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The strange history of the Black Panthers in the Triad

by Jordan Green

art by Chris Lowrance

I’m called the hit-and-run raper in anger/ The knife sharpened tippie toe’…/ Or just the shoot ’em dead, brainbell jangler/ You know, the one you never seen before/ So if you ever meet the midnight rambler/ Coming down your marble hall/ Well he’s pouncing like a proud black panther.

– Rolling Stones, 1969

Imagine the cultural temperature of late 1968.

Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Robert Kennedy too. Cities across the United States had erupted in rioting, rage and fires. The liberal coalition of the civil rights movement had splintered with the election of Richard Nixon, the first Republican president in eight years. Young African Americans had grown impatient with the pace of change and were gravitating towards the self-determination message of Malcolm X and away from the integrationist aims of earlier activists like King.

The moment belonged to the Black Panthers, a black power organization formed in 1966 to combat police brutality in black neighborhoods in Oakland, Calif. The following year the Panthers marched into the California legislature fully armed in a legal demonstration. In the years that followed Black Panther chapters sprang up across the country.

Greensboro , which had been the birthplace of the civil rights sit-in movement, was hardly insulated from the political currents convulsing the nation. These were revolutionary times. And Greensboro certainly had its own homegrown issues to handle ‘— school desegregation, urban renewal and the working conditions of poor blacks, to name a few. The image and example of the Black Panthers had an electrifying effect on many young African Americans ‘— and a terrifying effect on white officials.

By 1969 the FBI had opened Black Panther investigations in 32 cities, according to one declassified memo. The declassified sections of the bureau’s investigation of the Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party, which the agency posted on the internet in 1999, fills 2,895 pages. Although the collection is headed ‘“Black Panther Party-Winston-Salem, NC,’” the pages detail investigations of black activists across the state from roughly 1968 to 1973. Unlike in Greensboro, the Panthers really took hold in Winston-Salem. Though the two cities are separated by only 20 miles, their stories could hardly be different.

The bureau circulated a startling profile of the Panthers with its investigative reports that quoted from an editorial by Panther George Murray in the Sept. 7, 1968 issue of the party newspaper: ‘“Black men. Black people, colored persons of America, revolt everywhere! Arm yourselves. The only culture worth keeping is a revolutionary culture. Change. Freedom everywhere. Dynamite. Black power. Use the gun. Kill the pigs everywhere.’”

It’s easy to understand how authorities might react with concern to such rhetoric. But how real were the Black Panthers? How did you sort the criminal gangs copying the Panthers’ style from the real thing? Who could tell whether a field organizer was an excommunicated member from another chapter trying to sow dissension within the movement? And what if the leaders themselves turned out to be FBI informants placed in the movement to derail legitimate organizing efforts.

Were the Greensboro Black Panthers nothing more than a collective hallucination conjured in the heat of the inflamed moment? Was this group a fiction of the FBI created to instigate disorder? A review of the ‘“Black Panther Party-Winston-Salem’” file suggests that either of those scenarios might be true.

From the start, the FBI pursued a policy of investigating Panthers in Greensboro, and also disrupting their activities. And from the moment there were people in Greensboro claiming to be Panthers there also appear to have been informants reporting it back to the FBI.

The Charlotte FBI office was instructed by bureau headquarters to continue a ‘“penetrative’” investigation of the Greensboro Black Panther Party and ‘“to consider the counterintelligence possibilities of your investigation,’” according to a bureau communiqué dated Feb. 17, 1969.

The communiqué continued: ‘“Your investigation of BPP activities in Greensboro shows the value of having informants coverage in a position to report on black extremist activities at their inception.’”

Perhaps the inception was December 1968.

Stokely Carmichael, previously a prominent leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC ‘— and who was briefly aligned with the Black Panther Party ‘— spoke on the campus of NC A&T University that month. He exhorted students ‘“not only to be willing to die for freedom but to kill for it as well,’” as Duke history professor William H. Chafe wrote in his classic 1980 case study, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom.

