Civil Rights Heroines and Martyrs: The Revolutionaries

         From For Harriet

        Say It Loud: 9 Black Women in the Black Power Movement Everyone Should Know

Friday, May 22, 2015

by Melody Blossom

This semester, I was part of a course that focused on radical women in social movements. We studied the Black Power Movement, the Black Panther Party (BPP), and the involvement of women during this time.

The Black Panther Party, founded in the 1960s, was notorious for being a revolutionary organization that fought for the liberation of Blacks in the United States. With the brilliant activists, community organizers, writers, and thinkers who graced its membership, the BPP is primarily regarded as a male-dominated space and projected itself as such. However, like in most revolutionary movements, there were many women who served important and influential roles. These women made sure they occupied leadership positions, and implemented programs that were vital to the success of the Party and the overall uplifting of the Black community. They also called out sexism within the BPP, never afraid to make their presence known as women.

However, their faces seldom grace historical narratives about the Black Panther Party. This list is meant to shine some light on a handful of these women. Although women initially occupied few formal governance positions within the BPP, they played strategic roles as male leadership of the party increasingly faced political repression, incarceration, or exile. With information from the article, “Engendering the Black Freedom Struggle Revolutionary Black Womanhood and the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area, California” and other sources, we look at their contributions below.

Kathleen Cleaver, like many female revolutionaries, had been exposed to many international experiences during her involvement with the Black Panthers. She joined the foreign service and was able to travel to countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, India, and the Philippines. She later returned to the United States and attended Barnard College, where she became more involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She then left college to work full-time for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Within a year in the SNCC, she met Eldridge Cleaver, whom she married. They would both join the Black Panther Party, with Kathleen becoming the BPP’s National Communications Secretary and helping to organize the campaign to get party leader Huey P. Newton released from prison. She was also the first woman to be appointed to the Black Panther’s Central Committee. Kathleen ended up fleeing to Mexico and later Algeria with her husband. Upon returning to the U.S., she later divorced her husband and currently teaches at Yale University.

Angela Davis is one of the most well-known female members of the Black Panther Party, having joined for a short period after she noticed the party’s sexist practices. Objecting to the misogyny and chauvinism she experienced in the organization, Angela Davis then pursued her activism as a member of the Che-Lumumba Club, an all-black faction of the Communist Party in Los Angeles. In 1969 the California Board of Regents and Governor Reagan fired her from the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles because of her Communist affiliation—despite the fact that Davis was regarded as an unbiased and popular teacher among her students. After strong protests from her pupils and fellow faculty members, she was reinstated by court order. Nonetheless, the Board did not renew her contract in 1970, claiming her unfinished dissertation and her radical political activism with the Soledad Brothers as their reasons. Davis continues to be regarded as a preeminent activist, writer, professor, and leader for civil rights and prison reform.

Many have heard the story of legendary Assata Shakur through Common’s “A Song for Assata.” However, many don’t know that revolutionary Shakur was an influential part of the Black Panther Party. In Assata: An Autobiography, she gives a clear depiction of her life and the circumstances that led to her seeking political asylum in Cuba. Upon being convicted for the shooting death of a New Jersey state trooper, Shakur was imprisoned, despite being acquitted of all charges. In 1979, she escaped and fled to Cuba. During her time with the Black Panther Party, she contributed significantly to development of the Free Breakfast Program, spreading awareness through writing about the party to potential allies, and working to empower members of the Black community overall. She played an instrumental part in both the New York and Oakland chapters of BPP. Shakur was also well-known for being one of the few unmarried women Black Panthers. She continues to live in Cuba today.

Throughout the last four decades, Elaine Brown has been committed to and organized significant efforts toward effecting progressive change in the United States. During her time in the Black Panther Party, she helped organize the Free Breakfast Program in Los Angeles and edited the Party’s newspapers. She also ran for public office in Oakland in 1973 and 1975, representing the BPP. She would eventually gain a leadership role within the Party as chairwoman from 1974 – 1977. Brown continues her activism work today, with much of her recent efforts focusing on radical reform of the criminal justice system. Brown has written and edited numerous articles and books, as well as lectured widely on university and college campuses about prison reform and the injustices within the prison system. She is regarded by many as a reliable expert on the criminal justice system. In 2007, she announced her bid as a 2008 Presidential Election candidate for the Green Party. She continues to write, speak, and lead programs about prison reform today.


Barbara Easley-Cox was not initially a member of the Black Panther Party when she began working with them as a student at San Francisco State University. She became more closely affiliated with the Party due to her husband, Donald Cox, and contributed to the advancement of Party goals during the 1960s. She and her husband were leaders of the Oakland Chapter of the Black Panther Party and also worked in the New York and Philadelphia chapters. She also helped spread the reach of the Black Panther Party internationally—first moving to Algiers and then to Korea. Upon her return to the U.S., she moved to Philadelphia, focused on community development work, and later retired as a social worker. She continues to live in Philadelphia, where she consults and volunteers in various community-based capacities.

Charlotte Hill O’Neal joined the Black Panther Party at age 18 and was a member of the BPP’s chapter in Kansas City. Along with her husband, Pete O’Neal, she played a key role in the organization. Eventually, she and her husband fled the United States, after being accused of transporting guns across state lines. She moved to Tanzania and helped her husband launch the United Africa Alliance Community Center, an arts-based community development organization. O’Neal continues her community empowerment work as a poet, musician, and visual artist.

