1969 — The Black Panther Party's "United Front Against Fascism"  Conference in Oakland

The Black Panthers conceive of a national movement against "fascism" in the United States

 

On July 18, 19 and 20, 1969, a gathering of close to 5,000 people was held in Oakland's Municipal Auditorium, with some events held at DeFremery Park in the same city. The three-day conference was organized by the Black Panther Party.  The Panthers defined fascism as "the power of finance capital," which "manifests itself not only as banks, trusts and monopolies but also as....the avaricious businessman, the demagogic politician and the racist pig cop."  The UFAF conference was an unusual and dramatic moment in the history the Black Panther Party and the white New Left.  The Panthers hoped to create a "national force" with a "common revolutionary ideology and political programs which answers the basic desires and needs of all people in fascist, capitalist, racist America."

Speakers at the conference were numerous and diverse, and the audience was mainly white

Those speaking included members of the Communist Party, USA, the Peace and Freedom Party, the Progressive Labor Party, the Red Guard Party, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference , Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Third World Liberation Front, The Young Lords, the Young Patriots Organization, the Young Socialist Alliance and various groups associated with the women's liberation movement, including the national Welfare Rights Organization.  Other Conference speakers (not shown here) included Jeff Jones of SDS, politician Ron Dellums and lawyers Charles Garry and Willian Kunstler.  

Speeches were given on the first day of the congress.  The second day was devoted to workshops on issues around fascism, gender, workers and students, political prisoners, health, religion, state repression of political dissent and policing.

Debate, disagreement, controversy

 

Speakers shared differing views on a number of important subjects, including the relevance of the concept of U.S. fascism, internal conference problems such as the "male showmanship" of some speakers, the structure of the conference itself and the implications of the Black Panther Party's demand for community control of the police.  Some of the most provocative discourse came out of the women's workshop, where Panther and other women discussed male supremacy as a reflection of capitalism and argued that "there cannot be a successful struggle against Fascism unless there is a broad front and women are drawn into it."  The Panthers physically excluded  the Progressive Labor Party from the conference over ideological differences and disrespectful behavior.  The Students For a Democratic Society (SDS) was also told to leave at one point.

What did the Conference accomplish?

 

The Conference launched a number of chapters of the National Committees to Combat Fascism (NCCF), to organize for community control of police.  It also solidified the Panthers' alliance with Los Siete Defense Committee.  It is unclear, however, to what extent the Conference and the NCCF created a grassroots movement.  

The Black Panthers attempt to change

 

The Panthers reaction to the sobering fact that attendance at UFAF was largely white was to try to find common ground with blacks who identified with the concept of fighting racism and brutality against blacks, but were put off by the Panther's dramatic "revolutionary" rhetoric and espousal of armed resistance.  The Panther leadership purged itself of isolationist, "blacks only" leadership, notably Eldridge Cleaver.  There was some attempt to stop the Panther rhetoric that spoke of "American fascism" by comparing conditions in the U.S. with European experiences with German and Italian Fascism.  Instead, the BPP leadership asserted the need to unearth manifestations of fascism in the lived experiences of Black people in the U.S.

The decline of the Black Panther Party

 

Membership reportedly reached a peak in 1970, with offices in 68 cities and thousands of members, but it began to decline over the following decade, after years of vilification of its leaders and members by U.S. government agencies and the mainstream press.  Public support for the party waned, and the group became isolated.  In-fighting among Party leadership, augmented by the FBI's COINTELPRO operation against the Panthers, led to expulsions and defections that decimated the membership.  Popular support for the Party declined further after reports of the group's alleged criminal activities, including drug dealing and extortion of Oakland merchants.  By 1972 most Panther activity centered on the national headquarters in Oakland, where the party continued to influence local politics.  

 

Despite constant police surveillance, the Chicago chapter remained active and maintained their community programs until 1974. The Seattle chapter persisted longer than the rest, with a breakfast program and medical clinics that continued even after the chapter disbanded in 1977. 

 

The Party continued to dwindle throughout the 1970s, and by 1980 reportedly had just 27 members.

 

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Black Panther members raise their "little red books" of Chairman Mao Tzedung in their section in the stands of the Oakland Municipal Auditorium.

Raymond Masai Hewitt, Black Panther Party Minister of Education, greets the assembled activists on the first day of the UFAF Conference.

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The audience of over 4000 attendees was enthusiastic in its support of the many speakers. Over 80% were white, left-oriented Bay Area activists.

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An enthusiastic Black Panther cheering section was on hand for chants and Panther salutes.

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Elaine Brown, Black Panther activist, singer and songwriter.  She went on to lead the BPP as its Chairperson from 1974 to 1977.  She recorded two albums commissioned by the BPP, including Seize The Time and Until We're Free

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The Panther "cheering section" was a striking and dramatic production that appeared to embody the ideals of black unity, black power and "black is beautiful."  The mostly white audience seemed entranced by them.  

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This member of the audience wore her hair in an "Afro," the popular hairstyle that was seen as asserting "black (and unstraightened hair) is beautiful."

