Hagiographers of the World, Unite!
Whitewashing the Black Panthers
A new PBS documentary tries to excuse a murderous and totalitarian cult.
When his captors uncinched the noose around his neck and shoved him into a wooden chair, Alex Rackley might have assumed his ordeal was over. He had already endured a flurry of kicks and punches, the repeated crack of a wooden truncheon, ritual humiliation, and a mock lynching. But it wasn’t over. It was about to get much, much worse.
Rackley, a slight, 19-year-old black kid from Florida, was tough (he had a black belt in karate), but hardly in a position to resist his psychopathic interrogators. During a previous beating he had gamely tried, kicking and flailing and swinging his arms. But this time he was tied to the chair, with a towel stuffed in his mouth to mute the screams. The women upstairs were tending to the children while assiduously preparing pots of boiling water—because traditional gender roles applied in the torture business, too.
When the bubbling cauldrons were brought to the basement—four or five of them—they were thrown over Rackley’s naked body. Then they worked him over some more. With him burned, battered, and bloodied, the towel was removed from his mouth. As a warning to those who would sell out the party to the Feds (“jackanapes,” “pigs,” and “faggots,” in the party’s nomenclature), the Lubyanka-style proceedings would be recorded on half-inch tape.
The interrogation begins with a woman’s voice: Brother Alex from New York was sleeping in the office…And I kicked him and said, “Motherfucker, wake up!” A few minutes pass, instinct kicks in, and Rackley tries to free himself. Sit down, motherfucker. Be still. The woman coolly and dispassionately reads the details of the previous interrogation session into the record: So then we began to realize how phony he was and that he was either an extreme fool or a pig, so we began to ask questions with a little force and the answers came out after a few buckets of hot water…then the brother got some discipline in the areas of the nose and mouth.
He wasn’t working for the Feds, but Rackley confessed to being a rat anyway. Why bother denying the “charges”? Every denial resulted in a new acts of barbarism anyway. Maybe this way he would be expelled from the party, but allowed to survive.
Ericka Huggins, George Sams, Warren Kimbro, and the other members of the New Haven Black Panther Party present in the house on May 18, 1969 had gotten what they wanted. So Rackley was carried from the basement and deposited into a bedroom usually occupied by a 7-year-old girl. Someone tied him to the child’s bed. Three days later, covered in his own shit and piss, Rackley was cleaned up by one of the Panther women and hustled out of the house into an idling car: He would be driven to a boat, they said, and brought either to New York or home to his native Florida.
With his arms again bound and a fresh noose around his neck—this one fashioned from a wire coat hanger—Alex Rackley, an illiterate teenager who had joined the Black Panther Party eight months earlier, was led to the edge of the Coginchaug River in Middlefield, Connecticut.
Of course, there was no boat. And there was no escape. “Orders from national [headquarters],” said George Sams, the bloodthirsty ringleader of the hit squad. “Ice him.”
Warren Kimbro, a Black Panther party cadre from the New Haven branch, put the first bullet in Rackley’s head, collapsing him in the shallow water. As his body heaved, another Panther foot soldier, Lonnie McLucas, took the gun from Kimbro and fired a bullet into his chest, just in case. They didn’t bother checking, but Alex Rackley was still alive, gasping and in pain, one expert later speculated, for almost four hours.
According to George Sams, he was merely following orders issued by Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party’s infamous co-founder and “chairman.” Not long after Rackley’s waterlogged corpse was fished out of the water, Sams, Kimbro, and McLucas were all behind bars, awaiting trial on murder charges.
And Ericka Huggins—that cruel voice on the tape interrogating Rackley; mocking him for crying; watching while he was beaten; telling the motherfucker to sit down during the torture session; witnessing him frog-marched out of the house with a noose around his neck, no shoes, and flanked by three armed men—would also stand trial, accused of orchestrating the killing with Seale.**
When the theater lights dim and the PBS logo dissolves, a disembodied voice tells a parable of three blind men running their hands over the body of an elephant. They all describe something different: it feels like a wall, or a spear, or possibly a snake. “And that is quite often what happens with our descriptions of the Black Panther Party. We know the party we were in and not the entire thing.”
