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POWER TO THE PEOPLE

by Jordan Green

 

The Black Panthers get their due in Winston-Salem

Julius Cornell, minister of information for the Winston-Salem chapter, took tickets at the door. His comrade, Nelson Malloy, director of the free ambulance program, chatted with Emory Douglas, minister of culture for the national organization. Larry Little, field director for Winston-Salem, worked the floor of the gymnasium at the Carter G. Woodson School, greeting old friends and guests.

The celebrants filled plates with fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and sides of string beans, potato salad and squash casserole catered by Kirby Home Cooking, and took their seats.

Ruth Mack Hopkins, principal of the charter school, took the microphone and greeted the audience with a familiar salute: “Power to the people!” Small in stature and dressed modestly in a white head wrap, she gave a thundering oration.

“Look to the person to your right,” Hopkins said. “Look to the person to your left. You have the opportunity tonight to sit among the baddest people that ever walked the face of this earth: the original Black Panther Party!

“Black women have always carried the movement, going back to the women in the field who said, ‘Once I pick my 30 pounds of cotton I’ll pick yours too,’” she continued. “Stand up! Stand up, because you haven’t been standing enough.”

“We give honor to the sisters who stood in the fields everyday, put their bags on their backs, looked up at the sun and said, ‘I’m gonna pick mine and then when if I beat you I’m gonna come back down that row and I’m gonna help you pick yours.’ That is the legacy of the Black Panther Party. Stand up on your feet. You haven’t stood up enough in here.”

Winston-Salem was the first Southern city with a chapter of the Black Panther Party. The chapter operated a free breakfast program five years before Congress mandated it for all schools with needy students. It provided free sicklecell anemia testing as Piedmont Health Service and Sickle Cell Agency was getting off the ground. The Panthers registered voters and offered free pest-control services. But what really set the Winston-Salem chapter apart was its free ambulance program, chartered by the Forsyth County Commission before the county took full responsibility for emergency medical services.

Since the heyday of the chapter in the early 1970s, Black Panthers have been elected to Winston-Salem City Council, fought to free wrongfully convicted prisoners, provided legal services to the poor, counseled people with addictions and educated children.

The chapter was honored with a historical marker that was unveiled at the intersection of Martin Luther King Drive and East 5th Street last month. And the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party held its annual meeting in Winston-Salem at the end of October.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the Winston-Salem chapter’s celebrated track record of leadership and community service, the FBI kept it under surveillance for most or all of its existence. The bureau had two agents assigned to the Winston-Salem resident agency, according to a declassified 1971 report, one of whom was a engaged full-time in an investigation of the chapter while the other handled “security and extremist matters.”

In September 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” By that time, King had been assassinated, along with Robert F. Kennedy, and police had rioted against anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The party had been founded two years earlier in Oakland, Calif. by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who would recall many years later that “brothers and sisters were so angry about the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King that — we already had notoriety — they ran and rushed to our organization.”

In 1969, the FBI’s Charlotte field office opened an investigative file on the party to track its activities, incomes and expenses. A January 1970 report concerning incidents of racial unrest in Greensboro and Charlotte ends with an advisory written in all caps and underlined that gives a sense of how the bureau viewed the Panthers in North Carolina: “Extreme caution must be exercised during all encounters with members of and associates of the BPP as they are reportedly attempting to prearrange the location of interviews in order to kill FBI agents. Due to their proven attempts to kill police officers, all BPP members and associates are considered armed and extremely dangerous.”

The historical marker doesn’t sidestep the chapter’s testy relationship with law enforcement. It briefly states, “Nationally and locally, the Black Panthers sought to protect African-American neighborhoods from police brutality; the volatility of the times often led to confrontation with police.”

Members of the Winston-Salem chapter were accused of stealing a meat truck and firing on police officers, and there was a well-publicized armed standoff to protect an elderly black woman from eviction. But the charges and endless court proceedings, militant posturing and gun imagery seem almost beside the point 40 years later.

The Winston-Salem Black Panther Party represents a through-line of resistance to oppression and service to community. That continuum stretches back at least to the efforts of the largely black labor movement that fought for better working conditions in the tobacco factories at RJ Reynolds in the 1940s, in Little’s view. He got to know Velma Hopkins, a leader of that movement, and learned about others such as Moranda Smith.

“Winston-Salem was probably really receptive to the Panthers because of the work that was done by Local 22,” Little said in an interview. “The role that people like Paul Robeson played — he sang at Moranda Smith’s funeral — they were the trailblazers.”

Now, the Black Panthers are elders. Little is in his sixties.

Seale celebrated his 76th birthday last month.

But there may be no more revered figure in the Winston- Salem chapter than Lee Faye Mack, the 80-year-old mother of Ruth Mack Hopkins and Hazel Mack. Introducing her at the dinner, Little enthused, “The whole Mack family are Black Panthers.” With evident relish he told the audience about how FBI agents had approached the elder Mack.

