Let One Hundred Panthers Bloom

The Black Panthers and Mao Zedong

“Chairman Mao says that death comes to all of us, but it varies in its significance: to die for the reactionary is lighter than a feather; to die for the revolution is heavier than Mount Tai.” So wrote Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party, in the opening pages of his 1973 memoir, Revolutionary Suicide. Newton wished to be as monumental as Tai, a famously large Chinese mountain, and, he wrote, “I do not expect to live through our revolution.”

Mao was a hero to Newton, who co-founded the Black Panther Party 50 years ago on October 15, 1966, the same year Mao kicked off the Cultural Revolution in China. The controversial radical group, which at its peak reached thousands of members, suffered deaths both revolutionary and reactionary. Some died in shoot-outs with police. Some fell to factionalism and internal killings. Some died in prison. Fourteen Chicago police officers famously killed two young Panthers in a 1969 raid; a grand jury later found that the officers fired 76 bullets to just one return shot.

Mao’s teachings were, alongside other role models like Malcolm X and Che Guevara, a guiding light of Panther philosophy.

Unlike Mao, Newton failed to overthrow his government. But his Panthers did accomplish something: they protected people from police brutality; called for better education, housing, and work opportunities for blacks; and helped spur the federal government to implement a school breakfast for children nationwide, with their Free Breakfast for Children Program. Less admirably, they forced business owners to pay “tribute,” were capricious in their use of violence, and were reportedly involved in prostitution rings. Through it all, Mao’s teachings were, alongside other role models like Malcolm X and Che Guevara, a guiding light of Panther philosophy.

Newton first encountered Mao’s writing as a student at Merritt College (then called Oakland City College) during the early 1960s: “My conversion [to socialism] was complete,” he wrote, after reading the four volumes of the Selected Works of Mao Zedong. “Mao and [the revolutionary philosopher Frantz] Fanon and Guevara all saw clearly that the people had been stripped of their birthright and their dignity, not by a philosophy or mere words, but at gunpoint,” Newton wrote in his memoir. “They had suffered a holdup by gangsters, and rape; for them, the only way to win freedom was to meet force with force.”

Newton shared with his classmate Bobby Seale a dissatisfaction with the many groups they dabbled in during college: from the Marxist-Leninist group the Progressive Labor Party to the black solidarity group the Afro-American Association to the civil-rights focused NAACP, and the socialist black-nationalist group the Revolutionary Action Movement. They felt the need for something that would engage “the brothers on the block,” as Newton put it—poor people who had not gone to college. They settled on the gun; they would “patrol the police”: when they saw police questioning someone, they would hover nearby, carrying shotguns and often reading loudly from law textbooks, promoting the right to arm oneself against the oppressor.

To expand, they needed more guns. To get guns, they needed money. One way they raised money was selling copies of the infamous Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, popularly known in English as the “Little Red Book,” a ubiquitous talisman in Cultural Revolution-era China. Just within a few months after founding the Black Panthers, Newton and Seale went to the China Book Store in San Francisco, bought roughly a hundred or so copies of the book for 20 cents each, and sold them for a dollar apiece on the Berkeley campus, according to Seale in the 1990 documentary Berkeley in the Sixties. With the earnings, they bought more books, and eventually, more shotguns.

While guns were the Panthers’ marketing tool, they also aimed to educate, which they did by publishing a newspaper, distributing a “Pocket Lawyer of Legal First Aid” that Newton had written, and spreading the word of Mao. Seattle chapter captain Aaron Dixon recalled studying Mao’s sayings upon joining the Panthers, at age 19 in 1968. In his 2012 memoir, My People Are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain, he recounts flying to Oakland and going to Seale’s apartment, where Seale asks, “You got a Red Book? … Here, take this one. We study Mao’s Red Book. It gives us our ideology and revolutionary principles. We study this every day.” Another comrade named Matilabah comes over, and thus commences Dixon’s very first study session: “We sat down and Matilabah began to read aloud [from the Red Book]: ‘The revolutionary war is a war of the masses. It can be waged only by mobilizing the masses and relying on them.’”