The first voice in Stanley Nelson’s documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, is mellifluous and childlike, not as sharp and hateful as it was on that 1969 tape. But here is Ericka Huggins, along with more than a dozen of her former comrades, educating viewers about the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) accomplishments, miraculously achieved in the face of interminable harassment from the FBI and police. With an assist from PBS, who will broadcast the documentary in September, Nelson has recruited a cast of shriveled militants for his one-dimensional Panther festschrift—a film that doesn’t disturb the ghost of Alex Rackley or the many other victims of the party’s revenge killings, punishment beatings, purges, or “disappearances.”
Like many former members of the party elite, these days Ericka Huggins interrogates students about race, class, and gender in her job as a college professor, having long-since lost interest in brutally interrogating suspected FBI informants.
From Huggins, we are shunted along to the second witness—another Panther turned college professor. “Now [in the late 1960s] we had the emergence of voices within the community who said ‘We’re not going to continue to turn the other cheek,’” says Jamal Joseph, who teaches film at Columbia University. Joseph features heavily in the Vanguard of the Revolution, fulfilling the role of the handsome, clever, naive teenage Panther railroaded by the pigs for his membership in a renegade political party.
But as with Ericka Huggins, there is much about Joseph that viewers aren’t told. The most important piece of neglected information is this: When the Panthers were a spent political force, Joseph joined up with the spinoff Black Guerrilla Army and was sentenced to 12½ years in prison for his part in the infamous 1981 Brinks armored car robbery, which resulted in the death of three innocents, including Waverly Brown, the first African-American to serve on the Nyack, New York, police force.
Joseph wasn’t sentenced for his participation in the robbery—his conviction was for harboring fugitives, provoking the exasperated judge to declare “I have never understood juries”—though countless accounts of the murders finger him as both a key player and an armed participant. In his new book Days of Rage, Vanity Fair journalist Bryan Burrough says the Brinks job was “laboriously scouted by” Joseph. A long out-of-print account of the murders by journalist John Castellucci meticulously catalogues Joseph’s involvement and fingers him as one of the six armed men lurking behind ski masks that fateful day. Journalist Susan Braudy’s Pulitzer-nominated book Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left places Joseph at the scene of the robbery. But Joseph’s very long rap sheet (more on that later) is never mentioned by Nelson.
This is, perhaps, unsurprising. In front of a sold-out crowd of geriatric radicals and their dippy young acolytes, Nelson matter-of-factly acknowledged that Vanguard of the Revolution is a “pro-Panther” film and expressed surprise that at previous screenings “no one stood up and said, ‘How could you say these good things about the Panthers,’ which we thought would happen.’”
Someone should. Because almost anything that reflects poorly on the Panthers is ignored or dismissed and no critics of the party are included. The story is told entirely through the testimony of former Panthers and sympathetic historians, with the occasional appearance of a porcine ex-cop, at whom the audience is supposed to hiss. When a former FBI agent weighs in, it’s G-man turned radical activist M. Wesley Swearingen, whose book FBI Secrets comes with a fulsome introduction by disgraced academic and noted crackpot Ward Churchill. He exists in Vanguard of the Revolution to echo the Panther narrative. (Swearingen’s latest book is a self-published mélange of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories fingering “Cuban exiles, [the] Chicago mafia, and bad cops trained by the CIA” in the president’s murder).
We don’t lack for Panther hagiographies—histories, memoirs, feature films, and documentaries (often broadcast on PBS, like A Huey P. Newton Story; Passin’ It On: The Black Panthers’ Search for Justice; A Panther in Africa; and The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975). And most of them are correct on a few important questions. As Nelson points out, it’s indeed correct to say that Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton was murdered by the police. The Oakland police force was full of rotten thugs and racists. Teenage Panther Bobby Hutton was shot while trying to surrender (though in a gun battle precipitated by a Panthers ambush). The Feds were engaged in illegal activity in their war against the Panthers.
But as writer Steve Wasserman recently noted in The Nation, the Panthers’ many hagiographers have often “refused to acknowledge the party’s crimes and misdemeanors, preferring to attribute its demise almost entirely to the machinations of others.” (A reviewer at The Root says Nelson documents the party’s “demise at the hands of the FBI,” an impression one might reasonably get from watching Vanguard of the Revolution.)
Vanguard of the Revolution is a lumbering two-hour film, and while Nelson offers a playful précis on the sexy proto-Ramones style of the Panthers—leavened with archival footage of attractive party activists of both genders in knee-high black boots, crisp black leather jackets, black berets, and black sunglasses—you’ll find almost no discussion of more important issues, like what the Panther’s actually believed.