When asked who he voted for in the previous election, Carmichael reportedly said, ‘“I didn’t vote; I stayed home and cleaned my guns.’”

One person who took notice was Claude Barnes, a junior at Dudley High School who had grown up in Morningside Homes. Barnes has viewed the tumultuous events of 1969 from two vantage points, first as a significant historical actor, and then as a political science professor at A&T, where he now teaches.

‘“Malcolm X begins to articulate the ideology of black power and under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael, organizations like SNCC begin to move away from the civil rights perspective to a more militant black power perspective,’” Barnes told the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission in July 2005. ‘“The next thing you know there were black power organizations, thousands of them all across the United States, including places like Greensboro, which created an organization called the Greensboro Association of Poor People in 1968 to respond to Stokely’s call.’”

The Panther strikes

(or does it?)

Two figures crop up with regularity in the FBI informant reports that followed Carmichael’s visit to Greensboro. The one, a person referred to variously as Harold Avant, Harold Avent and Nunding, makes a bold appearance in Greensboro’s black militant circles after arriving from New York and stays for about four months before vanishing. The other, an A&T student named Nelson Johnson, seems constantly to be in proximity to upheaval, but never appears to violate any laws.

Nunding is a figure forgotten by history, a person who may as well be anonymous considering that his real name is likely not known. Johnson, now a pastor at Faith Community Church, has played a leading role in racial justice and labor rights campaigns in Greensboro over the past three and a half decades. Now, as then, he remains a thorn in the side of the white political establishment. The traumatic events of 1969 would play as a kind of prequel to the Morningside shootings in which five of Johnson’s comrades were shot to death by a group of Klansmen and Nazis ten years later. Not unlike 1979, the events of 1969 still feel like a raw wound and Johnson’s role remains similarly shrouded in controversy and intrigue.

FBI reports describe Nunding as ‘“a Negro male, about 6 feet 1 inch tall, weighing 230 pounds, an estimated age of 26 to 27, with a large head and his head is completely covered by a big full Afro-bush type haircut and beard.’” According to the bureau’s informant, Nunding ‘“was some sort of organizer for the Black Panthers who would go into an area and stay for a short time and then move on.’”

Early on it appeared the Panthers were plotting to ambush the police. A Jan. 23 memo on official FBI letterhead references an undated meeting at which Greensboro ‘“Black Panther Party members’” discussed a disturbance that would be orchestrated in a black section of the city.

‘“When a police car answers a call, rocks and bottles would then be thrown at the police car, which in turn would cause additional cars to come to the area,’” the report stated. ‘“When a fairly large congregation of police had assembled, the Black Panther Party would then cut down on them with rifles from hidden positions.’”

The plot had Nunding’s fingerprints all over it.

Another file reads, ‘“Harold Avant said that on January 31, 1969, a training session on guerilla tactics was held on the campus of A&T State University.’” Avant is reported as saying the group’s goal was to get all white merchants off East Market Street by means of a boycott. If that didn’t work, the Panthers would do ‘“the next best thing’” ‘— which, as the report surmised, ‘“obviously meant tearing the place up or burning it down.’”

In February the FBI noted that large groups of activists were meeting at Nelson Johnson’s house. Among them was Nunding.

‘“He was a very large man and very imposing, wore a long beard, always dressed in black, and spoke in a certain style of the movement at the time,’” Johnson said in a recent interview. ‘“I remember him well.’”

A theme running through the declassified files is an abiding belief within the FBI that the Panther leadership in Oakland was setting up local chapters across the country in preparation for a coordinated strike to topple the US government.

At another unspecified meeting, an ominous-sounding report distributed in February 1969 states that ‘“Nelson Johnson made the statement that the Black Panthers had gotten organized in Dudley High School, A and T College [sic], Page High School and Smith High School, claiming the Panthers have two hundred sympathizers at Dudley High School who would be ready to move on signal from the Panther leaders.’”

In a recent interview Johnson called the allegations of his involvement with the Black Panthers ‘“fantastic.’”