In the late 1960s, the Panthers, inspired by Mao’s call to “Serve the People,” began to carry out social programs in poor communities, including free health clinics, ambulance services, legal counsel, and prison busing. By the end of 1969, the Panthers were serving free breakfast daily to 20,000 children in 19 cities. In 1972, they handed out 10,000 free bags of groceries, with “a chicken in every bag,” at an auditorium in Oakland. Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover referred to them as “serve the people programs,” in a 1969 directive to eradicate them, and complained that they portrayed the Panthers in a “favorable light,” and promoted “tacit support ... among naïve individuals.”

The programs indeed made the Panthers—and Mao—more popular, especially in black communities. “In Harlem in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed as though everyone had a copy of … the ‘little red book,’” historians Robin D. G. Kelley and Betsy Esche, wrote in a 1999 article for the Columbia University journal Souls, entitled “Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution.” Occasionally, they wrote, “supporters of the Black Panther Party would be seen selling the little red book on street corners as a fund-raiser for the party. And it was not unheard of to see some young black radical strolling down the street dressed like a Chinese peasant—except for the Afro and sunglasses, of course.”

Maoism appealed to black radicals because it made Marxism, which otherwise seemed like something for the white New Left, applicable to people of color.

Maoism appealed to black radicals because it made Marxism, which otherwise seemed like something for the white New Left, applicable to people of color, argue the authors. Many black leftists viewed themselves as a sort of colonized Third World within white America, a feeling heightened by the segregation and racism many black soldiers experienced while fighting in the Vietnam War. “China offered black radicals a ‘colored,’ or Third World, Marxist model that enabled them to challenge a white and Western vision of class struggle—a model they shaped and reshaped to suit their own cultural and political realities,” wrote Kelley and Esche.

Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information for the Panthers, said as much in a 1968 pamphlet. “With the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948 and the People’s Republic of China in 1949, something new was interjected into Marxism-Leninism, and it ceased to be just a narrow, exclusively European phenomenon,” wrote Cleaver. “Comrade Kim Il Sung and Comrade Mao Tse-Tung applied the classical principles of Marxism-Leninism to the conditions of their own countries and thereby made the ideology into something useful for their people.” The Panthers, too, took what was useful from the Communists, applied it to the black struggle, and discarded the rest.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Chairman Mao and W. E. B. Du Bois meet in China, May 1959.

It also helped that Mao made direct appeals to African-Americans. In 1959, the preeminent Civil Rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP W. E. B. Du Bois spent his 91st birthday in Beijing. “Come to China, Africa, and look around,” Du Bois said in a speech broadcast in Beijing. “China is colored, and knows to what the colored skin in this modern world subjects its owner.” And three weeks before the August 1963 March on Washington, Mao said in a statement, “The evil system of colonialism and imperialism arose and throve with the enslavement of Negroes and the trade in Negroes, and it will surely come to its end with the complete emancipation of the black people.” And in April 1968, in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Mao again underscored a connection between African-Americans and people everywhere fighting “US imperialism” and the “monopoly capitalist class.” He declared, “On behalf of the Chinese people, I hereby express resolute support for the just struggle of the Black people in the United States.”

In September 1971, Newton traveled, with his fellow comrades Elaine Brown and Robert Bay, to mainland China (via Canada, Tokyo, and Hong Kong). They met with Premier Zhou Enlai and Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, attended a reception in the massive ceremonial building the Great Hall of the People, and toured factories, schools, and communes across the country.

The Panthers were, of course, presented a highly curated vision of China. The country was in the throes of the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Paramilitary students, known as Red Guards, had over the last five years denounced, tortured, and killed millions of people. China was a failed state—“all is chaos under heaven,” as Mao boasted. The Panthers saw none of this. “It was an amazing experience to see in practice a revolution that is going forward at such a rapid rate. To see a classless society in operation is unforgettable,” Newton recounted in his memoir.