Because beyond the mindless “power to the people” platitudes, the Panthers were ideological fanatics. After all, the party was guided, the Black Panther newspaper exclaimed, by “the revolutionary works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Chairman Mao, Comrades Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and other great leaders of the worldwide people’s struggle for liberation.”
It was in the newspaper where “everything came together,” says Ericka Huggins in Vanguard of the Revolution. “It explained who we were, what we were about, what our goals were.” She’s right. If you want to get a sense of the party, one need only thumb through a few back issues of The Black Panther newspaper, scanning editorials signed by “we black revolutionaries who are fighting this racist imperialist faggot honkey,” gasping at the countless images of North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung and Chinese genocidaire Mao Tse-Tung, or scratching your head at the paeans to demented Albanian Stalinist Enver Hoxha.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that The Black Panther was actually full of glowing references to Josef Stalin. Eldridge Cleaver (“And I’d also like to quote Stalin…”), Panther “chief of staff” David Hilliard (“We think that Stalin was very clear in this concept…”), and Bobby Seale (“Joseph Stalin said one time that our best weapon…”) were all fond of citing him. And Seale was complimenting his comrades when he observed that “our party can see Lenin and Stalin when we want to understand Huey and Eldridge.” Hilliard kept a photo of Stalin on display in his office, believing that tales of Stalinist mass murder were bourgeois propaganda. “The reason that they fear Joseph Stalin is because of the distorted facts that they have gained through the Western press,” he told an interviewer. Chairman Elaine Brown clarified that the Black Panther Party was “not opposed to Stalin.”
Again, none of this mentioned by Nelson. Nor is the group’s frightening obsession with North Korea’s uniquely demented brand of Stalinism (“The Korean people and their great leader Comrade Kim II Sung” are “a nation of Newtons, tough brothers, off the block who once built a mountainous barbecue which imperialism called Heartbreak Ridge!”). Interviewee Kathleen Cleaver isn’t asked by Nelson about her pilgrimages to Pyongyang, or why she chose to give birth to her daughter Joju Younghi—a name chosen for her by Kim Il-Sung’s wife—in North Korea. Nor is she asked about credible accusations that when Eldridge Cleaver returned from his first trip to North Korea he shot and killed a Panther he believed to be Kathleen’s lover (When asked, Eldridge wouldn’t deny killing his romantic rival; and in 2001 former Panther fugitive and Cleaver confidante Byron Vaughn Booth confessed to having witnessed the murder.)
When inconvenient party members weren’t being physically eliminated, The Black Panther newspaper was denouncing errant comrades for ideological deviationism. One particularly jarring example, found in a 1970 edition of paper, was the purging of Verlina (Donnetta) Brewer, one of the Panthers wounded when the Chicago police sprayed Fred Hampton’s apartment with bullets. She was expelled from the party for having had an abortion. The communique from headquarters was blunt: “As of April 25, 1970, Donnetta Brewer is no longer [a party member] in good standing…She has been purged.” (When I tracked down Brewer, she said she was unaware of the article and claimed to have been "taken advantage of by a party member," cryptically speculating that the story was “written to cover up what was done to me.”)
What few histories of the BPP dwell upon—and, of course, Vanguard of the Revolution doesn’t address—is not only the party’s rampant sexism but its deeply conservative gender politics. The Panther newspaper opposed the liberalization of abortion laws because it would be “a victory for the oppressive ruling class who will use [abortion] to kill off Black and other oppressed people before they are born.” The birth control pill was deemed “another type of genocide that the power structure has poured into the Black community.”
During a Q&A following the screening of Vanguard of the Revolution at the Human Rights Watch film festival in New York, Nelson and Jamal Joseph recast the patriarchal Panthers as flawed proto-feminists icons, unfortunately saddled with a streak of au courant “chauvinism.” And Joseph recently claimed, somewhat confusingly, that the BPP actually “took on” sexism and “wrapped it in something called love.”
But unbeknownst to viewers of Vanguard of the Revolution—and as The New York Times reported during his 1981 murder trial—Joseph’s lawyer once acknowledged that his client was a revolutionary who also “operated ‘an escort service’” on the side. Journalist John Castellucci reported that at the time of the Brinks murders, Joseph the feminist “had a few girls” working for him, “all in their teens, and [he] ran ads for them in sex-oriented tabloids under the name Jay Daniels.”
