During her jaw-dropping Super Bowl halftime performance in 2016, Beyoncé didn’t just promote her then-new track, “Formation,” rife with references to her roots in Alabama and Louisiana. She also paid homage to the Black Panthers, from her military-style jacket to the accompanying phalanx of black beret-wearing women with Afros.
In evoking the Panthers – and, to no one’s surprise, rankling conservatives – Beyoncé illustrated that the group’s hold on the culture at large was as potent as ever, even half a century after Black Power politics became a force to be reckoned with.
In 2021, that grip shows no signs of weakening.
Shaka King’s moving new film, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” paints a compelling biographical portrait of Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who in 1969 created the first Rainbow Coalition. Chicago police killed Hampton in a predawn raid later that year.
But the film offers a twist on the biopic genre, chronicling the chairman’s tenure largely through the eyes of William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), whom the FBI dragooned into obtaining intel that resulted in Hampton’s death.
(“Judas and the Black Messiah” is being released by Warner Bros., which is a unit of CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia.)
To examine the Panthers’ enduring legacy, I spoke with Jane Rhodes, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of the 2007 book, “Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon.” We discussed why the group still resonates with Americans, how the dynamic of crushing Black dissent continues to play out and what misconceptions about the Panthers people have.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
From fashion to cinema to politics, the Black Panthers still loom large in the public imagination. Could you sketch out why that is?
A key reason why the Panthers survive in the public imaginary 50 years after they were very active has a lot to do with their work in their time, in the 1960s and ’70s. They wanted to make themselves visible. They wanted to resonate. They wanted to send a message.
They conveyed their message through different cultural practices – everything from their dress to their speech and rhetoric to their artwork to the chants they created for their demonstrations to the performances they used whenever they were conducting rallies. They just had an extraordinary range of cultural politics that most other organizations didn’t have.
The Panthers resonated so much in the middle of the 20th century that they became – both rightly and wrongly – a sort of stand-in for Black nationalism and Black activism. And this association stuck. Even as we moved into the ’80s and ‘90s and activism took different forms, everybody still looked back to the Panthers. In early hip-hop, in film, in poetry, in literature – whenever people wanted to evoke the feeling that the Panthers generated, they used the group’s cultural imaginary.
All that is why I think that they have so much staying power. In literally every decade and every generation, the Panthers have had some kind of meaning, even though that meaning has changed over time. The Panthers had a knack for understanding and anticipating mass culture. They also had a political platform that resonated with all kinds of people, regardless of their political predilections.
Shaka King, the director of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” said something during a virtual summit that struck me: He hopes that the film presents an opportunity for audiences to “explore the US’s past and present of crushing voices of dissent.”
Immediately, I thought of how last year law enforcement violently cleared peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square so that then-President Donald Trump could pose for a photo op, and how in 2017 the FBI made up the now-abandoned classification of “Black Identity Extremism” to describe the Black Lives Matter movement. What are your thoughts on how the Panthers fit into a much bigger history of state-backed suppression of voices of dissent, specifically Black dissent?
It’s absolutely the case that the Panthers fit into that history. The Panthers weren’t the first Black activists to be suppressed by the state – by the US government and law enforcement – and they won’t be the last. But they do fit into a history of efforts to control Black voices and to contain Black resistance. These efforts were on display during slavery and Reconstruction, during the early 20th century and during the civil rights movement.
The Panthers were a target precisely because they were so effective in their strategy of making themselves visible. There were other Black radical organizations operating during the same time that had a very different tactic. They stayed underground and kept to themselves. They also were policed and surveilled by the state, but not to the degree that the Panthers were.
Whenever I tell my students about how J. Edgar Hoover labeled the Panthers the “greatest threat” to national security, I highlight how absurd that was but how that was a strategy by the state to rationalize silencing the Panthers and dismantling what was perceived to be the threat.
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And this is American history. The tactics of suppression have everything to do with a deep national anxiety about Black people’s dissent, whether we’re talking about slave insurrections or the Panthers or Black Lives Matter. There’s a deep thread that runs through the American fabric that fears that Black people are going to rise up en masse and seek retribution for the wrongs done to Black people over the centuries. That fear is built into the American psychology.
I think that it goes without saying that we see a stark distinction now. White people can bear arms and express threatening commentary and storm the sites of power, but they’re not seen as a threat in the same way that a group of Black people doing that would be seen as a threat. I don’t think that it’s farfetched to say that some of the White supremacist groups today are picking up the tactics of groups like the Panthers. But the big distinction is that they know that they’re protected by their Whiteness in a manner that Black activists are not.
Do you see any parallels between the Black Power movement and contemporary racial justice activism?
