Commentary Magazine

The Black Panthers

To the Editor:

Tom Milstein, in his perceptive article on the Panthers [“A Perspective on the Panthers,” September 1970], gives us a searching and persuasive analysis of the Black Panther party, but in doing so makes assumptions that will not stand the test of objective analysis. He contends that there is a strong affinity, or even some form of alliance, between the “business Establishment” and the extreme Negro nationalist groups, in which category he places the Panthers. While he indicates that he does not mean to imply that a “conspiracy” is involved in this relationship, he nevertheless proceeds to build a case for the existence of a plan that may be so interpreted.

I give but one illustration: in discussing Paul Feldman’s article on the Panthers which appeared in Dissent, Mr. Milstein states: “He [Feldman] of course had no way of anticipating that business would rush in to subsidize the nationalists together with their program as a means of setting the ghetto community, the ethnic minorities, and the labor movement at each others’ throats.” In this aim Mr. Milstein includes, in addition to the industrial corporations, the mass media (making special mention of the New York Times), and TV and radio. Mr. Milstein further asserts that the business hierarchy wanted to block the transition of the civil-rights movement from the legal stage to a stage which would lead to true economic equality. He contends that the alignment between business and the Panthers defeats this objective.

We should keep in mind, however, that the current nationalist movement among the black people in the United States is a misdirected outcome of the increased ethnic consciousness that expresses itself in group identity. This trend is discernible in practically all of our American ethnic groups. The Puerto Rican community with its Aspira program is a good example. In the case of the Negro, the emergence of the African nations has been an additional impetus. Self-help and mutual aid are by-products of this manifestation. A force is generated within the group in the direction of upward mobility on behalf of its members. There ensues a surefootedness from this cohesiveness that is gratifying and strengthening.

The term “Black Power” unfortunately has assumed a nefarious and confused connotation, both because of the manner in which Stokely Carmichael impulsively announced it in 1966 and the subsequent distortion of the true significance of the concept. But “Black Power” need not connote either violence or separateness. The term has been made into a slogan and in the process its meaning has been distorted. The basic meaning of “Black Power” is that the black community needs to achieve strength, largely by its own efforts, in the economic, educational, and social sectors. In the process of achieving these goals, the group may concentrate on “doing it alone” as a transitional process.

At about the time the required strength is achieved, integration may naturally take place on a plane of equality and not by means of supplication. Integration (not amalgamation) so achieved does not have to be forced. This has been the experience with all our ethnic groups.

To be sure, massive assistance in providing the necessary funds will be required for the black community from government and from other outside sources such as foundations, as well as through individual contributions from members of the group itself. However, the right of decision and the authority to shape policy should rest with the ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.

It is also conceivable that the so-called “business Establishment” is more receptive to an approach that savors of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps,” than to having the government undertake the entire responsibility. Would this not be in keeping with the adherence of business to the free enterprise system without there being the additional motivation of a planned effort to thwart the maturation of the civil-rights movement?

I am inclined to agree with Norman Podhoretz’s interpretation [“Revolutionary Suicide,” September 1970] that the Black Panther movement is an expression of the radical movement of the 60’s rather than the black movement of that period. This is likely so because there is a close affinity between the Panthers and the extreme radical Left groups among the whites, including the Communists. This affinity is an ideological one and cuts across racial lines.

The prominence given the activities of the Panthers by the mass media is simply due to the latter’s customary exploitation of sensationalism. The mass media seem to thrive on attention-getting potential which is just what the Panthers want. But I do not believe that there is any planned evil design on the part of the media, as Mr. Milstein seems to infer.

It is true that there is an inclination by the established groups to fear the rage of the dispossessed and hence, at times unwisely, to make concessions to avoid threatened destructive action. But this is far from being motivated by a design to “derail the civil-rights movement.”

John Slawson
Executive Vice-President Emeritus
The American Jewish Committee
New York City



To the Editor:

Tom Milstein’s article may serve as a necessary antidote to the tendency to brush aside Black Panther rhetoric while taking seriously their breakfast programs and assertions of organized persecution. Yet when all is done we may find, and not for the first time in history, that rhetoric was the important thing. When young toughs set out to off-the-pig in Philadelphia, Omaha, Berkeley, or wherever, they may or may not be enrolled Panthers, but it takes little imagination to see the source of their inspiration.

Mr. Milstein is straining more than a little, though, when he finds an alliance between the Panthers and a “conservative business Establishment” providing “financial and moral support for black nationalism” in order “to frighten solid majorities of Americans into the conservative camp” and thus preserve “an economic order which perpetuates its wealth and power.”

If officials of the Young People’s Socialist League need to think like that to make their case against the Panthers, I guess it’s OK with me. . . . Minds of a less exquisite order might also note the cast of his cabal, including the TV networks, the billion-dollar foundations, the mayor of New York, and college presidents. With reactionaries like these, who needs liberals, let alone liberal activists oriented to the intellectual?

Marxism is too cramped, it seems, to express Mr. Milstein’s eminently sound instinct: that the Panthers are significant not for what they tell us about the black community, but for what they tell us about the white community Scarcely anyone can be surprised that such a group should fester in the sores of discrimination and slums, but we are entitled to some surprise that it should enjoy the extraordinary cachet it has among those who suffer neither.

The source of this cachet is by far the most intriguing question raised by the Panthers. . . . Obviously, it stems at various levels from the killing of Panthers in the Chicago police raid, guilt at the historic mistreatment of blacks, the war, and other torments of the decade. For all that, one can sense that there are other ingredients still to be explained.

One important one, I’m starting to suspect, is a perverse interaction between the intellectual’s traditional alienation from middle-class society and his soaring status within that society during the 1960’s. The more he is accepted by society, as Richard Hofstadter pointed out as long ago as 1963, the more he must prove his independence by striking postures critical of it. And when the middle class itself grows bored with economic status-badges and starts to seek less material ones, it finds these postures easy and convenient to ape.

