Union-Tribune Finally “Finds” San Diego’s Black Panthers
By Frank Gormlie / OB Rag
In a very decent February 28 article about San Diego’s Black Panthers penned by Peter Rowe of the San Diego U-T, some of the city’s turbulent civil rights and Black power movement history from the Sixties and Seventies was uncovered.
First, it’s amazing to some San Diegans, including Rowe, that San Diego even had a Black Panther chapter back in the day. And that’s a credit that the San Diego Union and Tribune themselves can claim, for the coverage of local Panthers and the civil rights movement in general was skewed due to the right-wing – and yes, racist – policies and bias of its owners and editors. Think the Copley family, who ran the city’s only pair of dailies for decades.
But now thanks to Rowe, some of this history has been dusted off and bared for all to read. Much of the article recounts the experiences of one Henry Lee Wallace, now 64 and still in San Diego, but back then, a member of the local Panthers.
Wallace told Rowe, that:
“San Diego has never wanted to recognize its history within the civil rights movement, especially the Black Panthers.”
In an accompanying article, Rowe tells how the reporter found out about surviving members of the local Panthers by a fluke, when a U-T photographer met Wallace, who is now a musician and bus-driver, in an unrelated story. Fortunately for us, Rowe followed it up, and interviewed the former chapter member.
Much like the current Black Lives Matter movement, fifty years ago, the Black Panther Party demanded an end to discrimination against African-Americans and wanted a crackdown on abusive police.
And Rowe adds, that the Panthers still have survived “as a potent symbol”.
There are echoes in pop culture: During the Super Bowl halftime show, Beyoncé performed with dancers in Panther-style berets and leather coats. On the street: The “Black Lives Matter” movement revives a key part of the Panthers’ agenda, arguing that law enforcement still violently targets African-Americans.
Even on television: Public Broadcasting recently aired a new documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.”
Plus, we find out that Wallace and other local former Panthers are assisting a filmmaker, Cheryl Morrow, in making a documentary, “American Patriots: The San Diego Chapter of the Black Panthers,” which is planned for completion this month.
Wallace joined the Panthers in the late Sixties, along with his stepfather and mother and siblings, having been recruited by its leader, Kenny Denmon, whom Rowe calls “a fiery San Diego State University student enlisted by the Panthers’ national spokesman, Eldridge Cleaver.”
Rowe was surprised to learn that the Panthers, despite their militant image,
… had an ambitious social program. They started schools, supplied groceries to seniors and operated a free breakfast program that, at its height, fed 20,000 children a day (nationally).
In San Diego, the Panthers served breakfasts in the parish hall of Christ the King church, at first, then moved the program to a quieter area. They also began what they called “freedom schools”for Black kids and tried to instill pride and self-worth into the children. Rowe found that many in the Southeast neighborhood –
… still applaud the Panthers, citing the free breakfasts, the baskets of groceries, the willingness to campaign for black political candidates and to oppose police brutality.
So, what happened to the Black Panthers of San Diego?
Rowe racks it all up to “internal schisms and external pressure” – that the local Panthers disagreed with another local Black nationalist group, and had shoot-outs with them, and 2 local Panthers were killed. Plus the FBI claimed credit for forcing the chapter to be defunct.
But what Rowe misses is the emphasis of history. And it’s this:
Local San Diego police – and the FBI – literally drove the Black Panthers underground. With daily harassment, arrests, jailings of its members, city cops did their best to ensure that local members couldn’t walk children across the street or drive across the city without being stopped by San Diego police. If a cop saw a Black Panther bumpersticker on a car, that car would be stopped and its occupants probably arrested.
No one outside the Panthers knew this better than local attorney Charles “Ted” Bumer, who took on their many cases, usually pro bono, and tried to defend them from a law enforcement and criminal justice system that was out and out racist.
Local legal worker Kathy Gilberd used to work for Ted Bumer after he helped the Panthers, but he shared some of his experiences with her. “Ted used to tell me some of the stories when he worked with the Panthers doing draft counseling in the Black community,” she said. Bumer was the movement lawyer for San Diego.
From the local gendarmes to the FBI’s COINTELPRO Program, the Panthers were forced out of San Diego, at least, from being public. Nationally, cops were involved in numerous shoot-outs with Panthers, such as in Chicago and Los Angeles. Panther leaders were assassinated by police in some cities.
But here in San Diego, chapter members had to refrain from doing things publicly and openly. Partially because there’s never been a large African-American community in San Diego, local Panthers could not draw upon the support that larger cities provided.
In retrospect, though, it became evident that much of this violence was incited by the FBI. Under then-director J. Edgar Hoover, a counter-intelligence program dubbed COINTELPRO worked to discredit many “hate groups,” with the Panthers leading the list.
Congressional investigations into COINTELPRO revealed that the FBI tried to stir up hostility between the Panthers and US, a black power group embracing a pan-African philosophy. During a January 1969 skirmish on the UCLA campus, two Panthers were shot to death by US members.
Later, three more members of the different Black groups were gunned down in this FBI-fueled rivalry.
In the end, as Rowe recounts, the FBI took credit.
“San Diego has aggressively pursued a policy of disrupting and neutralizing the local chapter of the BPP in San Diego through Bureau-approved counterintelligence maneuvers,” an agency memo reported in March 1969. The memo added, “it appears that Special Agent personnel may merit some sort of recognition.”
It is now very clear that the local San Diego Black Panthers didn’t just fall victim to “rivalries” with other groups and from “internal schisms” (they had them), but were consciously and intentionally driven from sight by law enforcement, the local cops and the FBI.
And with the handmaiden work by the local establishment press, the twins San Diego Union and Evening Tribune, no one knew what was really going on. It’s fairly recognized now that the earlier renditions of our current monopoly daily were publications that gave San Diego the nickname of “Little Mississippi” – understood all too well by the African-American community.
At least now, Peter Rowe has taken it upon himself to tell some of this story. We certainly applaud his efforts, but need to remind him of the true reasons San Diego lost their Black Panthers. How do I know? I was there – I was part of the support base for the Panthers in the San Diego white community, as were many others, particularly those who began San Diego’s alternative press, the San Diego Free Press, the San Diego Street Journal, and the original OB People’s Rag – forerunners of the blog and website you are now reading.