Graying Black Panthers Fight Would-Be Heirs

New York Times/October 8, 2002
By Dean E. Murphy

Oakland, California -- His hair has gone gray and he suffered a heart attack last year. He worries about ordinary things like his daughter's college tuition. At 65, he takes to the stairs with a slight hesitation. But Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panther Party and an icon of the 1960's, has a voice that still thunders with the might of a gun-wielding revolutionary. Mostly these days, though, Mr. Seale's rolling speeches are not about the Black Panther Party's famous themes of inner-city poverty, the oppression of black people or the brutal methods of law enforcement. Instead, he is furious about a small band of radical blacks who call themselves the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and who have been denounced by a variety of groups as extremist, racist and anti-Semitic.

Mr. Seale is among a small group of former Black Panthers including David Hilliard, Elaine Brown and Huey P. Newton's widow, Fredrika, who fear their contentious yet storied legacy in African-American history is being sullied by a new and harsher brand of Pantherism.

Together, they have hired a trademark lawyer and have begun a fund-raising campaign to put the New Black Panther Party out of business and to preserve the Oakland-born Black Panthers, who formally disbanded in the 1970's, as the only real thing.

"They have hijacked our name and are hijacking our history," said Mr. Seale, who described the old Panthers' problems with the new group as both legal and moral. "We have to claim it back."

The New Black Panthers are not a new rival. The group, in one form or another, has been around since 1989. For many years, Mr. Seale and the others considered the new Panthers more nuisance than threat, even meeting with some members during Black Panther Party reunions.

But since last year, under its new leader, Malik Z. Shabazz, the New Black Panther Party has taken its message of militant black nationalism into the mainstream media as never before.

According to one count, Mr. Shabazz was interviewed on the Fox News Channel 10 times in 12 months on subjects from reparations for slavery to the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks. Perhaps most startling to his detractors, Mr. Shabazz appeared last fall on a three-hour C-SPAN broadcast of a National Press Club news conference, during which he characterized both the United States and Israel as terrorist states.

"We have to make it plain that the Zionists control America, lock, stock and barrel," he told reporters. "The European Jews have America under control."

Mr. Hilliard said the old Black Panther leadership decided that enough was enough.

"We said, `We have to close them down,' " said Mr. Hilliard, who was the party's chief of staff in the 1960's. "They have almost done irreparable damage to our credibility with their racist and anti-Semitic behavior."

But the New Black Panther Party has refused to submit quietly.

Mr. Shabazz and others dismiss the old guard as jealous and failed revolutionaries unwilling to acknowledge an emerging generation of younger black radicals. They count former Panthers among their membership and insist the Oakland group is not representative of the larger Black Panther following. They say no one has the right to dictate how the Panther identity is claimed, particularly since the panther image was originally used by a black political party in Lowndes County, Ala.

"Our position is the Panther exclusively belongs to no one," Mr. Shabazz said. "It belongs to the people."

The standoff has each sides making accusations and insinuations about the other. Mr. Shabazz said Mr. Seale and the other party elders had only themselves to blame, suggesting they had turned their backs on their militant traditions.

"No one could be more extreme than the Black Panther Party from Oakland, which openly advocated, with arms, the overthrow of the United States government, and which fought gun battles with the police," he said. "For them to call us extreme is extremely outrageous."

Mr. Seale acknowledged his group's violent past, spitting out the statistics in rapid fire: 28 members dead; 68 wounded; 14 police officers dead; 8 members still in prison. But another set of statistics comes to his lips just as freely: 200,000 hot breakfasts daily for schoolchildren; 1 million tests for sickle-cell anemia; 200,000 weekly newspapers; 5,000 followers in 48 chapters.

"This guy is a distorter and he doesn't understand our history," he said of Mr. Shabazz. "A lot of positive, progressive things are attached to that history. These so-called New Black Panthers have been around for 12 years and they have done nothing to improve the community."

In August, the Black Panther Party's lawyer, Andrew M. Gold, wrote to Mr. Shabazz demanding that his group drop all references to the Black Panthers, including use of the name, images of the black panther in its logo and photographs of Mr. Seale and Mr. Newton on its Web site.

Mr. Seale and Mr. Hilliard have taken particular offense to a doctored version of one of the most recognized images of the protest era. The image, a photograph taken in February 1967, featured Mr. Newton toting a shotgun and Mr. Seale carrying a .45-caliber pistol over his shoulder. In the version altered by the New Black Panthers, Mr. Seale was replaced by Khallid Abdul Muhammad, for several years the vitriolic leader of the New Black Panthers. He died last year.

"This hits them at a very emotional level because they are the founders," said Fredrika Newton, president of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, which is run out of Mr. Hilliard's house near downtown Oakland. Mr. Gold said the foundation had trademarked the Black Panther Party name and the logo.

Mr. Hilliard said the altered photograph cuts to the heart of their complaint.

"This new generation that sees this stuff doesn't know that we are opposed to these guys," he said. "I get letters all the time threatening me and Mrs. Newton because they confuse us with them. We weren't racists. We were in coalition with people of all colors. People died and went to prison and are in exile for this history."

Mr. Shabazz, a 35-year-old Washington lawyer who has led the New Black Panther Party since Mr. Muhammad's death, said in an interview that his organization was not racist or anti-Semitic. He also suggested that Mr. Seale, Mr. Hilliard and the others were being manipulated by people opposed to the black power movement.

"It seems they want war and we will have to go to war," Mr. Shabazz said of the Oakland group. "But I think they are really working with the Zionists. I think their lawyer is one. I think they are being used by outside forces to keep alive the counterintelligence program of the F.B.I. and the U.S. government, creating divisions and factions among black organizations."

The New Black Panther Party traces its roots to a small organization in Dallas founded in 1989 by Aaron Michaels, a radio talk show producer. There are now 30 chapters in the United States and Europe, Mr. Shabazz said. He declined to release membership statistics, saying only that active supporters numbered "in the low thousands."

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the organization as an active hate group along with the Ku Klux Klan and various neo-Nazi movements. A report on the New Black Panther Party by the center includes statements by its leaders using phrases like "white devils" and "bloodsucking Jews." Several years ago, the Anti-Defamation League also identified the party as a hate group; a spokeswoman described its members as armed and dangerous.

But it is only in recent years that the group has received widespread attention by taking on high-profile, racially charged causes. In one of the first instances, Mr. Muhammad, once a top lieutenant to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, led a group of armed members to Jasper, Tex., in 1998. The members said they intended to protect blacks from whites after the truck-dragging murder of a black man, James Byrd Jr., by three white men.

When Bill Clinton opened his office in Harlem last year, Mr. Shabazz and other members showed up wearing paramilitary uniforms and demanded that the former president leave Harlem to blacks. The group also had repeated run-ins with former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani over its Million Youth March.

Most recently, after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, at the National Press Club event, he characterized the United States and Israel as the world's "No. 1 and No. 2 terrorists."

"Zionism is racism," he was quoted as saying. "Zionism is terrorism. Zionism is colonialism. Zionism is imperialism, and support for Zionism is the root of why so many were killed on Sept. 11."

Mr. Shabazz said his new Panthers were unfazed by criticism over his remarks or threats of a lawsuit.

"I am a former National Bar Association Young Lawyer of the Year," he said. "We have a battery of lawyers. We firmly believe the legal facts are on our side."

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