The Death of Geronimo Pratt and the Unfinished Legacy of the Black Power Movement
Former Black Panther, Geronimo ji-Jaga Pratt, died in Tanzania on Thursday, May 21, 2011. In 1972, Pratt was convicted of the murder of schoolteacher Caroline Olsen and spent 27 years in prison — — eight in solitary confinement — -before being released in 1997 after a judge vacated his conviction due to trial irregularities. The trial to win his freedom revealed that the Los Angeles Black Panther leader was a target of the FBI’s infamous counterintelligence program, or COINTELPRO. Pratt ultimately won a $4.5 million civil rights settlement against the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department. Despite being exonerated, like many former Black Panthers, little redeeming qualities have been attributed to Pratt in the mainstream media beyond, in some cases, the protestations of liberal bastions such as Amnesty International, the N.A.A.C.P., and the American Civil Liberties Union (in Mr. Pratt’s case). The penchant to resort to violence and separatism has been well-chronicled in the Press but the same propensities by the FBI and CIA have been routinely ignored. Although, historically, the contextualization of the Black Panthers’ story is still being written, it is a worthy effort. Only then may we fully understand the complexity of the struggle for African American suffrage in the United States.
The struggle for freedom from oppression was a long and arduous one that stretched back generations before the late civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. We view the civil rights movement as episodic (Frederick Douglass, the 19th century abolitionists, and the Civil War to DuBois and the NAACP to MLK and the late Civil Rights movement) but it functioned more along a continuum with multitudes of participants employing myriad tactics. There are the “major players” but there were countless anonymous and near anonymous figures who fastened their own efforts to it. Some individuals and communities were more actively involved in a direct way, yet, other communities acted as support structures for activists. As the Southern system of segregation and marginalization relied on an undercurrent of enforcement by violence, one took a very large risk if one engaged in challenging the status quo (like having a means of subsistence suddenly dry up if one tried to register to vote, being run out of town, or worse). The optimism of youth provided the impetus for many participants because such individuals had less economic responsibility and, more apocalyptically, less fear of retrbutional violence. This hardly meant that those communities and individuals were not engaged with the movement. Their role entailed rallying activists to persevere…to stay the course — -”We’re going to get there. All we have to do is show people what’s going on down here”.
Complicating the Narrative
In his professional biography of the North Carolina activist, Robert F Williams, author Timothy B. Tyson reveals a different path that runs counter to the traditional narrative of African Americans as exclusively adhering to the tenets of non-violence and pacifism in the face of consistent aggression from white southern agitators. Too, Tyson challenges the simplistic binary that media and even activists have perpetrated: that of the civil rights movement as moral good and the black power movement as profoundly violent, unstable, and prone to criminality. Such an expose is sorely needed in order to provide context and nuance to a political and intellectual debate concerning the era. According to Tyson:
The civil rights movement and the black power movement, often portrayed in very different terms, grew out of the same soil, confronted the same predicaments, and reflected the same quest for African-American freedom. Virtually all of the elements that we associate with black power [almost universally situated by the press in Northern urban centers] were already present in the small towns and rural communities of the South where the civil rights movement was born.
The standard press account of the Black power movement was of a collective who rejected the principles of nonviolence and possessed a penchant for media spectacle, disunion, separatism, patriarchy, shortsightedness, and who were “doomed to fail.” Complicating this reductionist way of thinking is the task of historians like the late sociologist, Manning Marable, who in his work on the civil rights historiography of the Black power movement, argued that those involved in black power, above all, emphasized pride in racial heritage and a connection between civil rights and political self-determination here in the United States and in developing nations. On the goals and aspirations of the Black power movement organizers, historian William L. Van De Burg argued that the black power movement organizers were instrumental in embracing African-American cultural distinctiveness through their “commitment to improving black self-esteem” and, just as crucially, their intellectual offensive against “white mythmaking” regarding the unique contributions of African Americans to American society. In its quest for social, political, cultural, and economic parity, the black power movement uncompromisingly and unapologetically challenged traditional “postwar racial liberalism” in a way that “fundamentally transformed the struggle for racial justice.” Historian Peniel Joseph takes a sympathetic, contextual view of the intricate contributions of the Black power movement to American life. Of its singular achievements, he argues convincingly that:
The black power movement’s activities during the late 1960s and early 1970s encompassed virtually every facet of African-American political life in the United States and beyond, and yet the story of black power is still largely an unchronicled epic in American history. African American politicians tapped into [this] groundswell of racial solidarity to help build urban political machines that elected black mayors in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta, Newark, and Gary, Indiana, and led to the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Although it has been framed in the media until this day as a movement animated by media savvy but unstable leaders who were driven by charisma and culture, not a practical political vision for black improvement, the black power movement acted as a crucial element in the long struggle for human rights and in revealing and recognizing American hypocrisy regarding it. The black power movement had real achievements. Its inclusion within the main body of the civil rights movement emphasized movement leaders’ ever-evolving and multifaceted approach in the search for redress. Indeed, within the well-worn media universe of simple binaries of good vs. bad, one could not have existed without the other.
Joseph, P.E. (2009). The Black Power Movement: A state of the field. The Journal of American History, 96(3), 751–776.
Marable, M. (1980). From the grassroots: Essays toward Afro-American liberation. Brooklyn: South End Press.
Marable, M. (1987). African and Caribbean politics: From Kwame Nkrumah to the Grenada revolution. Brooklyn: Verso Books.
Marable, M. (1995). Beyond black and white: Transforming African-American politics. Brooklyn: Verso Books.
Marable, M. (1985). Votes for deceit. Black American politics: from the Washington marches to Jesse Jackson. Brooklyn: Verso Books
Tyson, T. B. (1999). Radio free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the roots of black power. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Pres.