“When those people came to my house, they said, ‘We know something you don’t know: Your children are in the Black Panther Party,’” Mack recalled. “They said, ‘They will either end up being killed or in prison.’ I looked that boy in the face and I said, ‘What if I tell you I was in the Black Panther Party?’ He looked like I had just knocked him back.”

An October 1970 report from the Charlotte FBI office to the director containing references terms “racial matters,” “seditious conspiracy” and “rebellion and insurrection” states that on Sept. 15, 1970, 35 individuals from Winston- Salem, including Larry Little, Julius Cornell, Lee Faye Mack, Hazel Mack and Ruth Mack, attended the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Two women who will serve in the NC General Assembly next year, assuming the vote goes as predicted on Tuesday, paid tribute to Lee Faye Mack at a community forum the day after the dinner.

“To do what we do and do it as long as we’ve done it, it had to come from someplace,” said Earline Parmon, who has served in the NC House since 2003 and is poised to be elected the first black state senator from Forsyth County. “And one of the people who taught me was Lee Faye Mack. I just want to say, ‘Thank you.’ As a young, black woman coming up I had Lee Faye Mack, Velma Hopkins, Mazie Woodruff… and some of the others who helped us to keep our focus on what was right — an injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.”

Little recognized two other local elected officials who attended the Panther alumni association dinner: Forsyth County Commissioner Walter Marshall and Winston-Salem City Councilman James Taylor Jr. As a public school teacher in High Point in the early 1970s, Marshall wrote letters to the two daily newspapers in Winston-Salem defending, as Little put it, “the Black Panther Party 40-some years ago when they were trying to violate our constitutional rights.”

Marshall said an FBI agent contacted his superintendent at High Point City Schools and requested that the district investigate him for organizing the Black Panther Party at Griffin Middle School, where he was a teacher. Marshall was the first black president of the district’s chapter of the NC Association of Educators chapter, and his position allowed him to quickly put the false allegation to rest. And while he channeled much of his activism into the NAACP, he sympathized with the Panthers.

“During the civil rights movement I was leaning more towards the views of Malcolm X than Martin Luther King,” Marshall said of his days as student at Winston-Salem State. “You had pretty much the so-called old-guard blacks that were just really the status quo. The Panthers came along. And they were the activists. That was the views I followed.”

The Panthers’ provocative image — black leather jackets, military-style berets and conspicuous displays of firearms — was matched by action and rhetoric. In May 1967, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense marched into the California state legislature, guns in hand, as a demonstration of militancy.

“I think the real reason they had so much appeal was there was so much poverty and disparity in the justice system,” Marshall said. “You had Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and the Kennedys assassinated. It was lights out pretty much. You get a young group like the Panthers who were talking about justice. The most popular interpretation of the Panthers is it was about violence. But it was actually about self-defense.”

Hazel Mack, the Winston-Salem chapter’s communications secretary, said that the community programs were the Winston-Salem Black Panther Party’s main emphasis, but the chapter’s stance on self-defense grew out of conditions in which police exercised almost total power in black communities and many officers’ attitudes reflected deep-seated prejudices.

“I think, at least from my perspective, we did those programs from Day 1: the breakfast program, the pestcontrol program, free clothing. That was all of that. That was the daily work. We took the position at the time that people have the right to defend themselves if unjustifiably provoked or assaulted.”

Mack said she believes the Panthers’ stance on selfdefense was generally effective.

“It took a minute for the people who were accustomed to doing that to figure out how to respond,” she said. “Most of the people who do that are cowards. It’s like bullying, where if you say you’re going to fight back, that evokes another sacrifice on their part that they’re not willing to take.”

If there was one incident that rocked the Winston-Salem establishment back on its heels, it was when Panthers responded to the eviction of an elderly woman in East Winston in March 1970 by carrying her belongings back inside and taking up position with guns on her porch.

Declassified files include a letter from a resident — name is redacted — to Director Hoover, expressing distress “at the terrible inroads that the communists, black and white, have made in our country today.

“Last week, here in our city a negro woman was evicted from her house because of nonpayment of rent,” the correspondent said. “The next day the Black Panthers moved her furniture back into the house and pictures in our local paper showed the Panthers standing in front of the house armed with rifles and declared that they would use them on any law enforcement officers who came to evict the woman again. An anonymous person paid her back rent so there was no confrontation between the police and the Black Panthers. My question is, who controls our city, the police or the Black Panthers?

“Why is it that the Black Panthers and other negro militants create so much violence, then be coddled by the authorities and yet any white organizations are hounded  and persecuted?” the letter closes. “It seems to me that our country is in a state of siege by these negro and white communists, and I wonder what can be done to stop it now before it’s too late.”

