Black Against Empire
California Lawyer
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Black Against Empire

The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party

August 2014

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party
by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr.
University of California Press, 560 pages, $27.95, paperback

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Nearly 50 years after its inception in Oakland in 1966, the Black Panther era remains a provocative and enigmatic piece of American history. Although the height of its political and cultural influence was relatively brief, the Panthers' impact was intense, controversial, and global. Often contrasted with the nonviolent civil rights movement led by Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King Jr., and others, the Panthers garnered both condemnation and support for their endorsement of "revolutionary" self-defense (including violence) against police brutality, government surveillance, and political repression. For California lawyers who recall those years, powerful memories linger: the Panthers' armed visit in 1967 to the Capitol Building in Sacramento to protest a bill (AB 1591) that prohibited carrying loaded firearms in public; the killings of Jonathan Jackson and Judge Harold Haley in 1970 in Marin County; the ensuing 1972 trial of Angela Davis in San Jose; the 1975 trial of the San Quentin Six (inmates whose failed escape attempt resulted in six deaths, including Panther leader George Jackson, brother of Jonathan); and the Oakland free breakfast program and community schools. Although existing literature about the Black Panthers and its leaders is extensive, it has lacked a comprehensive, definitive history to illuminate the complexities of its growth and demise.

In their first-rate book, sociologist Joshua Bloom and UC Berkeley history professor Waldo E. Martin Jr. go far in meeting this need in several ways. First, Black Against Empire is unprecedented in its scope and depth as a chronicle of the party and its key leaders. Beginning with the life stories of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and ending with the unraveling of the organization in the late 1970s, the book is specific and factual. The authors spent more than a decade in archival research, including previously unavailable records of the pervasive FBI surveillance of the Panthers spearheaded by J. Edgar Hoover. Bloom and Martin convey the chronological development and geographical spread of the Panthers in a propulsive, nuanced, accessible style. The book is indeed comprehensive and voluminous; it is a fine resource for future scholars and the lay reader.

In addition, the authors largely succeed in providing a balanced analysis and evaluation of the Panthers' strengths and weaknesses (both organizationally and in individual leadership). They neither glamorize nor vilify their subject, and in their avoidance of heated discourse and clichÃ(C) they shed a great deal of light on some of the most painful episodes of the Panther era. In the book's thoughtfully crafted introduction, Bloom and Martin explain some of their challenges as coauthors in terms of approach, methodology, and writing. This effort greatly enhances the reader's appreciation of their task in subsequent chapters: that is, to convey two scholars' assessments of the spirit of the times that gave rise to the Panthers as a social movement, while critically examining the reasons why the party eventually dissolved.

Finally, and perhaps of most enduring significance, Black Against Empire offers a definitive evaluation of a unique movement in the nation's (and especially California's) political, cultural, and legal history. Current debates about government surveillance, gun ownership, police conduct, community empowerment, and racial-economic inequality all have roots in the story of the Black Panther Party.

Bloom and Martin explain convincingly not only why the party rose and fell, but also why the cauldron of issues raised by the Panthers continues to simmer today.

Margaret M. Russell is a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law.

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