‘“I was never in contact with anybody from California,’” he said. ‘“I was never in the Black Panther Party, and no records kept anywhere show that. I’ve never tried to organize a Black Panther chapter.’”

He acknowledged a friendship with Larry Little, who would go on to head a Black Panther chapter in Winston-Salem. Little would later serve on the Winston-Salem City Council and now teaches social sciences at Winston-Salem State University. Another former Black Panther, Nelson Malloy, currently represents Winston-Salem’s North Ward on the city council.

‘“I have always been open to receiving and being kind to all different types of people, and not allowing the white establishment dictate who I can associate with,’” Johnson said. ‘“I had no problems having a relationship with Larry Little’…. I choose who I will talk to.’”

In broad strokes Johnson acknowledged some similarities between the Greensboro Association of Poor People, which he had helped found the previous summer, and the Black Panthers.

‘“Obviously we believed that the African-American community was without sufficient power and obviously we believed in working for power,’” Johnson said. ‘“We were not organizationally aligned with anyone. On the day Martin Luther King died I was supposed to meet him at the airport. I was not part of [King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference], but people would probably put me in the SCLC.’”

Such distinctions made little difference to the FBI. In a report marked ‘“urgent’” the Charlotte office reported to headquarters on a memorial service for Malcolm X on Feb. 21.

‘“Approximately three hundred Negro males and females, many wearing Black Panther buttons and berets, marched to Windsor Community Center approximately three thirty today,’” the report reads. ‘“Played a recording of Malcolm X speech and heard two speakers. Crowd raised fists in black power salute numerous times but dispersed four thirty p.m. Majority marched back to A&T University Campus and smaller group returned to campus UNC-Greensboro. No incidents occurred. Secret Service and [Military Intelligence Group] advised.’”

A subsequent report on the event named Johnson and six others, including Eric Brown, Walter Brame and Nunding, as members of the Black Panthers. Yet in reality, Chafe wrote, the memorial service was organized by the Greensboro Association of Poor People.

Chafe’s account, gleaned from contemporaneous news reports and interviews with Johnson and other activists, contains details not included in the FBI report.

‘“Nine police cars appeared at the community center with a bus full of reinforcements standing by,’” he wrote. ‘“After the service started, a tear-gas canister suddenly detonated, spreading gas through the entire area. Police called the episode an accident; most students believed it was an intentional provocation.

‘“Although organizers of the service kept the crowd under control, another layer of tension had been added to relations between the black community and the police,’” the account continues.

A report in the following weeks alleging that Greensboro Black Panthers planned to bomb the Thrifty Curb Market was summarized for the benefit of the White House and the Attorney General, according to FBI files.

In March 1969, Johnson found an issue that would allow him to merge campus and community concerns when he organized A&T students in support of a strike by cafeteria workers to win better pay and working conditions. Students marched on university President Lewis Dowdy’s house, and afterwards stoned cars and disrupted traffic, according to police. Gunfire was exchanged between students and the police and one student was hit in the shoulder.

During the melee a group of students ransacked Sid’s Curb Market and Eric Brown was arrested for stealing. He was later sentenced to 2-6 years for the crime, according to both FBI files and Chafe’s research.

Brown’s arrest was significant, Chafe wrote, because he was one of the few avowed Black Panthers in Greensboro.

‘“Brown’s association with GAPP staff members, in turn, persuaded police that the community organizing effort was a Black Panther operation,’” he wrote.

A Panther flier reputedly drafted by the Greensboro group casts them in a cartoonish and amateurish light.

‘“Stemming from the March 13 incident when the people dealt with an enemy community (Sid’s Curb Market), in a revolutionary manner, the pig power structure has tried to exterminate the leadership of the Greensboro chapter of the Black Power Party,’” the flier reads. ‘“Eric Brown is a victim of this attempt to stop the movement for allegedly stealing three cartons of cigarettes. We would like to inform the masses that a bootlicking Uncle Tom, pork chop lackey of the power structure’… testified against Eric Brown.’” The flier gives the name and address of the alleged informer, and is signed ‘“Minister of Information.’”

