Black Panther and Black Lives Matter: Essay

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When Reverend Smiley, a white civil rights activist, entered Martin Luther King’s house in 1956, he proclaimed that “the place is [was] an arsenal,” with several armed bodyguards positioned around the house. It may come as a surprise that Martin Luther King, who is seen as a key symbol of nonviolence, surrounded himself with guns. But King understood the reality of needing weapons for self defense. It was the 1950s, a time when African Americans enjoyed limited civil rights. More specifically, blacks had few political rights under the criminal justice system. Police officers would unjustifiably use deadly force and discriminate against African Americans. Authorities did not adhere to probable cause, but, instead to Jim Crow Laws. Blacks were also often not given fair trials in court. To resolve these issues, several violent interest groups rose to power. The Deacons for Defense and Justice was the first self defense group that responded to police activity in an organized manner. They eventually became overshadowed by the Black Panther Party, who were known for their more aggressive tactics. The Black Panther Party also faded, but America’s issues of police brutality and stubborn racial inequality did not completely go away. Modern activists in the Black Lives Matter movement continue to confront these issues with rallies and social media campaigns. Although true that Supreme Court cases and Congressional acts helped advance civil rights for African Americans, it was the efforts of the Deacons for Defense and Justice and Black Panther Party and currently, Black Lives Matter that had the most influence, as they were not only able to increase support for equal treatment of African Americans under the criminal justice system, but also facilitate victories for the nonviolent movement through the process.

The Deacons for Defense and Justice emerged in 1964 in Jonesboro, Louisiana, with a goal of protecting African American civil rights workers from violent mobs and police brutality.

The main reason they resorted to carrying guns was due to the absence of federal enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in states like Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. If the Deacons felt they had to take matters into their own hands, it clearly meant that such a Congressional act had little to no meaning. In the end, the Deacons were the ones who advanced the lives of African Americans in several situations. For example, in 1965, black students in Jonesboro were picketing the local high school for integration. The hostile police came to confront them, ready to use a fire hose against the students. A car with four Deacon members arrived to the scene, and they began loading shotguns in view of the police officers. The officers, in response, ordered the fire truck to leave. In his book ​The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement​, Lance Hill commented that “this was the first time in the 20th century that an armed black organization had successfully used weapons to defend a lawful protest against an attack by law enforcement”(Hill, 69). Prior to this, policemen could get away with beating up civil rights protestors or refusing to respond to black residents’ calls for protection from the Klan. But thanks to the Deacons, this was the first time the local police did not oppress and intimidate African Americans. The site of the Deacons’ next major undertaking was in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where hundreds of blacks marched to city hall as they faced stones being thrown at them by racist whites. In the midst of a brawl, one member of the Deacons was pinned against a car door and another, 21-year-old Henry Austin, fired three shots into the chest of one of the advancing white attackers. In the days following this shooting, there was a new and transformed social terrain for African Americans . The federal government finally held police officers accountable, as Hill states, “ ​Overnight, Washington crushed the white supremacist coup in Bogalusa and forced local authorities to uphold the law”(Hill). Although authorities only faced modest fines and light jail sentences, this minimal change by the federal government only came about due to the Deacons’ involvement. Thus, it was the Deacons who enforced and made Congressional laws effective when the federal government failed to do so. Additionally, it should be noted that the Bogalusa march was​ initiated by a nonviolent organization, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. SNCC Chairman Stokely Carmichael​ advocated for having the Deacons provide security and after some debate, even Martin Luther King “​conceded to Carmichael's proposals to maintain unity in the march and the movement'(Umoja). By 1966, both the SNCC and CORE organizations had accepted self defense as a legitimate tactic. Thus, by having the protection of the Deacons, more African Americans engaged in ​protests usually led by these nonviolent organizations, which in the long run, increased the overall participation and momentum of the nonviolent movement. The Deacons clearly had a part in helping towards the immense gains of the nonviolent movement; nonviolence can be viewed as the means and self defense as the ends. Their extended influence is what essentially allowed them to advance civil rights for African Americans.

