Ron Radosh

The Black Panthers Remembered

Peter Collier and David Horowitz called their book about the 1960’s The Destructive Generation.  Of all those they wrote about, none were considered at the time as more heroic and worthy of emulation than The Black Panther Party, that gang of African-American thugs who hid their murderous activity under the rubric of Marxist-Leninist politics.

To those of us who were 60’s activists, the Panthers were everything we white boys were not—truly committed to “the revolution;” willing to risk their lives in armed struggle against the ruling class; romantic heroes who actually walked the walk and whose lives lived up to their militant rhetoric.

These thoughts came back to me when I read the obituary in today’s papers about the death of Warren Kimbro, a former Black Panther Party member.  Kimbro, who was once a killer for the Panthers, from this account, tried hard to make up for his past life. Given orders most likely by Panther leader Bobby Seale, Kimbro murdered Alex Rackley, a Panther whom the members suspected of being a police informer.  Before killing 24 year old Rackley,  the New Haven, Connecticut branch of the Panthers held him in an apartment for three days, during which time they tortured him brutally. Finally, they drove him to a nearby swamp, where Kimbro shot him through the head. It was a typical gangland killing, justified in their minds as a political act against a would-be informer.

As  Rackley was being tortured in the Panther apartment, their national leader Bobby Seale arrived to give a fiery speech at the Yale campus. When he was later arrested and charged with ordering Rackley’s execution, the white New Left sprung into action. Students on campus and others were bussed in from New York City and surrounding areas to hold rallies on Seale’s behalf. Soon radical Yale students proclaimed a student strike. Even Yale’s President Kingman Brewster came to Seale’s defense—famously stating that he was “skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.”

Seale would get off in a hung jury. As for the killer Kimbro, he testified for the prosecution, and claimed that Seale had been at the apartment while Rackley was tortured, although he could not say for sure that Seale gave the execution order. Kimbro served time for the murder, and because he was a prosecution witness, was sentenced to twenty years to life in prison and eventually released on parole. Later Kimbro enrolled at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and became a dean at a Connecticut state university.

While Kimbro repudiated his violent past and led a meaningful life, others of his generation still venerate the Panthers and persist in trying to keep their myth as black heroes alive. Every year or so a new book comes out heralding them, a movie or TV film is made glorifying them as civil rights era fighters for justice, and many academic conferences and panels are held studying them and trying to fit them into our recent history as models of the hidden history of the oppressed.

But when a memory suddenly appears, as it did to mark Kimbro’s passing, it serves us well to look back honestly and accurately at what so many of the New Left believed.  Hopefully, today’s would-be radical students will learn the truth about groups like the Panthers and resist glorifying them.