Two weeks later the investigative files cover less explosive subject matter.

One details a March 26, 1969 meeting at the Hayes-Taylor YMCA, at which Johnson and other activists had hoped to facilitate dialogue between black community members and the Greensboro Redevelopment Commission. According to the report, no white members of the commission attended. Johnson reportedly encouraged local residents and business owners to voice their grievances to a plan to relocate them even though ‘— with the exception of the commission’s one black member ‘— the group’s intended audience was not present.

FBI reports presented the meeting as being ‘“sponsored by the members of the BPP, with Walter Brame and Nelson Johnson, who are leaders of the BPP, running the meeting.’” In actuality the meeting was organized by the Greensboro Association of Poor People, according to Chafe.

Johnson calls the FBI’s successful efforts to infiltrate the Greensboro Association of Poor People ‘“damnable.’”

‘“I think Nunding was an informant,’” he said. ‘“He was provocative and suggested provocative things that should be done. I resisted those obviously. If I had not I think it would have been fulfilling the FBI’s plan.’”

According to Chafe, the Greensboro Police Department uncritically accepted the FBI reports and acted accordingly.

‘“Police received intelligence reports from the FBI warning that insurgents were plotting to ambush police and blow up buildings,’” he wrote. ‘“Although the reports appear in retrospect to have reflected primarily the work of an agent provocateur planted by the FBI to incite illegal activities that would warrant a crackdown, Greensboro police at the time accepted without question the veracity of the information.’”

Nunding’s days in Greensboro were rapidly drawing to a close.

An April 18 FBI report cited an informant as saying Eric Brown ‘“has indicated that there is dissension within the Black Panther Party partially due to the fact that headquarters has little if any control over branches within the Eastern United States. Brown stated that Nunding has been suspended by the national party for calling himself a field marshal when in fact he has little if any rank.’”

And four days later the bureau conveyed that ‘“Charlotte informants have reported that Nunding (aka Harold Avant) has departed North Carolina and is in difficulty with BPP leadership.’”

A later FBI report suggests the notion of a Greensboro Panther chapter was little more than a mirage.

‘“Nunding has not returned from his trip to New York,’” the report states. ‘“Without the leadership of Nunding, there does not seem to be much organization as far as the Black Panthers are concerned.’”

In July the FBI would reinforce that assessment.

‘“As the Bureau is aware,’” the report stated, ‘“there is no actual chartered organization of the Black Panther Party within the Charlotte division.’” The report went on to say that agents should continue to pursue interviews with individuals even if they had fallen out of favor with the party.

Judson L. Jeffries, who teaches Purdue University in Indiana, said the Panthers’ national leadership frowned upon the events in Greensboro. Jeffries, who calls the Panthers ‘“the most effective black revolutionary organization in the 20th century,’” is currently at work on a book about the history of the group’s local chapters.

‘“There were activists in the city of Greensboro who wanted to start a Black Panther chapter,’” he said in a recent interview. ‘“One of them was an agent provocateur and because that person’s actions were reckless the national office in Oakland decided that they were not going to allow these activists in Greensboro to set up a chapter. And if one was started, they would repudiate it. They came out publicly and said, ‘There is no BPP chapter in Greensboro.’ That agent provocateur faded away.’”

FBI records do not explain what happened to Nunding after he left Greensboro, but Johnson believes he is probably dead.

‘“I think he was eventually killed on the West Coast,’” he said. ‘“You hear things through the grapevine. As best as I can recall the Panthers discovered he was an agent, and they set him up.’”

Despite the FBI’s revised assessment, reports continued to emanate from the bureau suggesting that the Panthers were active in Greensboro. Johnson said he doesn’t know what influence Nunding might have had on the actions of black militants in Greensboro, but by late April events seem to have gained momentum of their own volition anyway, whip-lashing to Dudley High School and back to A&T again.