The Deacons for Defense and Justice was relatively short lived and in 1968, the Black Panther Party gained precedence. The Black Panthers had also allied with the SNCC but after five months, the alliance ended as the Panthers took a more militant and defensive approach to fighting for civil rights. Although the Panthers disassociated themselves from the nonviolent movement, especially at a time when civil disobedience was at its peak, their influence cannot be denied. The Party was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, who became inspired to organize angry African Americans into a political power after witnessing the police kill Matthew Johnson, an unarmed young black man in San Francisco (Patel). Newton realized that he could organize patrols to follow the police around to monitor incidents of brutality. These patrols carried loaded guns as well, a constitutional right they are entitled to as long as the guns are no concealed. Newton had studied the law closely and whenever relevant to the situation, he would cite the Fourth Amendment in the Constitution or the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. More and more Party members began to patrol and cite laws, drawing widespread support in urban cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia (Patel). When crowds gathered, Seale preached: “We have to defend ourselves against the [police] because they are breaking down our doors, shooting black brothers on the streets, and brutalizing sisters on the head. [The police] are wearing guns mostly to intimidate the people from forming organizations to really get our basic political desires and needs answered”(Tyner, 111). The Panthers also took this opportunity to distribute copies of their ten point program, two of the points being “ We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people” and “We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States”(Abron, 37). As the Party grew in influence, police then rarely interfered at rallies that were held to educate the black community on armed self-defense and on incidents involving Matthew Johnson, Bobby Hutton, and Denzil Dowell (Bloom, 55). The police understood that every Panther was armed and no laws were broken. Ultimately, it was because of the attention the Panthers brought to the deaths of young, innocent black men that pushed for certain Supreme Court rulings and their enforcement. For example, in ​Tennessee v. Garner​ (1985), the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment prevents police from using deadly force on a fleeing suspect unless the police has good reason to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat to others (Oyez). If the Black Panthers had not brought awareness to specific cases of how police unjustly used deadly force even when there was no probable cause, then the members of the Supreme Court may have never leaned towards the ​Tennessee ​decision and it would have took longer to come to fruition. Clearly, it was the measures taken by the Black Panther Party, not the Supreme Court, that advanced civil rights for African Americans.

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The Black Panthers left a legacy that still begs fulfillment, as the issue of police brutality has yet to be resolved in the 21st century. Black Lives Matter formed in 2013, and many media organizations have referred to it as a “new civil rights movement.” It first gained popularity after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had shot African-American teen Trayvon Martin. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began to spread all over social media. Later in 2014, BLM members organized their first in-person national protest in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer (Ruffin II). Many more street protests emerged, especially on American college campuses. The core objective of groups advocating BLM is criminal justice system reform for African Americans. Through the years, they have had many successes in achieving this goal. For example, leaders of the Black Lives Matter Movement cam together to create Campaign Zero, which aimed to combat cop violence by introducing a comprehensive list of proposals for police reform. The campaign gives police (both on the state and federal level) a chance to reduce their racial bias and undergo better training (Prupis).

Recently, Black Lives Matter has entered a new phase in Trump’s America, which focuses more on changing policies rather than protest. As a result of the persistent pleas of BLM, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to order Justice Department officials to review police departments that showed wide racial disparities in policing practices. Since 2009, the agency has investigated 25 law enforcement agencies and entered monitoring and reform agreements with 14 of them (Maxwell). The U.S. Department of Justice reports have already confirmed the widespread presence of police corruption in Baltimore, Chicago, Ferguson, and Cleveland.

Additionally, in more recent encounters between police and unarmed black people, law enforcement has responded faster and with more regret than seen in years past. For instance, an officer in Dallas was fired three days after he shot and killed a 15-year-old boy sitting in a car. The officer was later charged with murder. In Michigan, police released body-camera footage a few weeks after officers held a group of unarmed black boys, ages 12 to 14, at gunpoint (The Washington Post). The fact that officers were even wearing body cameras was a result of pressures from Black Lives Matter groups. Black Lives Matter has evidently brought about many policy changes to advance the civil rights of African Americans, especially in cases where Congress has failed to do so. Congress notoriously passed the Protect and Serve Act in 2017, which states that anyone who knowingly assaults a law enforcement officer causing serious bodily injury is to serve up to 10 years. This is better known as the Blue Lives Matter bill. The name for this bill speaks volumes. In our justice system, Congress is doing more for police officers than black Americans, as “blue lives” seem to be more important. The police are portrayed to be vulnerable and not complicit, the very same grounds they use to justify their useof lethal force against African Americans. “Rather than focusing on policies that address issuesof police excessive force, biased policing, and other police practices that have failed these communities [African Americans], the Protect and Serve Act’s aim is to further criminalize,” wrote a civil and humans rights group (American Civil Liberties Union). Thus, Congressional acts have only placed blacks in America at an even lower standing, and in a way, made civil rights for African Americans turn a step backwards. From the numerous protests to the social media tweets to the policy changes, its members of Black Lives Matter who actually move African Americans forward.