But apparently neither Joseph nor Nelson remember that one Black Panther Party founder (Bobby Seale) penned a memoir featuring a multi-page boast of bedding five supplicant Panther women in one night. Or that another BPP big shot (Eldridge Cleaver) was a confessed rapist who described his violent sexual assaults as “insurrectionary acts.” Or that the party’s other founder and intellectual heavyweight (Huey Newton) frequently physically abused women and in 1974 was charged with murdering a teenage prostitute who had “disrespected” him.
Indeed, Huey Newton’s increasingly erratic behavior gets only a perfunctory mention in Vanguard of the Revolution and skips over the gory details. The factionalism Newton provoked resulted in a bloody party split (which Nelson ludicrously blames on the FBI) creating two warring factions: one loyal to Newton and one to Eldridge Cleaver. It was at this point in the party’s history, Jamal Joseph explains, that many party members either went “underground” or walked away from the movement. The party split is illustrated by Nelson with a few newspaper headlines crawling across the screen, but no further detail is provided.
One of those newspaper clippings references the murder of Sam Napier, the well-liked, Newton-loyal distribution manager of the party newspaper, murdered in 1973 by Panthers aligned with the Cleaver faction. In their aggressively pro-Panther history Black Against Empire, academics Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin describe how the “assailants shot Napier three times in the back, tied him to a bed.., gagged him, shot him three times in the head, and then set the building on fire.” (In fact, they also tortured Napier, pouring boiling water over his body, before shooting him multiple times, dousing him with lighter fluid, and setting his broken body on fire).
Black Panther Party confidant and fundraiser Marty Kenner called the murder of Napier “unspeakably brutal,” noting that “the assassins grabbed the two-year-old child that Sam was taking care of in the office and literally threw him out the door, giving him lasting injuries.” There were other children in the office too; their mouths were taped and they were made to lie on the floor, though later released.
One of those tried in connection with the killing? Columbia University professor Jamal Joseph. After an initial trial resulted in a hung jury, Joseph and three others pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of attempted manslaughter. The New York Times headline was succinct: “4 Panthers Admit Guilt in Slaying.” Again, there is no mention of the Napier slaying in Vanguard of the Revolution (nor in Joseph’s memoir Panther Baby).
Joseph isn’t the only Nelson interview subject whose violent past is left unmentioned. Vanguard of the Revolution includes testimony from former Panther enforcer Landon Williams, prosecuted for his involvement in the murder of Alex Rackley. At the trial, Panther triggerman Warren Kimbro recounted on the stand the moment when “Landon said, ‘Take [Rackley] out and take care of him.’” Williams pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiracy to murder.
And there is former Panther and current Columbia University administrator Flores Forbes, who mistakenly shot and killed a fellow Panther during an attempt to assassinate Crystal Gray, a witness willing to testify against Huey Newton in the murder of 17-year-old prostitute Kathleen Smith who made the mistake of calling Newton “baby.” Around the same time, Newton’s tailor Preston Callins also made the mistake of calling him “baby.” As punishment, Callins was brutally pistol-whipped and tortured by Newton. Again, none of this is mentioned in Vanguard of the Revolution.
Nelson has made a stylistically interesting documentary, but has revealed himself to be an astonishingly bad journalist. Because a good journalist would have forced Joseph, Huggins, Forbes, and Williams to confront their own pasts and the Panther’s violent legacy, while steering them away from rote banalities accusing the FBI of provoking their murderousness. A good journalist would have brought in voices critical of the party from other expanses of the civil rights movement (like the late Bayard Rustin). A good journalist might look at the actuarial table for Panther members and wonder why more Panthers were killed by fellow black nationalists than by the pigs.
Because the murder of Alex Rackley wasn’t an aberration. And while the Feds undoubtedly abused their power in pursuit of the Panthers, their obsession with violent black nationalism wasn’t irrational. Too bad PBS viewers won’t understand why the “Gestapo pigs,” the shock troops of “fascist Amerikkka,” were so interested in disrupting the revolution Huggins, Seale, Cleaver, and Newton tried so desperately to foment.
** I pulled information on the Alex Rackley murder from a number of contemporaneous sources, but the text upon which I relied most for detail and chronology was Paul Bass and Doug Rae's spectacular book about the New Haven Panther trial, Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of a Killer.