A joint faculty-student election committee at Dudley ruled that month that Claude Barnes lacked the qualifications to be a candidate for student council president.

‘“I was a high school student, a junior, running for Student Government Council president and the individuals who were in charge of the school at that time ‘— they took my name off the ballot because I was deemed to be a subversive individual,’” Barnes said. ‘“But the students decided to write my name in anyway, so when the election was held, I actually ended up with just about all of the votes, as it turns accepted without question the veracity of the information.’”

Nunding’s days in Greensboro were rapidly drawing to a close.

An April 18 FBI report cited an informant as saying Eric Brown ‘“has indicated that there is dissension within the Black Panther Party partially due to the fact that headquarters has little if any control over branches within the Eastern United States. Brown stated that Nunding has been suspended by the national party for calling himself a field marshal when in fact he has little if any rank.’”

And four days later the bureau conveyed that ‘“Charlotte informants have reported that Nunding (aka Harold Avant) has departed North Carolina and is in difficulty with BPP leadership.’”

A later FBI report suggests the notion of a Greensboro Panther chapter was little more than a mirage.

‘“Nunding has not returned from his trip to New York,’” the report states. ‘“Without the leadership of Nunding, there does not seem to be much organization as far as the Black Panthers are concerned.’”

In July the FBI would reinforce that assessment.

‘“As the Bureau is aware,’” the report stated, ‘“there is no actual chartered organization of the Black Panther Party within the Charlotte division.’” The report went on to say that agents should continue to pursue interviews with individuals even if they had fallen out of favor with the party.

Judson L. Jeffries, who teaches Purdue University in Indiana, said the Panthers’ national leadership frowned upon the events in Greensboro. Jeffries, who calls the Panthers ‘“the most effective black revolutionary organization in the 20th century,’” is currently at work on a book about the history of the group’s local chapters.

‘“There were activists in the city of Greensboro who wanted to start a Black Panther chapter,’” he said in a recent interview. ‘“One of them was an agent provocateur and because that person’s actions were reckless the national office in Oakland decided that they were not going to allow these activists in Greensboro to set up a chapter. And if one was started, they would repudiate it. They came out publicly and said, ‘There is no BPP chapter in Greensboro.’ That agent provocateur faded away.’”

FBI records do not explain what happened to Nunding after he left Greensboro, but Johnson believes he is probably dead.

‘“I think he was eventually killed on the West Coast,’” he said. ‘“You hear things through the grapevine. As best as I can recall the Panthers discovered he was an agent, and they set him up.’”

Despite the FBI’s revised assessment, reports continued to emanate from the bureau suggesting that the Panthers were active in Greensboro. Johnson said he doesn’t know what influence Nunding might have had on the actions of black militants in Greensboro, but by late April events seem to have gained momentum of their own volition anyway, whip-lashing to Dudley High School and back to A&T again.

A joint faculty-student election committee at Dudley ruled that month that Claude Barnes lacked the qualifications to be a candidate for student council president.

‘“I was a high school student, a junior, running for Student Government Council president and the individuals who were in charge of the school at that time ‘— they took my name off the ballot because I was deemed to be a subversive individual,’” Barnes said. ‘“But the students decided to write my name in anyway, so when the election was held, I actually ended up with just about all of the votes, as it turns out. I was still not allowed to take office, which was fine with me, but then some of my colleagues were telling me: ‘Look, this is not fair. It is not fair; let’s protest.’ So we decided to protest.’”

Barnes had participated in a student group organized by the Greensboro Association of Poor People, and Johnson came to his side when the school prevented him from taking office.

So did Walter Brame, according to the FBI. And that seemed to be enough evidence to label Barnes a Panther.

‘“A meeting of black militants was held in Greensboro, led by Walter Brame, a member of the BPP,’” one report reads, ‘“urging everyone to support Claude Barnes, another member of the BPP, who was refused permission by student officials to run for student body office.’”

Practically as soon as events transpired the FBI reported it in an urgent May 9 teletype sent to Washington at 11:26 pm that read, ‘“’…advised students at Dudley High School, an all Negro school, are planning to walk out at eleven fifteen a.m. May 9. Instant.’”

