Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Panther is a Black Cat by Reginald Major: Book Review

History 360 (African-American History)
November 24, 1998

A Panther is a Black Cat by Reginald Major is a thoughtful look at the Black Panther Party, written when the party was still alive. Major describes the book himself as "A study in depth of the Black Panther Party--its origins, its goals, its struggle for survival" (tittle page). Major provides interesting insight, and a unique perspective in the Black Panther Party.

The Booklist describes Major's book as "definitely pro-panther" and I agree. After having read several books that are decidedly anti-Panther, Major's outlook is a refreshing one. Although Major does have some organizational issues (his train of thought can be hard to follow), I enjoyed his book overall. There are three aspects of Major's book that I would like to examine: the issue of the Black Panthers and Communism, Black Panthers and their white allies, and Black Panthers and their conflicts with police.

One topic that Major handles poorly is the issue of the Black Panthers and communism. Major leaves the reader confused as to whether the Black Panthers are pro-communist or anti-communist. Giving contradictory quotes in his book, Major does not adequately reconcile them.

The first encounter the reader has with communism appears on pages 89-92, in which Major cites a speech made by Eldridge Cleaver in which he attacked white radicals and communists in particular. Cleaver "pointed out that the Communist Party supports Russia against the People's Republic of China, and was, therefore, a traitor to the best interests of non-white peoples throughout the world" (90). Cleaver is quoted as saying.

"From now on the Socialists Workers Party and the Communist Party should not be allowed to function in the black community at all....The Literature on Malcolm X which the bloodsucking Socialist Workers Party has grown fat on should not be allowed in the black community. Their newspapers and so forth should be banned from black communities. The black funkies who are members of these groups should also be barred from the back community" (90).

Later on Major quotes the Black Panthers as saying:

"Those black revolutionaries who understand the value of a coalition between white radicals and black radicals have had the ground cut out from under their feet by the nefarious activities of these white radicals.... They are nothing but hitch-hikers on the black revolution....The Socialist Workers Party went so far as to kill off the Black Panther Newspaper by refusing to allow the paper to be sent out of its various branches around the country. The Communist Party is nothing but a white NAACP" (92).

With such quotes, Major shows the apparent disdain the Panthers hold for Communism, however the next time the philosophy is mentioned, it is in regard to Stokely Carmichael's break with the Panthers in 1969, which he does by attacking Marxist-Leninism.

"I believe that people who talk about 'Marxist-Leninism' so hard, in such a hard line, are the people who are groping for an answer. They seize on 'Marxist-Leninism" as if it were some sort of a religion. Marx becomes in essence, Jesus Christ. Now anything you cannot answer you take over and bow to Marx. That, in my view, is absolutely absurd" (102).

Carmichael is portrayed as leaving the Panthers because he does not agree with Marxist-Leninism, which of course implies that the Panthers are Marxist-Leninists.

Major also quotes Huey Newton as saying:

"In the spirit of solidarity with the people of the world and the Third World or the developing world in particular, the Black Panther Party would like to extend the friendship and spirit of revolutionary solidarity. We will give a declaration to the Paris peace talks where we will commit an undisclosed number of troops to the National Liberation Front in order to show solidarity--in order to help the Vietnamese people fight the cowardly American aggressors" (103)."

This is hardly an anticommunist quote. Later on Cleaver is quoted on page 145 at a conference in North Korea. After scolding the Soviet Union for not doing enough to help Korea and Vietnam, Cleaver justified his right to speak "as a member of the world Communist movement which has made many sacrifices for the Soviet Union" (compare with his speech above). Later on Major mentions the Panther's adoption of Marxist-Leninist program, and the use of the Little Red Books, but only in passing (127). The Little Red Books also appear scattered in other parts of the book, as both Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver carry them around with them often, and will consult them at times to prove their opinion. Major however never explains the significance of the Little Red Book, or tells his reader if the Panthers were dependent on Mao's doctrine, or if it was just something they threw into an already established worldview.

Major also mentions Cleaver's insistence on having a portrait of Stalin in his apartment, despite criticism from other blacks. "Who the hell is that whitey on the wall?" (259). When his wife, Kathleen Cleaver, asks why Stalin's picture is in the room and not Mao's, Eldridge replies, "I just keep it there to remind you, Baby, that Mao is a Stalinist" (256). This is not consistent with the man who is earlier quoted as saying that the communist party betrayed black people by supporting the Soviet Union over China. (One could, I suppose, reconcile these two positions by recalling that China's feud with the Soviet Union did not being until after Kruschev denounced Stalin, but Major never brings this point up in his book. Perhaps at the time he was writing (1971) it was obvious to his contemporaries. However, even if this was the case, the other discrepancies are still unaccounted for.)