Black Power activism in the ’60s was made up of a multiplicity of ideologies and tactics. There were Marxists. There were cultural nationalists. There were all different kinds of folks who were unified in the goal of Black liberation. But they took very different routes in that fight. I think that’s the same today.
Another similarity between the Panthers and many of the liberation movements today is the focus on policing by the state. What we saw come out of the Trayvon Martin case and Ferguson and all the uprisings was a focus on how the state disproportionately harasses and brutalizes and incarcerates Black people. That was a key theme for the Panthers, too – getting control over and protesting against policing in Black communities.
The other similarity is the importance of service to the community. Like the Panthers, many of the organizations under the umbrella of the Movement for Black Lives focus on serving local and aggrieved communities and on building alliances among various groups.
The thing that made Hampton and the Panthers and other groups seem so threatening was the fact that they weren’t only protesting and resisting the power of the state. They were attempting to build alliances across race and class. They were attempting to say that poor White people and communities of color and queer folks and the elderly all have common grievances and should band together and find ways to fight a common struggle.
That attitude is certainly a fundamental feature of Black Lives Matter. The movement is about protesting police violence committed against Black people. But it’s also very much about standing in solidarity with other communities that are suffering injustice.
There’s a scene in “Judas and the Black Messiah” that feels like the thesis of the movie. The mother of a slain Panther says to Daniel Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton: “They try to paint my Jake as some cold-blooded killer. He did that. He did that. But that ain’t all he did. Tell ‘em about my Jake, chairman. Please. It don’t seem fair that that’s his legacy.”
She’s talking about her son, but the idea of reclaiming a legacy could apply to the Panthers more generally. Do you think that in the decades since the group’s formation, we, as a society, have granted the Panthers more nuance and rigor?
I think that we’re beginning to. There’s an enormous amount of scholarship that’s emerged that I think is very committed to looking at nuances and distinctions. There are many studies that, for example, compare different Panther groups in different communities at different times because there were vastly different projects, depending on where you were in the US. Quite frankly, in academia, we see a real emphasis on trying to get away from a kind of homogeneity of ideas about the Panthers.
I’m not sure if that’s occurred yet in popular culture. Maybe the new film will take us there. I think that the Panthers are still seen as an image without a lot of differentiation. Correcting that image takes educating people. If you’re a novelist or a director or a musician, you have to do close study to develop a project that gets at the nuances.
One thing I talk about in my book is that even in the ’60s and ‘70s, there was this wild popularization of the Panthers in the media, but they tended to flatten the Panthers, not open them up. The Panthers were all the same because they fit the needs and tropes that people wanted to fit the Panthers into.
The Panthers weren’t always heroic. They weren’t always charismatic. They were human, and they had failures. But it’s important to see the whole picture.
What are some of the mistakes that people tend to make in conversations about the Panthers? And why is it important to get this history right?
There are so many distortions. The classic one, which resonated during the ’60s, is that the Panthers advocated violence and were violent. I teach a course on the Black freedom struggle, and whenever I ask my students to do a word association about the Panthers, they immediately say: Well, the Panthers advocated violence.
The Panthers didn’t advocate violence any more than a range of other activist groups – not only Black activist groups but also other kinds of social justice movements.
What the Panthers did was borrow the rhetoric of radical movements around the world. They used the language of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. They used the language of Che Guevara. They used the language of Frantz Fanon. They used the language of Malcolm X.
All those movements and political figures argued that there could be no compromises to freedom and liberation.
Again, you see parallels with the current moment. The Panthers, because they carried guns initially and argued for self-defense, were labeled as advocating violence. But today’s White supremacists who march around with guns and other weapons aren’t necessarily seen as advocating violence. They’re seen as standing up for their rights. So it’s very racialized. Whenever Black people carry guns, they’re automatically seen as a threat to society. Whenever White people carry guns, they’re seen as patriots. It’s as blunt as that.
So the image of violence has lasted. And it obscures all the substantive work that the Panthers did in Black communities, and it obscures how their political ideology evolved. Again, they weren’t perfect. But I think that we need to see them clearly, because whenever there’s a mobilization of Black rage, it’s seen as enacting a certain kind of violence.
I want to put in a plug for Black studies, because one thing that strikes me is how little even extremely well-educated people know about the history we’re talking about. I think that a lot of that is because colleges and universities often marginalize Black studies. Whenever the discipline is seen as a threat or as political or as not intellectually grounded, our understanding of Black life loses nuance. And so people need to do it all: They need to read. They need to take classes. They need to go to films. They need to listen. They need to inform themselves in any way they possibly can.