Tarika Matilaba is known as as the first woman who demanded to have space for black women in the Black Panther Party. Growing up in Oakland, she experienced a number of injustices in the city: its post World War II decline, high rates of unemployment, lack of affordable housing, and other socioeconomic issues that impacted Black people. It is said that at age 16, Matilaba walked into the Black Panther office in Oakland and demanded that she not only be made a member of the party, but she demanded that she be given a gun as well. Prior to joining the Black Panthers, she held several leadership roles, including being a student leader at Oakland Technical High School. During her time at Oakland Tech, she was one of the first students to petition for a black history club and proudly wore her natural hair in an afro. As a Black Panther, she took on many roles, including writing editorials and drawing over 40 political cartoons. Many male Black Panther members respected her, due to her strong presence.

Judy Hart was a student leader at Oakland City College and later San Francisco State University, where she met Black Panther Party leaders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. She was initially drawn to the Black Panthers because of their fight to end police brutality. With her leadership experience through San Francisco State’s Black Student Union, she felt she could contribute something worthwhile to her community by joining the Black Panther Party and working for them full-time. She became editor-in-chief of the BPP International Newsletter and also worked on the Black Panther Free Breakfast Program. In 1969, she became the youngest faculty member of the nation’s first black studies program at San Francisco State University. Since then, she has written a number of plays and novels. She has also taught writing on college campuses in New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Popular musician and performer Chaka Khan was also a member of the Black Panther Party. Born in 1953 as Yvette Marie Stevens, she joined the Chicago chapter of the Party in 1969 and worked with the Free Breakfast Program. During this time, she took on a new name, Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi, and dropped out of high school. In the 1970s, she began to focus on her music career, joining the R&B and funk band, Rufus. The band was later renamed Rufus and Chaka, before Chaka Khan began her career as a successful solo artist in the 1980s.

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7 thoughts on “Civil Rights Heroines and Martyrs: The Revolutionaries

  1. Great post! It seems you really been putting in work on these recent posts. You’ve been doing some great research. It’s good these sistas are getting some shine. Many of them don’t get the credit for the work they put in. Many are unsung heroes. I only have two exceptions on the list. I used to really respect Elaine Brown. I even bought her book. So I know the history of the Panthers pretty well. I also know she dated Huey. But Geronimo Pratt wrote an article exposing her as an agent. It was years ago before he died. And Angela is probably the most well known from the group. I think in the beginning she was really about the struggle. But she eventually sold out. She is now a lesbian with a…….brace yourself….a white girlfriend! Is that insane?? I was shocked when I first found out. I miss the old Angela. *sigh*
    But I do admire the other sistas. My favorite is Assata. She is true warrior! She had to flee to Cuba because the US govt was after her. That’s how you can tell who really fight the power versus the fake agents. I salute Assata! And all the real freedom fighters who want justice and liberation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I have been working hard lately and have many more interesting and wonderful post on the way. It’s sooo disappointing when you learn that some of these “revolutionaries” were well fake. I would like to get my hands on Elaine’s book and what Geronimo Pratt (seem like I heard of him before. I’m gonna google him first chance I get) has to say about it all. As for Angela, now that you mentioned it I did read a long while back that she was a lesbian and dating white, but didn’t trust that particular source, so that was in question for me for a while. Where did you get that information from? Btw, unfortunately, there’s a looong list of “freedom fighters” and “revolutionaries” who have dated/married white. *sigh* That’s also sooo disappointing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Angela came out a long time ago. You know that gay publication Out magazine? She admitted it in that magazine back in 1997 or 98. It’s hard to admit many sold out. I think many had good intentions at the start. But over time the struggle wears them down. Also sometimes they are threatened by the powerful racists and told to tone it down. Eldridge Cleaver admitted in his book he lusted after white women. And he’s supposed to be a leader in the Black Panthers?? What a letdown! That’s why I call out these sellout black men and women. I know some people may get upset at me sometimes. But we must separate the real from the fake. Right OW13? Otherwise how do we move forward ? It might make our people uncomfortable at times but that’s part of the process. We have to touch on these issues.
        I got a notification from WordPress last week about my blog stats. It said I was getting 200 hourly views on my blog! I was really surprised by that. But that shows that the subject matter I cover is reaching people. And that should be our goal. To open the minds of our people.
        Anyway I appreciate your blog. I think you’re doing a great job. I think you’re on the right track. If you ever need any advice or ideas, you know how to reach me. Peace queen.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. @ KP

    Seem like I read that a while back about Angela’s coming out, but not in Out Magazine.As for Edlridge Cleaver, I’ve read his disparaging views on Black Women. I have much love and respect for Kathleen, but we can clearly see where his lust led him when it came to marriage; light, bright, and damn near white, lol! I agree and was thinking the same thing, that Angela and the rest of ’em get disappointed and disillusioned with the struggle (or threatened), give up and sell out probably because they see that our people don’t seem to be “getting it”. I admit that it’s hard staying in the struggle at times when it seems like our efforts to help liberate our people are not making a difference and sometimes I feel like giving up (Sometimes other bloggers I communicate with express this sentiment), but not selling out though, lol. I think about what you have said many times about we have to keep moving forward.

    I agree that we must call out the fakes among us so that we know who we can and cannot trust and that seems impossible sometimes because some of these Negroes put on a goood act. This also f**king sucks! Didn’t Marcus Garvey’s right hand man betray him? I just thought about what Gus T. Renegade said about we have to become “comfortable with being uncomfortable” when speaking out about racism and intraracism.

    Congrats! I’m happy to hear about your blog stats, best news I heard all day, lol! That’s encouragement (for me also) that your/our efforts are not in vain. I appreciate your blog as well, I have learned a lot from you for the past few years and always look forward to what your thoughts and opinions are.

    As always, Thanks for your support!

    Like

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