The idea that the the civil rights movement followed a philosophy of only nonviolence is plainly a myth. It is more accurate to say that violent interest groups were the backbone of the nonviolent movement, as they helped protect members of the NAACP, CORE, and SNCC, and thus, increased the gains and overall popularity for the civil disobedience cause. Yet, groups like the Deacons for Self Defense and Justice are overlooked in history. The Deacons were the ones who were in influential in setting the foundation for African Americans to be heard under the criminal justice system. The Black Panthers closely followed by extensively highlighting the unjustifiable murders of innocent, black men by police officers, an issue that activists in Black Lives Matter are still concerned with. When the legislative and judicial branches of your own government fail to implement proper laws or rulings, you have no choice but to resort to violence. Angela Davis, an African American educator and briefly a Black Panther member, believes that an everyday experience for a person of color is one of violence. There is a feeling of always being policed, patrolled, and watched. Her experiences of growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, from being surrounded by a father with guns at his disposal at all times to witnessing several bombings in her neighborhood, proved how African Americans could be attacked at any moment. Today, much of black America still fears the police, even in simple encounters such as being pulled over when driving by a white police officer. This fear is not unreasonable as it is difficult to ignore the statistical data that supports the assertion that there is still racial bias within our justice system. Only when society accepts and understands why there is a discrepancy and works further to end it, will the mission of the Deacons, Panthers, and BLM members be truly fulfilled.

Works Cited Page

  1. Hill, Lance E. ​The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement​. University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  2. Patel, Rishaan. The Founders of the Black Panther Party: Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Black Power in American Memory​, blackpower.web.unc.edu/2017/04/the-founders-of-the-black-panther-party-huey-p-newton-and-bobby-seale/.
  3. Tyner, James A. “‘Defend the Ghetto’: Space and the Urban Politics of the Black Panther Party.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers​, vol. 96, no. 1, 2006, pp. 105–118. ​JSTOR​, JSTOR, ​www.jstor.org/stable/3694147​.
  4. Abron, JoNina M. “The Legacy of the Black Panther Party.” ​The Black Scholar​, vol. 17, no. 6, 1986, pp. 33–37. ​JSTOR​, JSTOR, ​www.jstor.org/stable/41067327​.
  5. Bloom, Joshua, and Waldo E. Martin. ​Black against Empire: the History and Politics of the Black Panther Party​. University of California Press, 2016.
  6. 'Tennessee v. Garner.' ​Oyez,​ 10 Jan. 2019, www.oyez.org/cases/1984/83-1035.
  7. Ruffin II, Herbert G. Black Lives Matter: The Growth of a New Social Justice Movement. ​Boley, klahoma (1903- ) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed​, blackpast.org/perspectives/black-lives-matter-growth-new-social-justice-movement.
  8. Prupis, Nadia. Campaign Zero: A 'Blueprint for Ending Police Violence'. ​Common Dreams​, Common Dreams, 21 Aug. 2015, www.commondreams.org/news/2015/08/21/campaign-zero-blueprint-ending-police-violence.
  9. Maxwell, Connor, and Danyelle Solomon. Expanding the Authority of State Attorneys General to Combat Police Misconduct. ​Center for American Progress​, www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2018/12/12/464147/expanding-authority-state-attorneys-general-combat-police-misconduct/. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3694147 http://www.jstor.org/stable/41067327
  10. Ross, Janell, and Wesley Lowery. Turning Away from Street Protests, Black Lives Matter Tries a New Tactic in the Age of Trump. ​The Washington Post​, WP Company, 4 May 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/national/in-trumps-america-black-lives-matter-shifts-from-protests-to-p olicy/2017/05/04/a2acf37a-28fe-11e7-b605-33413c691853_story.html?utm_term=.5a21a62be08e
  11. Oppose Senate Introduction of the Protect and Serve Act of 2018. ​The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights​, 8 May 2018, civilrights.org/oppose-senate-introduction-protect-serve-act-2018/.
  12. Umoja, Akinyele O. “The Ballot and the Bullet: A Comparative Analysis of Armed Resistance in the Civil Rights Movement.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 29, no. 4, Mar. 1999, pp. 558–578, doi:10.1177/002193479902900406.
  13. Rutherford, and John. “H.R.5698 - 115th Congress (2017-2018): Protect and Serve Act of 2018.” Congress.gov​, 17 May 2018, www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/5698.
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