Another report on the Dudley walkout concerned the bureau enough to disseminate it to the Secret Service and Military Intelligence.

Police responded to a two-car accident near the school following the walkout, according to one report, which stated, ‘“Students poured from the high school and approximately 400 to 500 students surrounded the accident.’”

The bureau also estimated that 75 to 100 people in the crowd were not high school students, including Nelson Johnson, who reportedly had talked to the students in the school gymnasium. Chafe writes that Johnson was arrested at the request of school authorities.

‘“The students of course exercised their First Amendment rights to free speech and protest and of course being naïve young people we did not know that you can’t do that in America without being the victim of excessive use of force,’” Barnes said. ‘“And we were absolutely surprised and amazed that on a high school campus we were confronted with tear gas, riot gear, and beatings and we were all thrown in jail with knots on our head.’”

Whether they instigated disorder or were provoked by the police, students threw rocks through school windows during protests on May 21 by all accounts.

A terse FBI report advised, ‘“Sniper fire started on the evening of May 21, 1969, and the National Guard has been mobilized.’”

The action had by then shifted to A&T.

‘“Eventually of course we fell back to what we considered to be more friendly surroundings and that was North Carolina A&T State University, which at that same moment the Student Organization for Black Unity was having its founding convention so every Black militant in the world was in this union,’” Barnes said. ‘“At that particular point in time a decision was made to stop the conference because something was happening to our young people. Our young people were out there demonstrating trying to exercise their fundamental so-called constitutional rights and they were being attacked unfairly and mistreated.’”

A teletype message sent on May 22 at 2:07 p.m. from the Charlotte office to Washington advised, ‘“Greensboro presently under state of emergency due to racial violence with National Guard mobilized and assisting police in maintaining order. Curfew to be imposed later today.’”

There were casualties among both students and the police.

During the insurrection A&T student Willie Grimes was shot in the head and killed. The culprit has never been identified, although protesters speculated that it was either the police, or whites who drove by in cars and shot onto campus.

Another FBI report states that after 1 a.m. on May 23 ‘“two regular Greensboro police officers and three auxiliary policemen were hit by gunfire from the area of the Student Union Building.’”

A report states that Brad Belcher, a reputed Black Panther, was on the A&T campus on the night of May 22-23, when much of the shooting took place. A year later Belcher would be denounced as a fraud and an agent provocateur in an article written by a group of black militants affiliated with the Black Panthers in Winston-Salem. The national leadership gave the assertion sufficient credence to publish it in their newspaper.

Once order was restored, national and local law enforcement were quick to blame the Panthers for the Dudley/A&T insurrection.

Under the heading, ‘“Planned Acts of Violence,’” a summary report on Black Panther activities throughout the state reads, ‘“During January and February 1969, individuals at Greensboro, North Carolina, who considered themselves to be members of the BPP, discussed creating a disturbance in a Negro area by rock and bottle throwing to draw a large crowd of police cars. One area mentioned was a dead-end street off Laurel Street in Greensboro. After drawing a crowd of police cars, snipers would then shoot the police officers.

‘“It is noted that during the disturbance at A and T State University during March 1969,’” the report continued, ‘“five police officers were injured in the area of Laurel Street by some snipers.’” (The incident actually took place in May.)

In July, Greensboro police chief Paul Calhoun testified before the US Senate Investigating Committee ‘“that the entire episode had been a plot of the Black Panther Party,’” Chafe wrote. ‘“Starting with Carmichael’s speech in December, Calhoun traced every episode to Panther influence.’”

Calhoun charged that the Panthers had held training sessions in Nelson Johnson’s home, Chafe wrote. The chief called Nelson Johnson ‘“one of the most militant Negroes in Greensboro for the past two or three years,’” and labeled Claude Barnes ‘“an active militant who has attended some Black Panther meetings.’”

Chafe dismissed the notion that Johnson and Barnes were key figures in a Black Panther conspiracy.

