On Feb. 2, the Berkeley Public Library’s Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch was host to the Black Panther Party Archive Exhibit. The room was lined with a number of archival materials: Newspapers from various publications (including The Daily Californian), photos and books stood on tables that ran the length of the walls and at the center, a diverse collection of people gathered in anticipation of former Black Panther Party member Bill Jennings, also known as Billy X, to begin his presentation.
The lecture began with an introduction to Jennings’ own background with the Panthers, as he regaled the audience with recollections of growing up in a time that saw the Black Panther Party movement as extremely formative. Jennings told the story of how the Black Panther Party’s visibility correlated directly with his progression toward higher education, reminiscing on his discovery of the hallmark work of Malcolm X’s autobiography, and its position on the list of the BPP’s must-reads. The interwoven narrative of Jennings’ own personal history with the history of the party as a whole provided an intimate look at a group whose altruism and dimensionality are often overshadowed by racist and simplistic narratives.
Jennings made a point to discuss the party from a range of lenses, deconstructing the one-note militant violence associated with the party today. He spoke about the fact that there was a process to joining the party — one that required the use of the teachings found in the party’s booklist. Throughout the presentation, Jennings provided a colorful and thorough excavation of not only the party’s social and political influence, but also a contextualizing look at Oakland and the Bay Area. Black Panther Party co-founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale found their origins in the original location of Merritt College, what Jennings described as a “mecca for activism,” and which sat only a few blocks from where the event took place. Having been the site of the first Black studies course, an accomplishment born from the direct influence of the Black Panther Party, it illustrated just how deeply entrenched the Bay Area’s history is with the party. In fact, it was these monumental steps toward representation in academia that led to UC Berkeley’s own creation of an ethnic studies department.
The BPP’s reputation has had impact beyond academia. Community enrichment was a priority for the Black Panthers and this is evident in programs such as the Free Breakfast for School Children program, which was the first of its kind. In fact, the party’s programs grew so popular that Jennings cited this grassroots activism as the site for federal programs of the same nature that exist now.
Jennings also spoke on voting incentives the party provided through the offering of provisions such as food, as well as information on sickle cell anemia, a condition that effects the Black community at a disproportionate rate. The Black Panther Party also facilitated the opening of a number of free clinics which offered testing for the disease. Some of these clinics, having been adopted by the community, are still in operation today.
Beyond activist contributions, Jennings also spoke about the culture of the Black Panther Party, which was so precedent-setting that it became an identifying marker of the pop culture of the 1960s at large. The sleek style associated with the party was marked by leather jackets, proudly worn naturals and classic shades. These markers of party members are relevant in fashion — it is a testament to why styling one’s hair into an Afro can feel like a beautiful act of defiance, even today.
At one point in the presentation, Jennings stopped to correct himself, saying that the Black Panther Party didn’t exist any longer, having ceased operations in 1982. But in that room was an audience from the community showing up to grow more cognizant of the rich history and connection that the Bay Area has to the Panthers. In that room, walls were lined with collections of memorabilia from the party, and there at the center, Jennings stood addressing us all. Jennings, who is a part of a network of folks affiliated with the party who continue to tell these stories, who have committed to educating communities, to working against lingering stigma surrounding the party. Through this spirit, it is evident that the Black Panther Party’s legacy is alive and well.
Jennings offered an account of the party that was educational, tragic and empowering — the presentation is an example of the resilience of a community still fighting for rights to this day. For more information on the Black Panther Party, you can visit their official website: itsabouttimebpp.com.