In the end, Major does not explain the contradiction between the denunciation of communism by the Panthers and their embrace of it. Much of this may be because Major himself is definitely pro Black Panther, but appears to be against Communism. Much of this can be inferred by the type of quotes Major includes in his book. The anti-Communist quotes above are examples (Cleaver's and Carmichael's) as well as other quotes. Major includes a quote by Carleton Goodlett, one of the Panther's critics, which probably summarizes his views as well.

"Two hundred and fifty years of slavery and one hundred and seven years of crypto-freedom, out of the black experience, contain enough suffering, pathos, agony and sacrifice for liberty to have developed a rhetoric which would have communicated with and united black America, rather than by its very nature as a Marxist ideology separated us....Three and a half years of going it alone, setting yourself apart from ninety-nine plus percent of American blacks, has led to your present precarious position. No revolution can succeed without the indivisible support of a total people" (159).

Major's own quotes though are probably more of an insight into his mindset.

"The adoption of Marxist-Leninist political cant, along with the taking over of the Red Book, and their unspecific call for socialism, requires more development before it is actually applicable to the everyday black political situation. The Marxist approach to social stratification and class must be modified locally before it can be applied with any validity to black people. Recognizing that black people are in danger of genocide and that blacks are politically and economically powerless, the concept of class struggle--particularly that portion that condemns the bourgeoisie--needs drastic modification in order to satisfactorily describe the social class within the black community" (155-156).

Major goes on, describing how the Panthers condemning of the black middle class ended up dividing the black people when the Panthers should have been intent on uniting them. Major chides the Panthers for failing to make a connection between the black middle class and white middle class. In particular, much of the blame is placed on Cleaver who Major says, "showed up on the scene fresh from prison, made a few connections, and then proceeded to judge the revolutionary aptness of the approaches of people who had been around the area for some time" (156). Major cannon resist taking one more poke at the Panther's ideology, which he does on page 164, saying "in the last analysis, [the Panthers] must return to the ghetto only to have shoved down their ideological throats the fact that Marx and Lenin where white."

I believe that because Major was pro-Panther, but disagreed with their Marxist ideologies, he allowed that to creep into his writing. He is eager to include anti-communist quotes from Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panther Party because they match his ideology, but fails to reconcile these to the rest of the book, leaving his reader confused about what the actual position of the Panthers was.

Another area where Major confuses the reader is on the issue of the Panther's relationships with whites. Here once again he includes various quotes in his book at various places that end up contradicting each other when they are compared.

Major mentions that early on the Panthers were hassled by white radicals, discovering that "the most vocal anticapitalist tended to believe that giving or raising money placed him in a policy-making position" (93). The Panthers decided in all their coalitions with whites to follow the rules of Stokely Carmichael:

"First, that the coalition be for a limited and clearly defined purpose; second, that the coalition last only so long as it is mutually beneficial; and third, that it be a union of equals, thus guaranteeing that one member of the coalition does not dominate the other" (93).

Major talks about the Black Panther's coalition with the Peace and Freedom Party, an organization that he describes as a "loose coalition of white radicals representing every spectrum of leftist thought" (92). However, despite the coalition, the Black Panther Party did not look favorable on blacks in the Peace and Freedom Party. Eldridge Cleaver is quoted as saying:

"The Black Panther Party looks upon the black members of the Peace and Freedom party as misguided political freaks who are trying to maintain their dual status in an incorrect manner; they have one foot in the mother country, and the other foot in the colony, and their political manhood gets strangled on the borders separating the two nations" (94).

Despite this strict view of the coalition, and Cleaver's disapproving view of blacks who worked too closely with white radicals, Major claims this treaty still frightened a number of blacks away from the Panthers, who saw this as a sign that the party was really run by whites. Particularly interesting is the quote from Sultan Nassar Ahmad Shabazz, head of the Black Guards, a Muslim group.

"Eldridge Cleaver did a good job of selling the Black Panther Party to the Communists and Socialists....The Black Panthers are becoming more red each day....When the Black Panthers say 'power to the people' they also mean power to the whites" (110).

Despite attacks from other black revolutionaries, the Panthers continued to work with white radicals. However, Major paints the Chicago eight trail as a disaster, and places the blame for it on the white radicals. "When Bobby Seale was indicted behind Yippie activity in Chicago there were a lot of black mouths sounding I-told-you-so's" (111).

