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Activists revive the Black Panthers, at least in name

The new generation of African Americans is too radical for original members, who are suing the group.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 8, 2002


Dressed in his crisp black uniform, gold braids at the wrist to mark his title as national chairman, Malik Zulu Shabazz of the New Black Panther Party jabbed his finger at an old blown-up photo of two lynched black men.

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"You want to talk about terrorism? Come talk to the black people of America, because we have been terrorized by America for the last 400 years!" he bellowed at the audience at the National Press Club last fall. "Sept. 11 was the result of America ... reaping the results of her historical crimes!"

With a rage reminiscent of the rebellious 1960s, Mr. Shabazz and his small group of radical activists have emerged as a controversial presence in America's already-charged racial landscape.

To some, including members of the original Black Panthers - the radical antipoverty group - this new, small organization is an aberration that embodies a strain of hatred akin to Osama bin Laden's. But to others, it represents a legitimate voice of dissent that is a product of the persistent poverty and lack of opportunity in America's most brutalized neighborhoods.

"I believe that one has to listen when groups emerge who are alienating, hostile, and militant - even if I don't agree with them. We have to understand what is driving them to exist," says Ron Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.


In some circles, Shabazz and his New Black Panthers win instant credibility, not for their politics or ideology, but simply because of their name. And that infuriates some original members of the Black Panthers. They say this new group, which they believe espouses antiwhite and anti-Jewish hatred, is exploiting the Panther name and symbolism and tarnishing their legacy. They've already gone to state court in Texas, and now plan to head to federal court to stop the group from using their name.

"They are the personification of everything negative that's been said of us," says David Hilliard, a former Black Panther and executive director of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, dedicated to carrying on the original Panther legacy. "They totally abandoned our survival programs, and the racism that they espouse flies directly in the face of the Black Panthers' multicultural ideology and purpose."

During its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, the original Black Panthers were feared by many for their fiery rhetoric. But they also won deep respect in poor neighborhoods for setting up free breakfast programs, clinics, and ambulance services, even as they were being attacked by the FBI and demonized by the media.

Charles Jones, chair of the department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, says the original Panthers' organization was multiracial, multicultural, and designed to mobilize and empower impoverished communities. Their model has been replicated around the world - by the American Indian movement and the Dalits, or untouchables, in India.

But not by the group calling itself the New Black Panthers, says Mr. Jones. "We don't see this extensive community service at work within the New Black Panther Party," he says. "You see almost a grabbing for headlines rather than the hard, incremental, day-by-day community organizing."