It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then.
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Quick: what do you think of when you hear the words White Panther Party?
I’ll guess you’ll imagine the following:
- Pasty-face militiamen camping out in Michigan’s woods
- Chronically aggrieved grown men and their sons fondling AR-15s
- Their campground festooned with Confederate flags and Make America Great Again banners
- Pickup trucks with ridiculously oversized tires
- Camo cargo pants galore
I know I saw all those things in my mind when I came across the three words last night. Then again, the words evoked a distant memory. Now where in the hell had I heard about the White Panther Party before?
Ah, yes! Now I remember.
Truth is the White Panther Party was a loose association of far-left radicals inspired by Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party back in 1969. Newton was one of the founders of the Black Panthers. In an interview he’d been asked what white people could do to support him and his cause. He responded that they could start a White Panther Party.
So, a bunch of folks in Michigan, specifically around Ann Arbor — then a national locus of radical liberalism — took the cue and ran with it, if I may be allowed to mix metaphors.
Odd, isn’t it, that Michigan some 50 years ago was pretty much the center of the left world. The likes of Tom Hayden and Alan Haber wrote the Port Huron Statement in the state and went on to form the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) there back in the early 1960s. The irony is Michigan is now known as a haven, a headquarters even, for far right radicals. The guys pictured above are members of a Michigan militia. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands just like them, training in camps around the sate.
Anyway, the White Panther Party spread from Ann Arbor to other archetypical leftist haunts like Portland, Oregon and San Francisco and even inspired a United Kingdom branch. The Party espoused an olio of aims, to wit (all sic):
WHITE PANTHER PARTY 10-POINT PROGRAM
- We want freedom. We want power for all people to determine our own destinies.
- We want justice. We want an immediate and total end to all cultural and political repression of the people by the vicious pig power structure and their mad dog lacks the police, the courts and military. We want the end of all police and military violence against the people all over thew world right now!
- We want a free world economy based on the free exchange of energy and materials and the end of money.
- We want free access to all information media and to all technology for all the people.
- We want a free educational system, utilizing the best procedures and machinery our modern technology can produce that will teach each man, woman and child on earth exactly what each needs to know to survive and grow into his or her full human potential.
- We want to free all structures from corporate rule and turn the buildings over to the people at once!
- We want free time and space for all humans-dissolve all unnatural boundaries!
- We want the freedom of all prisoners held in federal, state, county or city jails and prisons since the so-called legal system in Amerika makes it impossible for any man to obtain a fair and impartial trial by jury of his peers.
- We want the freedom of all people who are held against their will in the conscripted armies of the oppressors throughout the world.
- We want free land, free food, free shelter, free clothing, free music, free medical care, free education, free media, EVERYTHINBG FREE FOR EVERYBODY!
Rather ambitious, I’d say. And, to be honest, as naive as ambitious. At risk of insulting the authors, I imagine a small gathering of earnest, intense, sophomore philosophy majors writing this manifesto in the middle of the night in a dorm room, a healthy percentage of them peaking on Orange Sunshine. Then again, said authors may well have considered my portrait a rousing compliment.
The WPP actually accomplished a few things. Teaming up with the nascent Rainbow Coalition and other civil rights organizations, the WPP participated in food distribution programs for the needy and organized free concerts in the park in several cities. Oddly, in 1983 the WPP took umbrage when then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein called for a ban on handguns within the San Francisco city limits. The WPP staged a petition drive demanding a recall election. They were successful inasmuch as they garnered enough signatures to make it happen but Feinstein was able to stay in office with more than 80 percent of the vote.
Funny, isn’t it, how we’ve aligned and re-aligned ourselves around guns through the decades. In 1967, the Black Panthers themselves demonstrated on the steps of the California statehouse armed with .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45 pistols, all proudly displayed. “The time has come,” they said, “for black people to arm themselves.”
California whites were apoplectic, including then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. The state legislature quickly wrote a strict gun control law banning the open-carry of firearms and forbidding the carry, open or concealed, of firearms in or near the statehouse. It was one of the very strictest gun control laws in the country. And you’ll never guess who endorsed the law — yep, the National Rifle Association.
Of course, this turnabouts like these are nothing new in American politics. For instance, the Democratic Party up until 1968 was home to the most virulent of southern segregationists. That’s when Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign poached the likes of white supremacist senators Strom Thurmond and Richard Russell and the rank and file that saw eye-to-eye with them from the Dems. That Southern Strategy led directly to today’s political alignments.
Hell, this very week many right-wing Republicans are screaming to high heaven about jack-booted FBI agents raiding the 45th president’s home in southern Florida, looking for potential criminal evidence. Quite the about face from the days when Republicans thrived thanks to their “law and order” messaging.
And don’t forget, the Republican Party arose from the abolitionist movement and produced its first president, Abraham Lincoln. You know what he did regarding slavery. Now it’s the preferred party of white supremacists. Go figure.
Times change, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and politics makes strange bedfellows. Pick whatever stale adage you’d like. The Democrats in, say, the year 2050 may be calling for a repeal of the 1st Amendment even as the Republicans are becoming LGBTQI+ champions.
Hey, in 1956 the Republican Party platform called for Social Security to be extended to cover millions more people, expressed support for labor unions, advocated for equal pay regardless of gender, proposed a five-year program to build more public schools around the nation and, mirabile dictu, urged the passage of an equal rights amendment.
See how far any Republican candidate would get with those talking points in 2022.