Tom Hayden receives much of the blame for this, as Major seems rather to admire the childish antics of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman.

“Judge Julius Hoffman is a Jew, a fact he was constantly reminded of by at least tow of the defendants in the conspiracy trial in which Bobby Seale was one of the original eight defendants….Abbie Hoffman…and Jerry Rubin, two of the defendants, must have shook the judge right down to the roots of his juridical-christian (sic) ethic. They threw gibes at him in English, German, and Yiddish. Hoffman’s a ‘shonder for the goy’ they intoned, an expression which was decorously translated as a “front man for white supremacists”….Hoffman and Rubin could not help but get to the judge as they tore into him from the vantage point of 5000 years of Jewish history and culture” (245-246).

With these words and others Major attaches praise to the tactics of Hoffman and Rubin. Major rises elsewhere to the defense of Jerry Rubin.

"Eldridge Cleaver was chided by officials of the California Peace and Freedom party when he chose Jerry Rubin as his Vice-Presidential (sic) running mate, rather than one of the more doctrinaire leftists available to him. He was patronizingly described as ignorant of the significant trends in white radical politics. As it developed two years later, Rubin and his political orientation were closer to the center of white radical activity than any of the gaggle of respectable leftists made available to Cleaver” (163).

Hayden does not come out so well.

“Reportedly, Hayden’s ideas influenced the conduct of the Chicago trial. He had rejected the Rubin-Hoffman approach that would have turned the trial into a total display of guerrilla theater. Hayden had hope that the court would deal favorably with their case, a fantasy not shared by other defendants” (113).

As much as I admire both Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, I doubt the Panthers would have been more pleased had their approach won out over Hayden’s. The Panthers, with the seriousness in which they took their cause, would probably have been much more frustrated with the anything goes, “Revolution for the Hell of it”, tactics of Rubin and Hoffman.

Major describes a cocktail party as an example of how relationships between white radicals and Panthers deteriorated. Black Panther David Hillard was there, who had already “pointedly questioned [Stew] Albert’s and Hayden’s understanding of Marxist-Leninist principles” (112), and, Major implies, found them to be lacking. When Hayden was asked to speak, Hillard jumped up and asked: “Yeah, goddamnit, get up and explain why you’re out on the streets and Bobby is in jail” (114). Hayden sidestepped the question by attacking the racist nature of America’s courts. Major condemns him.

“The question actually was why Hayden was not in jail. Bobby had been indicted, tried, placed in chains, and was subsequently sentenced to four years in jail for contempt of court as the result of a casual speechmaking excursion into the scene of hippie-involved political mayhem. Hillard’s words implied that if Hayden and his fellow defendants were really the revolutionaries they claimed to be, they would have closed ranks and stood on their conspiratorial constitutional rights when Bobby Seale was denied the right to represent himself, and if necessary to force the court to chain them all. It didn’t happen” (114).

Hillard was unimpressed by Hayden’s answer, and began to question him angrily. Stew Albert, a revolutionary writer who Major also dislikes, tried to smooth things over, but Hillard answered, “Fuck you, Albert, you jive-ass revolutionary. We can do without you and your shitty writing” (115). The conference finally ended with Hillard and the rest of the Panthers storming out.

Major asserts that:

“Hillard--in fact the Panthers generally—were very unhappy about this indictment, as it was a direct result of the Panthers association with white radicals. The indictment was a confirmation for a number of black people of their belief that a black-white radical alliance could only bring trouble to the Panthers” (109).

Major describes the whole affair as the Panthers being deserted by their white allies, and he implies that they learned their lesson and would never trust whites again. However, later in the book, Major writes about the Panther’s preferences for white lawyers. He gives a quote from Bobby Seale about John George, a black lawyer who had represented Seale, Newton, and others.

“I, Bobby Seale, know for a fact, when my without my knowledge, John D. George, who was handling three misdemeanor cases for me, sold me out by waiving a jury trail for me where I would possibly be railroaded off into jail…. He has been one of the advocates and foolish black racists running around talking about we (sic) should have a black lawyer. HUEY P. NEWTON’S (sic) life is in danger and these ignorant, stupid, life sucking, petty minded fools, who call themselves black lawyers, have done nothing but harm the black community” (213).

Kathleen Cleaver also defends white lawyers.

