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Opening day of the Huey Newton trial in Oakland, 1969. (Rox Paynes Archives, courtesy itsabouttimebpp.com)
As with any reunion, when Elbert “Big Man” Howard and his friends come together in Santa Rosa this week, they plan to reminisce about old times.
But as they grow older, they also have a more pressing goal. They want to pass the torch to a new generation, sharing the lessons learned during a period of militant social activism.
Howard, 75, has organized the Black Panther Party’s 47th anniversary celebration in his own backyard, choosing “Myths and Realities” as the theme for the symposium that runs Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 17-19, at the Arlene Francis Center.
He hopes it will allow former members of the activist organization to pass along their legacy to a generation of younger activists.
“When you say ‘power to the people,’ that’s what we’re going to talk about,” said Howard, 75. “It’s not a frivolous slogan. If people don’t govern the institutions that control their lives, they can’t look to have anything fruitful come of it.”
Elbert “Big Man” Howard is the event’s primary organizer. (Photo by Billy “X” Jennings)
Howard was one of six men who founded the Panthers in Oakland in 1966. He served alongside Huey Newton and Bobby Seale for nearly eight years before returning to a life in Tennessee that was relatively mainstream. In 2000 he wrote “Panther on the Prowl,” a memoir about his early activism, and later that decade moved to Sonoma County. He now lives in Santa Rosa.
In the past decade, Howard has become an elder statesman, lecturing about social activism and lobbying for the rights of the poor and the incarcerated. In 2003 he became the coordinator of an ex-offender re-entry program and in Forestville founded the Police Accountability Clinic and Helpline.
“We have many political prisoners who were involved in the movement who are still locked up and will not be let out due to their beliefs,” Howard said. “We have to do something to garner some support for them.”
In addition to highlighting needs that still exist, Howard hopes the event will explain the political environment of the times and showcase the group’s successes during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“We developed programs such as the free breakfast program, free medical clinics and housing and education assistance. We wanted to solve problems in (our) communities,” he said.
Panther historian Billy “X” Jennings describes the party as the starting point for all social movements that followed, including the White Panthers and the Grey Panthers.
“The most prominent issue it faced was rampant police brutality,” said Rickey Vincent, a musicologist who will speak at the celebration. “People read books, educated themselves and recognized they had the legal right to police the police.”
Vincent will talk about his book, “Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers’ Band and How Black Power Revolutionized Soul Music,” and also sign it.
“In 1970, the central offices of the Black Panther Party had four members who, when they did their work, were known to sing a lot,” he said. “Emory (Douglas) and (David) Hilliard said, ‘You guys need to make a band so we can recruit more people.’
“That’s what happened. Those four members (started to) play R&B music with the Black Panther Party line (in the lyrics). What they did was so well-done, they made a name for themselves.”
The band was called “The Lumpen,” after Karl Marx’s lumpen proletariat, the lowest level of the working class, composed of the individuals least likely to achieve class consciousness.
“They took the refrains from the Panther chants: ‘We want freedom to determine the destiny of our community!’ and put them right into the verses of R&B songs (by) James Brown, The Temptations and Curtis Mayfield,” said Vincent. It helped potential recruits see that the Panthers spoke in a tone, a style, a swagger they understood.
Black Panthers in Formation During Drill (far right) Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard, De Fremery Park Oakland. (Pirkle Jones)
Panthers also organized their communities to help themselves, at one time supporting 13 free medical clinics between New York and California. Two still exist, in Seattle and Portland.
Dr. R. Tolbert Small, also a speaker at the event, was part of that effort. He coordinated the free health clinics and was part of the Panthers’ efforts to prevent sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder that disproportionately affects African Americans.
“We set up a foundation and dramatized the treatment of sickle cell anemia,” Small said. “(The U.S. government) wasn’t going to get any money into sickle cell anemia until the Panthers lit a fire under it.”
Jennings, who joined the Panthers when he was 17, said speakers at the reunion will try to educate people about the group’s legacy.
“What’s important is for young people to learn what came before them,” he said. “There are many things you can do in your own neighborhood. Start taking baby steps where you work at or where you help at.”
Jennings will also encourage activists to work together. “It’s important to let young people know you can’t do this by yourself,” he said. “You have to join with others.
“We joined with other groups, such as the Young Lords (a Puerto Rican social organization that began as a gang), Students for a Democratic Society and the Rainbow Coalition. We were all working together as a community.”
Black Panther Party reunions have been held in the East Bay and throughout the country, but this will be Sonoma County’s first. Howard describes it as a regional meeting targeted to residents of northern California.
“There are people all over the world emulating what the Black Panther Party does, so why not Sonoma County,” said Howard.
“The Black Panther Party challenged the most powerful government in the world,” he said. “It offers a whole history and legacy to be proud of.”
The Black Panther Party’s 47th anniversary celebration runs 1 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, to 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, at the Arlene Francis Center, 99 Sixth St. The program includes speakers and films about political prisoners and fallen comrades.