original Panthers, advocating ideals such as full employment in black communities, decent housing and education, and an end to police brutality.
However, many members of the original Panthers reject the hyper-racial view of the new group, which has been classified a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Molded by their time in the trenches, original Panthers say activism is still necessary, but within the domain of all people and all races.
The Huey P. Newton Foundation, founded in 1993 to honor the co-founder of the Black Panthers following his death in 1989, has released a statement titled “There Is No New Black Panther Party,” which reads: “As guardian of the true history of the Black Panther Party, the Foundation, which includes former leading members of the Party, denounces this group's exploitation of the Party's name and history. Failing to find its own legitimacy in the black community, this band would graft the Party's name upon itself, which we condemn.”
“The Party operated on love for black people, not hatred of white people.”
“A few of them are not for the liberation of black people,” King Shabazz says of criticism leveled by original Panthers. He claims that Newton’s co-founder Bobby Seale expressed support and guidance for the New Panthers through a telephone call to National Chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz. However, Seale’s website links to the Newton Foundation’s statement, and Seale spoke to CNN in July about the New Panthers. “It’s a misrepresentation of what we were about,” he said. “Black community unity, yes, but only as a catalyst to help humanize the world.”
The original Panthers’ goal was to eliminate racism, not perpetuate it, he said. “We crossed all racial lines and ethnic lines. We was trying to get rid of institutionalized racism in America.”
Some former Panthers living in Philadelphia take a nuanced view.
Barbara Easley Cox grew up in Philadelphia and has lived here most of her life, with stints in Oakland, North Korea and Algeria. She was active in the Black Panther Party in Oakland in the early '70s and is currently vice chair of Treehouse Books, a nonprofit youth outreach center and bookstore in North Philly.
Cox says she rejects the racist view of the New Panthers but supports the continued agitation for better conditions in black communities.
“They call themselves new because they’re not the same—we weren’t out-and-out racists, bigots or anti-Semitic,” she says. But she adds: “I can’t reject them outright. Their program is not much different from ours."
Cox says she was turned off at a rally led by former New Black Panther Chairman Khalid Muhammed. “Everything about him was forceful, anti-Semitic, chauvinistic,” she says. “He started calling old Black Panthers punks.”
“I’m saying to myself—never put your ancestors down. Some of the things we went through you’ll never go through.”
Dr. Yvonne King says that while she might not agree with all the tactics of the new group, the fact that they cite the original Panthers as an influence is a validation of the party’s reach. “There may be many groups who believe they’re taking up the mantle,” she says.
King was a member of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers and is now an administrator at Community College of Philadelphia. “So many are studying us. People are seriously trying to understand the phenomenon of the Black Panther Party,” she says.
Dr. Muhammad Achmad says he won’t comment on the New Black Panthers specifically, but says: “I can say...those of us who are older activists who have gone through real struggle, realize that all white people are not racist.” Achmad was with the New York Panthers and is now an assistant professor of African American studies at Temple.
“You need the broadest coalition power to bring about major social change,” he says. “I’m talking about people of various colors, races, religions, ethnic groups.”
The old Panthers are unanimous that activism is still relevant, change still necessary—for African-Americans but also for any group feeling the heat of injustice.
“People are still struggling for human rights,” Cox says. “Activism is necessary. You can be 101 years old and be active.”
It’s just starting to get dark when I stroll up to Jerry Jackson’s house in north-central Philly. A small sign by the door reads: “COLORED ONLY. No Whites Allowed.” I go for the bell anyway, at any moment expecting someone to tell me to get my cracker-ass off the property.