The 1971 trip was not Brown’s first visit to China. In her 1992 memoir, A Taste of Power, Brown describes experiencing, in a 1970 trip to Beijing with Cleaver, “the enthusiasm of the Chinese people.”

Old and young would spontaneously give emotional testimonies, like Baptist converts, to the glories of socialism. There was a refrain, it seemed:

If it hadn’t been for Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, I would never have lived in a house of brick…

If it hadn’t been for Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, I never would have eaten meat and vegetables, or educated myself and my children, or had running water, or medical care…

They affirmed that, but for the revolution, they would not have had the possibility of a decent life.

Cleaver had been living in exile in Algeria, planning to internationalize the Panthers, and growing increasingly militant. Five months after Brown and Cleaver’s trip, Newton and Cleaver argued about their political differences during a TV taping, and Newton expelled Cleaver from the Panthers. He felt that the Panthers should “deemphasize the gun and emphasize the social programs, to widen the people’s horizon,” as Brown quoted Newton saying in her memoir. This, too, was inspired partly by Mao.

“We have to make these comrades understand … that, intrinsically, the gun is not necessarily revolutionary. The fascists have guns. It’s the motivation behind the gun that determines the validity of its use,” Brown quoted Newton as saying. “Of course, Mao said, ‘In order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.’ And we believe that. But we have to emphasize that the idea is to get rid of the gun.”

The Panthers took another unexpected turn in 1973 when it entered establishment politics. Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, and Brown for City Council. (Both lost.) The inspiration for this move, said Brown in her memoir, was China’s entrance into the United Nations, an announcement which had disappointed hardcore leftists in the United States. Brown responded in her memoir, “China’s recent entrance into the U.N. was neither contradictory to China’s goal of toppling U.S. imperialism nor an abnegation of revolutionary principles. It was a tactic of socialist revolution.” Similarly, the Panthers argued that their entrance into mainstream politics was revolutionary as well.

Like Mao’s revolution, the Panthers succumbed to factionalism, dissolution, and many bad decisions. Their legacy is mixed: Cleaver’s 1971 expulsion prompted nearly the entire New York chapter, and many others, to leave the party, and kicked off a war between pro-Newton vs. -Cleaver factions that ended with four people dead. Newton became addicted to crack cocaine, and grew increasingly volatile, even expelling Seale during a drug-fueled rage in 1974.The same year, Newton was accused of murder and fled to Cuba for three years. In 1969, Hoover declared the Panthers the “greatest threat to internal security” in the United States. Over the following several years, the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program, which aimed to discredit leftist groups, successfully tarnished the Panthers’ reputation by planting false media stories about the Panthers, forging correspondence between the members, and enmeshing them in protracted legal battles.

By the late 1970s, most Panthers had left or been expelled, and by the mid-80s, the Panthers were no more. Nonetheless, many former Panthers remain committed to political activism. Brown ran for the 2008 Green Party presidential nomination, and Dixon ran for U.S. Senate under the Washington State Green Party in 2006. Cleaver renounced his revolutionary past and became a Republican: he ran several times for local political office in California, before dying in 1998. (All three ran unsuccessfully.)

Given what the world now knows about the horrors of the Mao years, it’s hard to imagine young progressives today looking to the Chinese Communist Party for inspiration. Just try to picture Black Lives Matter activists, say, quoting the words of President Xi Jinping.

Mao died in 1976, and by the end of the decade, the outside world finally began to learn the full horror of what had happened during the Cultural Revolution. Newton, determined to die “heavier than Mount Tai,” did not get his wish: he was shot and killed in a drug-related dispute in August 1989—two months after the massacre on Tiananmen Square.

Nevertheless, it all could have ended differently. In his memoir, Newton wrote that during his 1971 visit, Beijing had offered him political asylum. He was out of prison on bail for his 1967 police-killing charge, and was due to face a third trial when he returned. “But,” he wrote, “I told them I had to return, that my struggle is in the United States of America.”