Angola Warden Says Black Panther Party Advocates Violence and Racism but Is It True?
As Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore sits in solitary confinement, The Medill Justice Project goes to Panther territory, seeking answers
By Blake Bakkila and Annabel Edwards
The Medill Justice Project
Updated: Sept. 2, 2014
SACRAMENTO, Calif.—On May 2, 1967, armed members of the Black Panther Party marched into the California Statehouse to protest pending gun-control legislation. Today, the sights and sounds of that demonstration—and the party’s legacy—are preserved in fading newspapers stuffed in a gray filing cabinet, bought at a yard sale for $20, in a former Panther’s home less than three miles from that Statehouse.
The home of Billy X. Jennings, the party’s de facto historian, stores a museum’s worth of relics from the party’s heyday, including stacks of photos taken by Panthers, an antique rifle owned by a former member and the old Panther newspapers that tell the story of a significant but largely misunderstood era of the civil rights movement. Today, there is confusion in some quarters about even the most basic facts about the Panthers, including whether they still exist.
The 65-year-old Jennings cleared that up over a recent lunch in Oakland, California, where the party began nearly a half century ago. “There is no Black Panthers today,” he said. “There’s no office, there’s no national telephone number…People have moved on.”
Not completely. While Jennings offers guided tours of Panther sites, other former Panthers keep the memory alive in unlikely ways, selling hot sauce in supermarkets like Whole Foods Market and hawking home décor and T-shirts that trade on the iconic image of the scowling black cat.
The Black Panther Party hasn’t lost its hold on one Louisiana prisoner who has been locked in solitary confinement for 35 years—about as long as the party has been inactive.
Inmate Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore said he is still a Black Panther since he became a member of the Angola chapter at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest U.S. prison, in the late 1970s. And his warden, Burl Cain, said in an interview with The Medill Justice Project in July that Whitmore has been held in solitary confinement, known as closed cell restriction, largely due to his longstanding affiliation with the Black Panther Party. In that interview, just outside the prison gates, the warden said the party “advocates violence and racism.”
Since then, the warden has not responded to several requests for comment. So The Medill Justice Project went to northern California, home of the Black Panthers, to verify the warden’s statements: Do the Black Panthers advocate violence? Do they espouse racism?
The answer: The Black Panthers advocate for nothing because, as an organization, it has been dead for more than three decades. Former Black Panthers and historians maintain the party, when it did exist decades ago, sought to defend its members against violence and racism.
Jennings, who said he joined the party in 1968 and remains one of its most active former members, laughed in derision after hearing Cain said he was worried about the safety of the general prison population with the possible addition of a Black Panther like Whitmore, who is 59 years old.
“What kind of crimes can Panthers do?” Jennings asked. “Most Panthers got to be 65 years old like me. What could they be doing?” He added, “What are they afraid of? Seriously, what are they afraid of?”
On a recent morning, 75-year-old former Panther Kiilu Nyasha nodded in disbelief when told of the warden’s comments—that the Panthers are dangerous and racist. “That’s messed up,” she said, sitting in a motor-powered wheelchair in her public housing apartment in San Francisco.
Nyasha, who suffers from severe muscle deterioration that allows her to stand only for minutes at a time, added with a heavy dose of sarcasm, “I’m real dangerous now, please note how dangerous I am,” as she barely had the power to lift her withered hands off the armrests of her wheelchair and struggled to kick the air and throw imaginary punches.
While Cain remains mum on the issue, in a 2008 deposition in a case involving another former Black Panther, the warden was asked what he thought “Black Pantherism” means.
“I have no idea,” Cain responded, later underscoring the point by saying of the Panthers, “I don’t know anything about them.” But he added, “Maybe they are nice, good people” and “I don’t have a problem with them,” according to his deposition.
When Cain was in his mid 20s, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California, in 1966, creating a 10-point platform that stated the party wanted freedom and power for the black community and would protect themselves “by whatever means necessary,” echoing Malcolm X’s words. Members of the party wielded guns and monitored the police as a way to protect the black community against brutality.
By 1969, more than 40 chapters of the Black Panther Party operated across the country. That year, the Oakland chapter of the party started its Free Breakfast for Children Program, which eventually spread to other chapters across the nation and became one of the party’s signature efforts to help people in local communities.
In 1972, party leaders altered the wording of the 10-point program, expanding its reach beyond “our Black Community,” as noted in its original text, to advocate for “our Black and oppressed communities.”
“The Black Panther Party was a group of people who believed in the human race,” Jennings said. “We were all about building up the community. It doesn’t matter who you are … black, white, brown, Asian.”
Joshua Bloom who recently co-authored the authoritative “Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party,” said in an interview that the party made allies of various oppressed groups. In 1969, for instance, the Chicago chapter of the party formed the “Rainbow Coalition,” a union with numerous social activists, including the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican nationalist group, and the Young Patriots, made up of young, working-class whites.
“There are lots of critiques to make of the Black Panther Party but calling them racist … is nonsensical,” said Bloom who wrote the book with University of California, Berkeley history professor Waldo E. Martin Jr. “A lot of their strength was seeing black freedom struggle as part of the struggle of all people for liberation, across race.”