As the letter writer inferred, the Winston-Salem Black Panthers enjoyed widespread support, from both black and white residents, and from local and national sources.

“My wife’s father had a little grocery store in the part of town where the Panthers operated,” Marshall recalled. [The FBI agents] would come to him and talk to him about what he needed to do to arm himself to protect himself from the Panthers. What they didn’t know and what he didn’t tell them was that he was contributing to the breakfast program.”

A November 1970 FBI report noted ruefully in a section about the organization’s sources of income that “Larry Little received from Jane Fonda, the actress who appeared at Chapel Hill, NC, a check for $1,000.”

The chapter’s most ambitious project was its ambulance program, which was launched in early 1974. Little said that at the time the county maintained a policy of charging residents for ambulance service if they determined that there wasn’t a real emergency. As a result, he said, people in real need often would not go to the hospital and eventually someone died as a result.

“We went to Surry Community College and got EMT certification,” he recalled. “University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill and Duke students raised money to help us. Nursing students from Winston-Salem State volunteered. The National Episcopal Church gave us a grant of $35,000 that we used to purchase the ambulance. We took people irrespective of race. We served anyone who lived in the city — black, white or green, it didn’t matter.”

Little said the president of Surry Community College told him later that the FBI visited him and asked him to ban the Panthers from campus, but he refused.

“I’ll never forget James Brown,” Little said, recalling the Godfather of Soul. “He liked the ambulance service so much he wrote a check for $4,000. He said, ‘Spell ‘ambulance.’’ He knew the numbers, but he couldn’t spell. I loved his heart and spirit.”

Little also recalled meeting John Lennon, who was a fan of the Black Panthers. Not incidentally, Lennon was also a target of FBI investigation because of his monetary support for various radical causes. Little noted with satisfaction that Lennon’s song, “Power to the People,” was inspired by the Panther slogan “Power to the people — right on!” The Panthers various run-ins with law enforcement remain clouded in a significant amount of factual ambiguity, a prime example being the alleged meat-truck heist of January 1971. A terse report from the Charlotte office to FBI headquarters composed in teletype and labeled “urgent” on Jan. 12 stated that the Winston-Salem Police Department reported that a truck operated by the Chatham Meat Co. had been stolen, the driver had found it parked in front of a house that was believed to be the Black Panther Party headquarters, and an arrest warrant had been issued for Nelson Malloy. Grady Fuller, also known as Papa Doc, and Willie Coe were inside the house, and police fired tear gas inside to try to get the two to come out. According to the FBI account, a shot was fired that was “believed to have come from Panther headquarters, and a volley of shots were returned by law enforcement officers.”

Hazel Mack offers a different account. “They sent a man there with a truck and then he left the truck, and they used it as the reason they shot into the house that day,” she said. “There were two people in the house: Papa Doc and the teenager. I don’t think any shots went out; I think all the shots went in.”

When the matter was finally resolved in the courts in 1973, the FBI reported that Fuller, Little and Cornell pleaded no contest to misdemeanor larceny and assault charges, and that Fuller received a sentence of 90 days in jail while Little and Cornell received suspended sentences. The report stated that about 250 people who were “quite vocal” and “in good spirits” attended the trial, and that Little called a news conference to explain that they decided not to fight the charges so they could refocus their attention on the chapter’s community programs.

Based on his own experiences with the police in Winston-Salem, Marshall said he believes the charges against the Panthers related to the meat-truck incident were probably trumped up.

“One Christmas, four or five of us got accused of petty crimes,” he recalled, rattling off a litany of harassment incidents. “The police would call my house. They would call and make all kinds of nasty comments at 2 o’clock in the morning. They would send false notes to the High Point Schools superintendent’s office saying to watch me. I’ve been accused of doing everything. They went through the idea that I was stealing from the NAACP all those years. I lived on Highland Avenue, and every time I got in my car the police would follow me.”

Much of the political organizing in his and the Panthers’ milieu took place at the Dungeon, a nightclub on North Liberty Street that provided a social forum in a city where black churches closed their doors to activists. That also made the club a target for police harassment, Marshall said.

“It was a good place for cultural activities,” Marshall recalled. “We talked to young people about voter registration. It was not about overthrowing the government; it was about being part of the government — getting a summer job.

“It had the best music in the area,” he added. “We had the Eliminators. We had all the top talent in the area. On the weekends you couldn’t drive through there because it was so thick. Liberty Street became a target. They used to send the police in to stop people.”

Riots and looting were common occurrences in the summer months, Marshall recalled. And sometimes it seemed the police had more black people on the payroll as informants than as sworn officers.

Marshall, Dungeon owner Rodney Sumler, who was also employed in the city’s parks department, and other young black men took responsibility for managing order to preserve the measure of autonomy they had earned.