‘“The evidence of a black conspiracy to foment violent revolution may have as its source a man distrusted by black protesters and suspected of being an FBI informer paid to provoke blacks to engage in illegal activity,’” he wrote.

What was real was something both more mundane and more meaningful, Johnson said.

‘“I think the summation of it all is it’s an entirely prevarication to justify the surveillance based on the work I was doing in Greensboro with the Greensboro Association of Poor People,’” he said. ‘“We were organizing around housing issues with Triple A [a real estate company]. We had a rent strike, a successful one. We had six neighborhood organizations made up and run by poor people that challenged welfare polices and got relief. We challenged the redevelopment policy that dislocated residents from East Market Street and the Bennett area. They were told they could come back, but they got pushed into public housing. Probably the incident that has the highest profile was the work we were doing around democracy at Dudley High School where Claude Barnes was elected president.’”

Chafe echoed Johnson’s view in Civilities and Civil Rights.

‘“By organizing poor people, public-housing tenants, cafeteria workers, and high school students to reject the definition of their proper ‘place’ handed down by white authorities,’” he wrote, ‘“Nelson Johnson and his associates were undercutting the very foundations of power.’”

Johnson suggested that if the FBI used agent provocateurs, it didn’t greatly compromise the trust of activists in his circle. He spoke highly of both Brame and Brown.

‘“Walter was a student out of NC Central University,’” Johnson said. ‘“He came over and provided good leadership for the Greensboro Association of Poor People. Eric Brown was a dear friend and may have been persuaded to be a part of the Panther party, but that’s another thing than being under the influence of an agent provocateur.’”

In 2005, Barnes testified that Johnson made a lasting and positive impression on him.

‘“Some of us are not afraid,’” he said. ‘“Some of us have not repented. In fact, I may be a political science professor, but I’ve still got the same ideas I’ve always had since I first met Nelson Johnson.’”

After the Dudley/A&T insurrection, Greensboro returned to normalcy, but agents continued to diligently pursue any leads on the potential for violent black revolution ‘—’ sometimes to absurd lengths.

A July 2 FBI communiqué mentions an order made by an Atlanta businessman for thousands of black T-shirts inscribed with the words ‘“I’m black and I’m proud’” and coupled with the likeness of James Brown. The file explains that the company ordering the shirts did not have a credit rating, so the supplier was reluctant to fill the order. The supplier evidently contacted the FBI, and let the agency know that if he did fill the order he planned to subcontract the job to an outfit in Charlotte so the inflammatory words would not upset his employees.

Events in Greensboro had caught the attention of black militants from across the country, and were discussed during UNC-Chapel Hill’s so-called ‘“Counter-orientation Week’” when classes resumed in September.

Bobby Lee, field secretary of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, denounced Panther impersonators. With him was Bill Fesperman, identified as a Young Patriot, a group of poor white revolutionaries. Lee and Fesperman spoke about solidarity between the Panthers, the Young Patriots and the Young Lords, a group of Puerto Rican revolutionaries.

‘“Now we got some n***ers in Charlotte, North Carolina and some n***ers in Greensboro, North Carolina who’s running around here propagating madness, propagating racism, calling themselves Panthers,’” Lee told the audience. ‘“They are out of order, Jack, when they come around talking racism, talking about all honkies are racists.’”

Return of the Panther

Even as militant activity raged and then damped in Greensboro, Larry Little and his group had been making inquiries with the Panther leadership in Oakland about chartering a chapter in Winston-Salem.

Jeffries, the Purdue University professor, recounts,’“ National headquarters said, ‘We’re not going to sanction any new chapters right now. Show us that you’re genuine; show us that you’re working on behalf of black people; continue with your activism.’ The national headquarters suggested that they call their organization the National Committee to Combat Fascism. They said, ‘If we see that you’re doing good work then we’ll send someone from the national office to charter you to become an official chapter of the Black Panther Party.””

