The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence
The Day the ’60s Died: The Kent State Shootings
Many Americans were drawn into political activism during the 1960s, and many became dissatisfied with the established and accepted means of protest. By the end of the decade, such doubts were widespread in both of the great overlapping movements of the time. Opponents of the Vietnam War could tell themselves they had unseated a president, Lyndon Johnson, and helped turn public opinion around. But the war continued, and when the Moratorium demonstrations of November 1969 brought half a million protesters to Washington, the new president, Richard Nixon, told the country that he would “under no circumstances…be affected whatever” by such actions.
In the pursuit of justice for African-Americans, the way forward was also unclear. Hard-won legal and legislative victories had failed to deliver the promised results, and the civil rights movement, rooted in the church and the South, seemed short of answers to the problems of black people living in the cities of the North and West. For many, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. settled the case that marches and nonviolence were no longer enough.
Stanley Nelson’s excellent documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is one of a number of recent works that take us back to these times and deliberations. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense began as a neighborhood watch of armed young men monitoring encounters between the police and African- Americans in Oakland, California. They would “maintain a legal distance” and “observe these so-called law officers in the performance of their duties,” one of the original Panthers recalls in the film. They wore leather jackets and berets and cast a wide spell. “If you were a young man living in the city anywhere,” the late Julian Bond tells us, “you wanted to be like this, you wanted to look like this, you wanted to act like this, you wanted to talk like this.”
The armed patrols were short-lived, lasting only as long as a California law allowing unconcealed weapons to be carried in public. (As soon as the Panthers took advantage of that statute, Republicans and Democrats came together to repeal it.) By 1968 and 1969, when the Panthers went national and their ranks swelled, they were downplaying talk of guns or violence and seeking to become known more as community organizers and providers of social services, including medical clinics, a shuttle bus operation for relatives of prison inmates, and free breakfasts for schoolchildren.
This is, by the filmmaker’s choice, a bottom-up view of the party. We learn next to nothing about the early lives of its cofounders, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and Nelson glides lightly over such matters…