“We stood in the middle of the street three or four hours to stop the black folks from breaking into B&O Furniture,” Marshall said. “There was a lot of looting. In the black community where several places had a reputation of being unfair we didn’t want them rioting up there because they would have closed the Dungeon. Willie Smith, an informant, said, ‘You better get out of here because [the police are] going to tear this place up.’ They turned off the power. We stayed in the middle of the street. If they had started shooting, they would have shot us.”

The scene at the Dungeon Club was evidently a subject of interest to the FBI, along with the Winston- Salem police. An August 1973 FBI dispatch to headquarters noted that Wilbert Allen had publicly announced that had been acting as a police informant at a public safety committee meeting of the Winston-Salem Board of Alderman. Of concern to the FBI, Allen revealed the name of one of its special agents, Zachary Lowe, during the meeting. The FBI acknowledged that its agent had interviewed Allen about the Black Panther Party, but denied that he had ever been their informant.

“He was working with the FBI on the narcotics traffic that they believe to be circulating around the Dungeon and the Golden Stag nightclubs along the Liberty Street strip,” Allen told the Black Panther newspaper in remarks about Lowe. “He called me several times by phone on my job and wanted to set up a surveillance team with himself and couple of other officers. We kept in close contact by phone. One of the things he wanted to know was how Lee Faye Mack, who runs the Everybody Is a Star dress shop, got base money enough to get her operation off the ground. Secondly, he wanted to know if there was any use of heroin in the Dungeon, and if Rodney Sumler, Larry Little and Lee Faye Mack were putting this thing together. He wanted to connect them with the drug ring. He felt that there were close connections between Everybody Is a Star, the Dungeon and the Black Panther Party.”

Needless to say, there was no federal narcotics trafficking or racketeering indictment unveiled when the FBI closed its investigation of the Panthers in about 1976.

Allen told the Black Panther that he decided to quit working as an informant because the police would misinterpret and misuse information provided to them.

“I’ve seen people harassed, cursed and dogged,” he said.

“I’ve seen police call people slur names such as n*ggers, motherf*ckers, bitches, whores, prostitutes — you name it, they had a name for it…. I observed them hitting pedestrians who were innocently walking through the neighborhood with their nightsticks and clubs, sticking guns in people’s faces, and knocking on cars, making people get out, sticking their guns in their ribcages.”

The story of the Panthers circles back more or less to where it started. In returning to the roots of the American creed, the Panthers idea sharpens into a revolutionary commitment. That commitment forces the party’s adherents to test their ideals against a forge of unforgiving realities. But it’s not a clean break with the past like the Russian, Chinese or Cuban revolutions. If anything, it’s like the American Civil War, a revolution of values and laws that transforms relations between people. The revolutionaries deepen their engagement with American democracy, and shape it, however imperfectly, to their will.

Bobby Seale, the 76-year-old chairman and cofounder of the Black Panther Party, reflected during the keynote speech last month on how he and the late Huey Newton founded the organization. Newton was preoccupied with coming up with “a functional definition of power.” They wrote a 10-point program, which called for control of their own destiny, full employment, freedom from economic exploitation, free medical care, rejection of the Vietnam war draft, an immediate end to police brutality and black juries for black defendants.

“I fooled around there in the war on poverty office where I worked in city government, while Huey was upstairs trying to find in the law library of legal aid service there — he was trying to find a ruling about us having the right to observe the police in our community,” Seale recalled. “I found the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. I was trying to sum up what I was talking about. I was trying to sum up the meaning, to be plain and get to the point, based on the readings that I had done at that time.”

He recited the words, savoring them as if he had just discovered them the other day. “I read that, ‘When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for any people to dissolve the political bondage….’ And I thought, ‘Political bondage? Yeah, political bondage.’ In other words the politics of whatever — the politics of race discrimination, the politics of murdering us and killing us. Yeah, to dissolve the political bondage.”

Rapidly and with growing excitement, Seale recited:

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right to change that government and provide new guards for their future security and happiness.”

Almost six years after the founding of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, the FBI agents in Winston-Salem diligently recorded in July 1972 that the chapter had drawn 2,000 people to a rally at Kimberly Housing Project, gave away about a thousand bags of groceries, administered about 800 sickle-cell anemia tests and registered about 500 new voters.

“None of the speakers made any comments regarding confrontations with the police and followed the opening line of Larry Little about working within the political system,” the report closed. “There were no weapons in evidence among the BPP members present and the gathering was very peaceful. The crowd dispersed at approximately 8 p.m. after the supply of free food had been exhausted.”

A December 1972 Survival Day Program logged somewhat less impressive numbers, but the FBI’s summary of Little’s remarks foreshadowed the direction in the chapter was headed: “[Little] stated that the BPP has come a long way from guns to shoes and he expects greater things in the days to come. He further indicated that members of the BPP would be running for local office in the Winston- Salem, North Carolina, area and urged those assembled to assist in their efforts to obtain power for the people.”

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