By February 1970, the FBI had learned from an informant that the National Committee to Combat Fascism in Winston-Salem was a ‘“recognized BPP- affiliated group.’”

On Feb. 15 the FBI reported that the Winston-Salem Panther group held a ‘“Free Huey Newton’” rally, drawing 300 to 400 people, to honor the Panther founder who had been convicted of killing a white police officer in Oakland. Newton’s conviction was later overturned on appeal.

By April FBI reports indicate that the Winston-Salem Panthers were building impressive discipline and organization.

‘“The group operates a breakfast program at 1210 E. 5th St., five days a week feeding approximately 30 children usually eggs, grits and bacon,’” one report stated. ‘“After feeding the children the Panthers eat their breakfast, have a training session and thereafter go out to sell The Black Panther newspaper.’”

‘“I would argue that the Winston-Salem chapter was probably the most effective Black Panther chapter in the Southern region,’” Jeffries said. ‘“The chapter impacted a number of people. It did things like sickle cell anemia testing, and tuberculosis testing. They had a free ambulance service, something that not many of the other chapters had.’”

The Winston-Salem Black Panthers would continue for several more years, but eventually succumb due to a combination of activist fatigue, government repression and internal tension caused by the efforts of the national leadership to pull members away from local chapters to support Chairman Bobby Seale’s 1973 run for mayor of Oakland, Jeffries said.

Jeffries believes the Panthers deserve to be viewed in a more flattering light than history and popular culture have cast them. ‘“To most lay people and scholars alike, they were hatemongering, gun-toting thugs,’” he said. ‘“What gets let out of the conversation is the free breakfast programs, the free busing to prisons. What gets lost is the political education programs. What gets lost is that in a couple of these cities the Black Panther Party started their own elementary schools. It was the Black Panther Party that first brought to the attention of the American public that police officers were required to give people notice of their rights.’”

Whether one takes the view that the Panthers helped people stand up for their rights or helped them flout the law, one incident shows that they certainly won some battles in Winston-Salem.

An FBI report dated March 13, 1970 provides an account of efforts on March 3 by Forsyth County Sheriff’s deputies to carry out three evictions.

‘“A Negro woman [name withheld] was sick in bed so they did not evict this family, but told them to find another place to live as they would have to come back in a few days to evict them.’”

At another house at Locust and 16th streets deputies ‘“found there was a drunk elderly blind man in the kitchen’…. The Negro female identified as [name withheld] came into this house, swearing and yelling. [Text unreadable] told to leave or she would be arrested for cursing and abusing an officer. She said, ‘You go to hell, you don’t have enough authority to arrest me because we all stick together over here.’ She then ran out and went down Locust Street yelling, ‘Let’s all stick together.””

The deputies reported that they didn’t see any Panthers in the area. Later, they received a call from the sheriff’s office telling them to halt the evictions because the rent had been paid. The Winston-Salem Journal later reported that an anonymous donor had forwarded the money through an organization called the Experiment in Self-Reliance.

The FBI report also noted that ‘“in connection with an eviction proceeding for nonpayment of rent Deputies had moved a woman’s belongings into the street and these were returned by brothers to the house with armed guards posted after which the law enforcement officers withdrew from the scene.’”

The Black Panthers’ eviction action prompted a letter to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover from an alarmed Winston-Salem resident on March 8. The person, whose name is blacked out in the files, wrote: ‘“I’m frightened and distressed at the terrible inroads that the communists, black and white, have made in our country today.’”

The writer went on to mention the eviction incident and the fact that the Panthers had posted armed guards outside the woman’s house.

‘“An anonymous woman paid her back rent so there was no confrontation between the police and the Black Panthers,’” he wrote. ‘“My question is, who controls our city, the police or the Black Panthers?’… Why is it 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 moved Hoover to personally respond that he could ‘“understand the concern which prompted you to write.’”

‘“With respect to your comments,’” he replied five days later, ‘“the FBI conducts a considerable amount of investigation regarding the activities of those individuals and organizations which seek to undermine our basic freedoms and threaten the internal security of our country.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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