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So many earnest faces, trying to understand the complexities and contradictions in the movement.

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A poster-collage representing the themes of the United Front Against Fascism.

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Bobby Seale, Chairman of the Black Panther Party, addresses the Conference.

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Raymond Masai Hewett, Black Panther Minister of Education, speaks to the Conference crowd.

Bobby Seale

 

He was co-founder off the Black Panther Party For Self-defense, along with With Minister of Defense Huey Newton.  Together they wrote "What We Want," laying out what would eventually be  known as "The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense Ten-Point Platform and Program," a  guide to the Black Panther Party's ideals and methods of operation.  in 1987, he wrote a cookbook called "Barbeque'n with Bobby Seale: Hickory & Mesquite Recipes," the proceeds going to various non-profit organizations.  In 1988, he wrote an autobiography titled "A Lonely Rage."  

Raymond Masai Hewitt

 

Panther Minister of Education from 1967 to 1973, Hewitt was considered by the Panthers to have a strong understanding of political and Marxist theory.  Influenced by Hewitt, the Panther's newspaper, "The Black Panther" began to feature articles on non-black revolutionary movements such as the Viet Cong.  In 1973, critical of Huey Newton's dominance of the BPP's leadership, Hewitt left the Party.  Hewitt remained an activist for the rest of his life. He worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Southern Africa Resource Center, the International Human Rights Coalition of Los Angeles and the Philippine Support Committee.  He died in 1988, at the age of 47.

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Evelyn Harris, Chair of the National Welfare Rights Organization and member of the Women's Panel

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Carol Henry, BPP member and part of the Women's Panel.  Her speech included the quote "there cannot be a successful struggle against Fascism unless there is a broad front and women are drawn into it." 

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Roberta Alexander,  BPP member and part of the Women's Panel.

Roberta Alexander

 

Ms. Alexander was part of the Women' Panel that reported back to the Conference.  A quote from the International Socialist Review says about Alexander: "Women such as Roberta Alexander forced the discussion of sexism within the Party and in particular the inaccessibility of positions of power for women Panthers. The issue of gender equality was widely debated (as it was on the left in general) and it seems that an initial approach to sexual politics based on traditional gender norms had shifted through debate and discussion to the beginnings of a more all-encompassing view. But this process was complicated and held back by an intense pressure—internal and external—for unity at all costs. Ultimately and unfortunately, this meant that the struggles for Black liberation and women’s liberation were framed as competing."

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Four of the non-Panther participants in the Women's Panel.  From left, Penny Nakatsu, Asian American Political Alliance, Carol Thomas of the Southern Christian Education Fund and Marlene Dixon, a controversial, self-styled Marxist theoretician and teacher fired earlier in 1969 from her position as professor of Sociology at U.Chicago.  On the far right is Evelyn Harris, Chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization.

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Archie Brown, feisty ILWU activist and Communist Party member.  In 1938 he was a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which fought against the Franco fascists in Spain.

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Penny Nakatsu, of the Asian-American Political Alliance, has since had a varied career as an attorney in the Bay Area.

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Another Bay Area attorney, Peter Franck.   His career extends from the Free Speech Movement of Mario Savio, to the Vietnam War days, when he worked as an anti-draft attorney, to his private practice specializing in cultural and entertainment law–with a client list that includes such counter-culture icons as anti-war, leftist troubadour, Country Joe MacDonald.

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Herbert Aptheker, Communist Party historian of American slave revolts, Marxist theoretician, Party spokesperson and father of FSM leader and U.C. Santa Cruz Feminist Studies professor Betina Aptheker.

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Robert (Bob) Avakian of the Students For a Democratic Society (SDS).  At the time of the UFAF Conference, Avakian was a leading member of the Revolutionary Youth Movement II faction, and was elected to its National Interim Committee.  Avakian has been the Revolutionary Communist Party's central committee chairman and national leader since 1979. 

David Hilliard,  Chief of Staff of the Black Panther Party.  

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Above, five more conference speakers.

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Dr. Carleton Goodlett, medical doctor, newpaper publisher, and civil rights advocate.  He was President of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1947–49.  During his long career, he published a black community newspaper, successfully protested San Francisco''s policies against hiring blacks for its public transportation system, demanded improvements in public housing, and exposed the exclusion of blacks and Jews from draft boards in San Francisco, among many other accomplishments.

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Roscoe Proctor, civil rights and trade union activist and founder of Youth For Jobs (see the YFJ subtheme).  Roscoe was an authoritative  writer within the Communist Party on the subject of the black working class.

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On the last day of the conference, the Black Panther Party held a drill and inspection in DeFremery Park, mostly in regular garb.

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The Conference generally was a mellow affair, and a spirit of unity was clearly present.

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At Conference's end, the Panther men pitched in at DeFremery Park to stack the rented chairs and ready them for their return.

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Leaving the Oakland Auditorium after the last evening session of the UFAF Conference.