“Black power would never be attained if the burden of achieving it were in the hands of black lawyers….During the non-violent stage of the resistance movement, black lawyers did not rush to defend the jailed students and freedom fighters….Thousands of people were jailed and beaten and denied their rights, but the bulk of the legal work was done by white lawyers, regardless of whether or not they could be paid….The vast bulk of legal service given to the struggle has come from white lawyers dedicated to the establishment of social justice, and the vast bulk of that legal service has gone unpaid….James Forman, Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown of SNCC have all been indebted to the services of white lawyers—without too much complaint from the black lawyers or the black community....However, all of a sudden…an outcry has been raised about the fact that Minister of Defense Huey P. Newton has a white lawyer” (213-214).

Major goes on to lavish praise on the Panther’s own white lawyer, Charles Garry. Although not totally irreconcilable, the high praise given by Kathleen Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and Major himself to whites working for the white cause seems contradictory to the earlier contradiction. Cleaver and Sealer were not quoted by Major regarding the success of the Panther-white radical alliance in the Chicago eight trial, although Major gives the impression that all the Panthers were fed up with the unreliability of whites. Major himself is the most amazing reversal of opinions, going from condemning white radical-black alliances in the Chicago eight trail, to praising them later here. As a result, the reader is not left with a clear impression of where either Major stands or more importantly where the Black Panther Party stands. (Perhaps the Black Panther Party was itself unsure of what to do with this issue, as can be imagined by looking at these different quotes. However, even if this were the case, it still does not get Major off the hook for his own ambivalence.)

A third point of interest is Major’s consistent bias towards the Panthers whenever a Panther-police conflict is reported. After spending the first chapter describing the poor conditions that the blacks in the ghettos live in, the entire second chapter is spent giving example after example of police brutality against black people. In every example, the guilty policeman always ends up being found innocent by his colleagues, or by the courts. Even though I knew Major was writing about conditions almost thirty years ago, I was still left with a hatred of the police by the time I finished his second chapter.

It is well known that the Black Panthers and the police came into conflict more than once. Major consistently lays the blame at the feet of the police. Much of this is very well done, and he uses common sense to destroy the alibis of the police. When the Panther’s entire Illinois office was destroyed by the police, who claimed the Panthers were sniping at them from their offices, Major replies, “Imagine a group with enough sophistication and political know-how to build a nationwide organization in the period of a couple years could not develop a sense of tactic sufficiently refined to avoid shooting at policemen from their own headquarters” (179).

By showing holes in the testimony of police, Major eloquently shows how ridiculous it is to believe the charges that Huey Newton killed a policeman in cold blood, and how much more likely it is that Newton killed the officer in self-defense. Major also writes about the murder of Bobby Hutton and Fred Hampton, again showing how the story of the police did not match the evidence.

However, as I continued reading through the book, I began to doubt some of Major’s bias. Was every policeman then Panthers encountered racist, violent and dishonest? Could the police be at fault in every shoot out with the Panthers? What caused me to think particularly were the cases in which former Black Panthers testified against their comrades. One example is George Sams, Jr., a former Panther who claimed he was ordered to kill Alex Rackley (a member of the Harlem chapter of the Black Panthers) by Bobby Seale. Although Major points out holes in Sams’ testimony (he later changed his story to say he took orders from Stokely Carmichael), one onders what would possess Sams to bring this testimony before his former comrades if it were not true. (Although Major scornfully rejects Sams’ testimony, he never answers this question.)

However, in light of what we now know about the FBI’s systematic attempts to destroy the Panthers, perhaps Major’s claims do not seem all that unlikely. Since we also know that the FBI infiltrated the Panthers with undercover agents, it is quite possible that these renegade Panthers were more than what they seem. Major goes to great lengths to explain in the second chapter of his book both the racist nature of the police force, and the solidarity which police show each other, to the point of protecting a comrade they know is in the wrong. In this respect, perhaps his consistent bias for the Panthers is not all that unbelievable. So, after being at first skeptical, following some consideration I am siding with Major on this one. The Panthers were probably more consistently the victims of police aggression, instead of the originators of the violence.

I wish to emphasize again that despite the critical nature of this review, I found Major’s book enjoyable and his perspectives refreshing, except where noted above. Major treats the Panthers with an open mind, and I find this admirable.


Reginald Major. A Panther is a Black Cat. William Morrow & Company, Inc. New York. 1971

Booklist. Volume 68. September 15, 1971. Page 74.

Professor’s Comments: Was this a history of the Panthers? Did you only find one review?

After re-reading this a couple of times, this is a decent paper. I wished you would have distanced yourself a little more.

Grade: A-

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