What You Need to Know about the Black Panther Party’s History of Electoral Activism on Inauguration Day (and Beyond)

Curated by the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project

Thousands of people have organized to meet the first days of  Donald Trump’s presidency with acts of resistance, recommitment to organizing and affirmations of love, community and justice. The Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project has turned to the history of the Black Panther Party, one of the leading Black Power organizations, for insights to inform, challenge and inspire activists in this political moment. While some might assume that the Black Panther Party and electoral politics mix together like oil and water in actuality the Oakland Panthers ran for local political offices and worked with Third parties campaigns  as well as the Democratic party as early as 1968. Black women, in particular, played an important role in voter registration, mobilization and get out the vote actions. IPHP turned to two veterans of the Panthers’ Oakland election campaigns and asked them to reflect on electoral politics, Black women’s roles and the meaning of Trump’s presidency.

Steve McCutchen

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Pictured are (left to right) Steve McCutchen’s granddaughter, Gabrielle Supplee; his daughter, Kali Supplee; Steve McCutchen, in the center; his son-in-law, Brian Supplee; and his son, Alprentice McCutchen. Photo courtesy of Steve McCutchen.

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States exposes some of the critical issues concerning class, race and gender divisions. It was a campaign geared toward the middle class and vested economic and political interests in the country and served as a platform to stoke the fears and implicit and explicit negative attitudes of people concerning minorities and minority rights and interests. The failure of communities to recognize and oppose Donald Trump as a potential threat to civil and human rights, through their ballots (or failure to cast their ballots) indicates that there are chauvinist, racist, denigrating attitudes still embedded throughout society as well as individuals, groups and institutions that fail to come to grips with the simple idea that people need not need. This election, for all intents and purposes, was a step backwards along the American social scale, and now the poor, disenfranchised, and those at the thresholds of survival throughout  this country must do all they can to circumvent the possible erosion, negation or withering away of generations of struggle.

Women of the BPP were instrumental and vital in all areas of our campaign work, particularly during the 1973 mayoral campaign with Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown, and the 1977 mayoral campaign of Lionel Wilson, a non Panther candidate. Phyllis Jackson coordinated the voter registration campaign of the Party. She orchestrated the process that enabled Party members to become voter registrars and mapped out the areas in the communities to target potential voters. That effort alone empowered more people to participate in that election and eventually forced incumbent Mayor John Reading into a runoff election. Joan Kelly coordinated the work that involved the different council districts during the 1973 election. Section offices were established with a designated coordinator and assistant coordinator that corresponded to each council district. She maintained daily contact with offices, tracked the survey data that was brought in daily, and monitored the voter responses and fieldwork being done in each section. Panther women were involved in door-to-door precinct work, get out the vote activities, and voter education. Activities also included telephone trees, leaflet distribution and fund raising events.

During the period of the BPP and with today’s political organizing, many of the women, particularly women of color, focused on the grassroots organizing and outreach, so often glossed over in major campaigns. Women of the BPP then and now, at the grassroots level reach across gender, age and social lines to deliver the information and engage voters and would be voters in consciousness raising by being accessible and visible. With the women of the BPP, they were visible everyday, making house visits and disseminating election materials. Today’s most effective women in political organizing are matching that with social media communications as well as their physical presence in targeted areas.

Bio: Steve McCutchen, also known as Lil’ Masai, was a member of the Baltimore Chapter of the BPP from 1968 until 1972, when he was relocated to Oakland and remained a member of the BPP until 1979. As a BPP member in Oakland, he taught math and physical education at the Oakland Community School (OCS) from 1973 until 1979, and taught and directed the Oakland Community Learning Center’s (OCLC) Martial Arts program from 1974 until 1979. After resigning from the BPP, he eventually resumed teaching for the Oakland Unified School District, serving as a math intervention teacher at the elementary school level and as a history and ethnic studies teacher at the high school level. Currently, McCutchen is retired and involved with on-going scholarly work about the BPP and its legacy.

Emory Douglas

Donald Trump has undressed the language of a racist political system with his continued responses to the issues of poverty, racial oppression, xenophobia, gender equality and so on. Now he and his supporters can no longer hide behind their veiled, distorted illusion of justice and equality because all the nasty things Trump continues to express exposes the essence of his bigoted views and nature.  I would describe Donald Trump as a Fascist/American Gangster.

In comparison to what I remember from the 1980’s, there is an extremist parallel between president Reagan, the grade c actor and him as the president actor/mild-mannered manipulator who read his script well and signed off on every extreme legislative bill put on his desk. Don’t forget the Iran Contra affair. Trump appears to me to be a different type of extreme person who is very arrogant and belligerent and also high-risk because he controls so many imperialist financial assets in the US and other parts of the world.

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In the late 60’s and in the 70’s my contributions to the Panther electoral campaigns process was primarily contributing to the production of materials needed for the community outreach program about the campaigns thereafter I would take part in campaign events, and sometimes did precinct work. It was a requirement as a member of the Black Panther Party.

We felt the candidates we were supporting were the best candidates and would be genuinely concerned with the communities concerns. However by no means did the Party support for certain candidate(s) mean that the Party thought that electoral politics would make some great overall changes. We did support certain candidate(s) on a grassroots campaign level as a way to possible changes when we felt the candidates elected would genuinely have the communities interest at heart.

Panther women were highly instrumental in the campaign process. They did most of the important administrative work. They set up the precinct campaigning mapping process that informed both the Black Panther Party comrades and community campaign workers about the neighborhoods where they would do work. Elaine Brown, who ran for Oakland city council, did a lot of political outreach canvassing along with Bobby Seale. They went out on a daily basis in the morning campaigning on public transportation, meeting with union workers, churches groups and community members. Wherever there was a need to be, they were there. They also worked on organizing the precinct coverage as well.

One of the Panthers first campaigns was with the Peace and Freedom Party. The Black Panther Party ran Huey Newton for Congressman and Eldridge Cleaver for President. The reason for using that political platform was so Eldridge Cleaver would be able to talk about the Free Huey campaign as a political prisoner to a broad and diverse audience. I’m an absolute supporter of progressive third party political options because corporate America owns the two party system. Both the Democratic Party and Republican Party are corrupt to the core and neither is going to ever change for the better. Plus both are staunch supporters of the apartheid government of Israel. Based on that alone I could never consider either.

Bio: Emory Douglas was born May 24th, 1943 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has been a resident of the San Francisco California Bay Area since 1951. Douglas attended City College of San Francisco where he majored in commercial art. He was politically involved as Revolutionary Artist and then Minister of Culture for the Black Panther party, from February,1967 until the Early 1980’s. Douglas’s art and design concepts were always seen on the front and back pages of the Black Panther Newspaper, reflecting the politics of the Black Panther Party and the concerns of the community. Douglas’s art has been exhibited all around the world including Australia, England, New Zealand, Portugal, Cuba and the Netherlands.

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The Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project  is committed to centering women, gender and sexuality in the history of the Black Panther Party and the larger context of the Black Power Movement. It is made up of Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest,  a Houston, Texas-based historian, independent scholar, filmmaker and former director of the BPP Research Project at Stanford University. Tracye A. Matthews, a historian, curator and documentary filmmaker and the associate director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago. Mary Phillips, an assistant professor in the Africana Studies Department at Lehman College, City University of New York who is currently completing a political history on Ericka Huggins, and Robyn C. Spencer,  an associate history professor at Lehman College and author of The Revolution has Come: Black Power, Gender and the Black Panther Party in Oakland.

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