Robert I. Bartley
Brooklyn, New York



To the Editor:

I should like to protest against the wicked demagogy of Tom Milstein’s article. The prime example of this is his conclusion, analogizing an alleged Panther-Communist-party hook-up to Mafia terrorism. This is a sheer Birchite fantasy. Obviously the Panthers are one of many small ghetto groups, and obviously, too, if the police offensive against the Panthers continues, nobody but the Panthers themselves need have anything to fear. . . . Toward the beginning, Milstein talks about the “chiliastic impulse” of the Panthers. This is an inaccurate assessment. The BPP used to call itself the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and self-defense for ghetto blacks was a prime reason for its emphasis on getting guns. Let me state once and for all that such an attitude is understandable. Now of course that doesn’t mean that one should agree with this position. The point is, though, that in the area of guns, the Panthers are, if anything, harshly realistic Make of my next point what you will, but I must state that the Panthers anti-Semitism is a perverse expression of social injustice to blacks. Mr. Milstein’s piece is the latest in a long line of COMMENTARY articles which harp on anti-Semitism, but never really come to grips with this insight. . . .

Karl H. Nudelman
South Orange, New Jersey



To the Editor:

. . . Tom Milstein conjures up a picture of capitalists cackling in their boardrooms about how they have dished the social democrats by some judicious encouragement of black extremists.

To which one can only reply: First, not very much tangible aid flowed from the financial Establishment to the Panthers and their ilk. It was nothing in comparison to the publicity provided by the media (because the radicals make such good copy) and the endorsement bestowed by the intelligentsia (because they ply the lash so deliciously).

Second, to the small extent that business flirted with black nationalists, it was part of the same trend in which “concerned” citizens of all types—clergy, liberals, moral exhibitionists—rushed to do the same thing. As James Q. Wilson has described it, “Let’s go and find out what the poor people want so we can be for it.” And, of course, we must be sure to avoid those awful Uncle Toms and make straight for the true, the authentic voices of the ghetto.

It’s a puzzle what the patrons of extremism could have been thinking of, but we can be pretty sure that they couldn’t have had a thought about splitting the poor from the working class.

Charles Britton
Manhattan Beach, California



Tom Milstein writes:

Contrary to what some of my critics seem to think, i described the Panthers as an outgrowth of the black-nationalist movement not as a part of that movement, and 1 said that the Black Panther party was allied to various wings of world Communism, not to American business. The reason 1 quoted so extensively from Panther sources was to demonstrate that it would be impossible to slander the Panthers more cruelly than they slander themselves by their own writings and pronouncements. Mr. Nudelman rather crudely invokes the pathos of the Panthers in order to solicit political support for them. One wonders if fascist anti-Semitism, which was also at least partly “a perverse expression of social injustice,” would arouse Mr. Nuclei-man’s refined empathy to the degree that Panther anti-Semitism does.

As to the more serious question my critics raise regarding the relations between business and black nationalism (not, to repeat between business and the Black Panther party): what I was concerned to explain was the sudden burgeoning of black nationalism in 1965 when previously it had been confined to a few insignificant fringe groups and to the other-worldly, anti-political Muslims. I argued that the explanation for the spectacular growth of black nationalism lay in the confluence of interests which developed after the civil-rights phase of the Negro movement between the middle-class ideologues of Black Power and the business community. For obvious reasons, it is difficult to quantify the amount contributed by business to this alliance. Much of the largesse was distributed in the form of corporate or private “philanthropy,” which for some reason in this country enjoys an almost sacrosanct immunity from any public accountability.

What is really at stake, however, is not the amount of business beneficence but the degree to which business’ sudden discovery in the naid-60’s of the plight of the black man conditioned the emergence of black nationalism as a mass movement. The connection ought to be plain to anyone with eyes to see. Certainly it is plain enough to the black nationalists themselves, for whom business support has been indispensable: without it, they would have no foundation slush for their organizations; no career opportunities in the corporations would be open to “militant” young college graduates who selflessly decide to “give the system one last chance,” and quite probably there would not even be massive TV and newspaper coverage. (The theory that the mass-media build-up for Black Power was a product of its undiscriminating lust for the sensational fails to explain why men like Bayard Rustin, who regularly deliver themselves of truly sensational attacks on business and the rich, are systematically defined as “dull” by the media, while attacks on everyone else’s institutions are regarded by these same people as deliciously outrageous.)

Mr. Britton apparently believes that to suggest an alliance is to impute a conspiracy. Or perhaps he believes that business has no coherent economic and political interest, since to assert that it does is to “conjure up a picture of capitalists cackling in their boardrooms about how they have dished the social democrats.” I don’t know where or even whether capitalists cackle, but I do know that American business—like any other human social grouping and more than many—has some conception of Where its own interests lie as well as some idea of how best to pursue them.

Nevertheless, was it really a conspiracy to dish the social democrats and split the poor from the working class that produced the alliance between business and the nationalists? No, as I tried at some length to make clear in my article, it was not and there is no need to suggest that it was. I myself would accept Dr. Slawson’s gentle and tactful way of putting the case. I would add only that the thwarting of the civil-rights movement, the dishing of the social democrats, and the splitting of the poor from the working class were consequences of the alliance between business and black nationalism rather than the motives for its formation, but that these consequences were fully in keeping with business’ political interests and therefore served to reinforce the alliance once they became visible.

Finally, Mr. Bartley’s attribution of Panther-worship to the compulsive alienation of intellectuals as society grants them ever increasing status: alas, if only it were true. A really alienated intelligentsia might some day discover the American labor movement. But that is yet another story.


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