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The Panther Walk

A Black Panther Party member peers from behind a door riddled with bullet holes next to a poster advertising the Panther’s free breakfast program for children.

By Steven Malik Shelton
Specail to The Michigan Citizen

While driving west along Davison on Detroit’s west side, I notice the supermarket that I and other Panthers used as a source of food and monetary contributions for the Free Breakfast for Children Program.

I pull the car into the lot, park it and walk south toward Indiandale street. It is late afternoon and sunny, but the ghetto streets and dilapidated houses seem to hold little of the hope and promise they had 30 years before when I treaded this same area with revolutionary fervor.

I’m surprised to find that the house on Indiandale is still standing, like a stubborn relic of a smoldering past. A two-story edifice with a basement and second floor patio, the house had functioned as the office of the Detroit chapter of the Black Panther Party and its organizing arm, the National Committee to Combat Fascism (NCCF)

The sign that had identified it as such is gone, and I sweep my vision over the small plot of land in the front yard for any indication that it had once stood there. A patch of disturbed earth, a piece of wood protruding from beneath shallow ground, even old bullet markings: but there is nothing, only a distant yearning in the recesses of my mind.

The house seems vacant, although tattered curtains cover the windows. The porch is as I remembered it, large and wooden and spanning the entire width of the building. I recall that just beyond the sockets of the windows there had been hundreds of sand bags strategically placed to neutralize police bullets. They served that function well that day in 1970 when police agencies surrounded the house and perforated it with shells from side arms, rifles, and Commando Police Vehicles. And as I remembered the historical injustices that had created the climate for the growth of the Panthers in Detroit and throughout America, I realize that many of these conditions still decimate us as people today.

According to the Federal Department of Health and Human Services, Black people represent approximately 15 percent of the US population, but comprise at least 40 percent of the nation’s homeless population. Twenty-five years ago, a Black child’s mother was three times as likely to die of complications during child birth as a White mother. Today she is 3 and a half times as likely to die during childbirth. And in 1978, four times as many Black families lived with incomes below the poverty level; today both statistics remain unchanged.

Founded in Oakland California, by the late 1960’s the Panthers had established branches and chapters throughout Detroit, and the midwest. Maligned in the media as criminal violent and racist, the Panthers exemplified to many urban Blacks qualities of bravery and compassion. And in marked contrast to their portrayal as gun toting fanatics, the Panthers provided many humanitarian services for the poor. Some of them were child development centers, disabled persons services, free health clinics and free clothing programs.

Starting in 1969, the Detroit Panthers began to increasingly be associated with violence and provocative rhetoric. And with the absorption of new recruits (many of which did not understand or share the original vision) the organization began to go off course, and to be attacked from both within and from outside itself. This was expedited through the F.B.I.’s Counter Insurgency Program (COINTELPRO) which used illegal tactics including frame-ups and murder to destroy the organization. Yet in many ways the Black Panther Party was successful. The impact it had served to heighten the awareness of oppressed people while galvanizing them to speak out and stand up against tyranny and exploitation.

It is almost dark now, and the Detroit sky has slowly transformed into indigo splendor. I turn away from the house on Indiandale and head back toward the supermarket and my car.

It is an unusually warm Spring evening and I notice that there are not many youngsters out and about. Perhaps a part of me longs to see someone with that same spark of fire and fervor in his eyes which would remind me of my former comrades; would even, perchance, remind me of myself when I agitated for change decades earlier. Although I was only 15, I was not so naive that I did not realize that there was imprisonment, torment, and death threaded within the majesty and nobility of our goals. The beauty of it was that we were not afraid to face it and to risk it.

I approach the main thoroughfare and turn to look at the house on Indiandale one last time, as if to etch what it meant to me (and many others) indelibly into my heart. Then, like a Panther, I pivot on my toes, walk lightly up West Davison Avenue, and merge with the anonymity of the night.

Steven Malik Shelton is a journalist and human rights advocate. He can be reached at: stevmalikshelton@comcast.net

 

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