Saturday, April 08, 2006

The original Black Panthers

The violent African-American nationalists of the 1960s and 1970s who called themselves the Black Panthers got their name from a group of non-violent Christian activists in Lowndes County, Alabama.

The county had seen a successful, if hard-won, voter registration drive in 1965-66, but many of the newly registered voters quickly became disenchanted with the established political parties in the county and decided to start their own party to promote civil rights, on the order of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Thus was born the Lowndes County Freedom Organization.

At the time, Alabama law required all registered political parties to have a logo that even illiterate voters could recognize. (There were many more illiterate Alabamians then.) The organizers of the new party decided to adopt the mascot of Clark College, a historically black Methodist school in Atlanta: a black panther.

The idea caught on, and other civil-rights groups nationwide began calling themselves Black Panthers, too. In Oakland, California, in 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale decided to call their anti-capitalist militant group the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, to distinguish it from those Black Panthers who weren't armed. (See the Black Panther Party logo here.)

The Oakland group soon became so famous -- or, many would say, infamous -- that the less visible, peaceful Black Panthers, including Alabama's, were forgotten. Besides Brown and Seale, the ranks of the national Black Panthers included still controversial figures such as H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis, but who can recite the names of Lowndes County's original Black Panthers? As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch recently told Don Noble in The Tuscaloosa News, "It was a party of sharecroppers, mostly women in print dresses, risking their lives to vote for the first time." (For much more info, see Branch's excellent new book, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68.)

The Lowndes County Freedom Organization is long gone, but the athletic teams at Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University, are still the Panthers. One wonders whether any alumns ever think of Lowndes County -- or, for that matter, of Oakland -- while singing:

Hail, Roaring Panthers
We sing our praise to thee.
You are our heroes
And will forever be.
Honor and glory
You bring to old CC.
All hail to thee, O Mighty Panthers
On to victory!


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