The purpose of history is to give people a memory of their past in order that they may endure the present and propel themselves into the future. When they are disconnected from their myths and history, the present can be chaotic and the future problematic. Such is the present condition of Oakland’s citizens: they have allowed their grass roots heroes and sheroes to languish in obscurity and infamy. Oakland heroes from the 1960s, namely radicals such as the Black Panthers have no streets named after them for their valiant struggle against oppression. There are no statues or other monuments to the Black Panther leadership or the thousands of rank and file grass roots people who sacrificed their sweat and blood to make Oakland and America a better place. There’s a Federal building named after Ron Dellums, a state building named after Elihu Harris, a psychiatric hospital named after John George, but nothing to honor the common people who fought in the streets of Oakland and across America to make this nation live up to the Constitution, by creating a society of, for and by the people.
There are no statues of Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Hutton, Panther leaders who have joined the ancestors. What is the excuse for not officially naming Defermery Park after Little Bobby Hutton, the 16 year old youth murdered by the Oakland Police in a shootout after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Little Bobby was the third member of the BPP and its secretary. Today he should be an example much needed by youth to show them the path to freedom rather than the rode to self destruction they are presently following. After three black mayors, there is yet no official name change of the West Oakland park where so many Panthers and other radicals grew up on the basketball courts and picnic grounds.
As one who grew up in West Oakland and familiar with Oakland’s radical tradition, I am embarrassed when people ask me where are the monuments to the great radicals Oakland produced, especially during the 60s. People from out of town who visit Oakland are dumbfounded that they cannot visit any sites where Black Panthers and other radicals are honored.
Oakland’s old Merritt College on Grove or MLK street, was the hotbed of radical Oakland during the early 60s. It is where I attended college and obtained my radical education, not in the classroom, but on the steps at the main entrance, listening to young radicals such as Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Richard Thorne, Ernie Allen, Isaac Moore, Ann Williams, Ken and Carol Freedom, Donald Warden, Maurice Dawson. With all due respect to Martin Luther King, the site should not have been named in honor of MLK but to those Oakland radicals who helped change America and the world from the hallowed steps at the front of the college. The world should know that Oakland’s 60s revolution was spearheaded by students who would extend their struggle for freedom to UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University, which had the longest and most violent student strike in American history. And many of the students at SFSU had transferred from Merritt College, taking their desire for equal education, including black studies, across the bay and eventually across America when the call for black studies became a priority of the freedom struggle. Well, Merritt College, now located up in the Oakland hills, far from the flatlands and the population who made the college historic, has belatedly named a room after its most controversial students, Dr. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.
But the real significance of the BPP is that they gave a voice to the voiceless masses of youth and adults suffering oppression in Oakland, the US and the world. And these brothers and sisters must be honored for their sweat, blood and tears on the streets of this city. The tragic shame is that today’s youth have little or no knowledge of what happened in Oakland, for there are no monuments at 14th and Broadway or anywhere to remind them of their roots, of the struggle and sacrifice of their parents and grandparents.
We call upon Mayor Ron Dellums, himself a part of Oakland’s radical history, to make it a priority of his tenure to establish monuments to Oakland’s Black Radical Past. If streets can be named after African and European radicals, how long will local heroes be neglected, especially when youth need knowledge and symbols of progressive social activists so they can see there are alternative lifestyles other than the self destructive American gansta genre of psycho-social pathology.
And more important than symbolic gestures, we call upon the mayor and city council, in coordination with other Bay Area governments, to establish a special fund to award and reward the still surviving freedom fighters who sacrificed their lives, educations, jobs, and families to make a better world for Bay Area citizens in particular and Americans in general. After all, these liberation fighters in the Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, Black Student Unions and other social activist organizations, suffered the blows of fascist America. These valiant men and women endured police surveillance, family intimidation, jail, prison, torture, murder, exile, black listing and other forms of obstruction in the battles they waged to make things better for all Americans. They are thus entitled to just compensation as are veterans from any war, for their battle was in fact the Second Civil War, far more important than the racist war in Vietnam and the present unprovoked war in Iraq.
One result of the Black Panther Party was the US government’s adoption of their free breakfast program for all children. Black Student Union members fought for diversity in education, and with the establishment of Black Studies, it was soon followed by Asian Studies, Native American Studies, Chicano Studies, Gender Studies, and American academia was forever changed for the better, for the racist Eurocentric education suffered a death blow.
Let us not fail to acknowledge and reward the cultural workers who established the West coast arm of the Black Arts Movement or BAM, which revolutionized the esthetics of the arts, replacing the art for art sake of the European paradigm with a functional approach that stated art is indeed didactic, i.e., for education and elevation of consciousness, not merely for entertainment. Cultural workers such as Ed Bullins, Marvin X, Danny Glover, Jimmy Garrett, Vonetta McGee, Sarah Webster Fabio, Adam David Miller, Ntozake Shange, Reginald Lockett, Avotjca, and others, raised the standard of the black arts that had been initiated by the Harlem Renaissance, but BAM was more political and directed to the masses rather than to the whites seeking exotica and erotica. It was a revolutionary artistic movement, working in tandem with the political liberation movement. Not only was BAM the sister of the Black Power movement, but in a very real since, it was the mother since many of the politicos were nurtured in the womb of BAM, then advanced to the political revolution. We think of Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Benny Stewart, George Murray, Emory Douglass, Samuel Napier and others who came through BAM.
And finally, BAM, by the very nature of the literature, forced inclusion of its material in academia, thus upsetting the status quo, altering it forever when ethnic literature was forced into the Eurocentric curriculum. Other ethnic groups followed suit with demands their literature become part of the general curriculum. The Asian poet Janice Mirikini (wife of Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide Church) will tell people, “It was the poetry of Marvin X that awakened me to my ethnicity.” So yes, BAM awakened other ethnic groups to the power of their indigenous literature and artistic expression, freeing them of Eurocentric domination or white supremacy/lunacy.
Unfortunately, opportunists took advantage of the situation created by the liberation fighters to simply obtain tenure, thus the original mission was aborted with the resultant disintegration of community. If black consciousness had been properly spread to the community, there would be children today carrying on the tradition rather than engaged in self destructive behavior. The present situation is indeed a shame, but perhaps if the veteran liberation fighters are honored, it will inspire the children of today to engage in the protracted struggle to liberate themselves from the last vestiges of white supremacy/lunacy.
Marvin X. Jackmon (Dr. M) grew up in West Oakland on Seventh and Campbell, the son of a florist who had published the first black newspaper in the central valley, The Fresno Voice. Dr. M’s first writings were published in the children’s section of the Oakland Tribune.