David Levinson said he witnessed this universal struggle firsthand as one of the only white musicians in the Black Panther’s band, The Lumpen. A saxophonist in the winter of 1970, Levinson said the band was performing at a university in Minnesota where they were invited by a black student union. A terrible snow storm hit the night of the show, making the band’s departure dangerous, Levinson said. Representatives of the black student union invited the Panthers to stay the evening, but they turned away the two white members of the band.
“The Panthers absolutely refused to stay and chose instead to drive back in the snow many miles to where we were staying rather than play into that kind of a racial attitude,” said Levinson, now a 62-year-old ER doctor, in a recent interview for this article in Oakland, California.
While Bloom, the historian, said the Panthers did not advocate unprovoked violence, he noted, “If you were going to come at them with guns, they were going to come back in what they saw as an act of self-defense.”
Bloom’s book cites various examples of alleged Panther gun-related violence and murder, which have been noted in various other historical accounts. In July 1970, the FBI went so far as to call the Black Panthers the “most dangerous and violence-prone of all extremist groups.”
Kristen Hoerl, an associate professor of critical communication and media studies at Butler University in Indianapolis, who has written about perceptions of the Black Panthers, said the party wanted to “display an image of black militant strength.” She added, “So there were moments in which Panthers did engage in violent activity, but that didn’t mean that every Panther chapter endorsed that activity.”
After 1972, the Black Panther Party rapidly declined, weakened by FBI investigations, police attacks and internal divisions among party leaders, according to former Panthers and historians. By 1980, membership shrank to 27 people, down from its peak in 1969 when the party boasted several thousand members. By the early 1980s, the party was gone.
More than a decade later, in 1993, former founding member David Hilliard and Fredrika Newton, Newton’s widow, started the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, named after the party’s co-founder. In an interview, Hilliard said the foundation educates future generations about the Black Panthers. Meanwhile, the foundation sells in northern California markets a hot sauce called “Burn Baby Burn,” a reference to the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. At least two Whole Foods Markets in northern California confirmed they sell the hot sauce but a spokesperson for the supermarket chain declined to comment. The foundation also sells “All Power to the People” coffee, clothes and home décor, such as a jewelry case and throw pillow, featuring Black Panther Party images. The foundation said profits from the sales fund anti-violence and educational programs for youth.
“The foundation is not a movement,” Hilliard said. “We’re all in our 70s and 80s. We’re not much about anything now.”
Jennings, for his part, promotes the Black Panther Party’s history by maintaining the website “It’s About Time,” which features photos and records, and by taking tourists to notable sites from the party’s past in Oakland, California, like It’s All Good Bakery, the spot of what was once the party’s first office. (View some of the Panther relics in Jennings’ home in the accompanying photo essay,“Panther Tracks.”)
Apart from Jennings, the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party holds conferences about three times a year, according to Steve Long, a former Panther and the association’s communications director.
The New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense has since emerged but the Black Panther Party doesn’t identify with it. In 2002, a trademark lawyer hired by Hilliard and Seale, the former party co-founder, sent a cease and desist letter to the New Black Panther Party that cited a 1997 injunction from a Texas judge banning the use of the Black Panther Party’s name and logo. They also issued a press release denouncing any connection between the Black Panther Party and the New Black Panther Party.
“The racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other forms of inflammatory hate-mongering that the New Black Panther Party espouses is abhorrent to the surviving members of the Black Panther Party,” the press release stated.
The New Black Panther Party did not respond to several requests for comments for this article.
When The Medill Justice Project interviewed Warden Cain in July, he said he would consider removing Whitmore from solitary confinement if he determines the prisoner is no longer a threat, given the prisoner’s Panther association. Because Cain has not responded to requests for comment since then, it is unclear the extent to which other factors may be involved as the warden considers removing Whitmore from solitary confinement. In addition to Whitmore’s longstanding affiliation with the Black Panthers, he tried to escape from Angola in 1986, which also made him a security risk.
Michelle Rutherford, the New Orleans attorney representing Whitmore in his federal suit challenging his continued imprisonment in solitary confinement, said, “We’ve reviewed Zulu’s disciplinary history with the prison and there’s nothing in this record showing that he was violent or any kind of threat to security.”
Whitmore, who maintains he didn’t commit the murder for which he was convicted, said his affiliation with the Panthers provides him with “a sense of pride and a sense of community” in prison and credits other Panthers at Angola, including Robert King, for teaching him how to read and write.
“He really couldn’t read a comic book,” said 72-year-old King, whose conviction was overturned in 2001, in an interview for this story. “I don’t even think he knew his ABCs straight through at the time.”
Now, Whitmore often writes his own legal briefs while other prisoners come to him for help, calling him “Red Cross.” In a letter from prison, Whitmore wrote, “I think being a member of the ‘then’ BPP for self defense made me a better human being.”
Whitmore said while the Angola chapter of the party no longer exists, he still considers himself a Black Panther. “You don’t experience something so powerful as the BPP and it just vanish from your heart, its like being in love,” he wrote. “The feeling will always be there.”
Nyasha, although fiercely proud of the Black Panther legacy and her role in the party, said it’s time for Whitmore to move on.
“There is no Black Panther Party today,” said Nyasha, the host of a San Francisco television show called “Freedom Is A Constant Struggle.” “Why identify with a party that doesn’t exist if it’s going to keep you locked up? It doesn’t make sense. My advice to him would be forget that. Let that be in your past.”
Edward Ferguson, Alexa Santos and Ellen Schmitz of The Medill Justice Project contributed to this report.