Beyonce’s Performance At The Super Bowl

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I didn’t want to let Black History Month pass without weighing in on a controversy that has become part history, part current events. I’m talking about the fallout from Beyonce’s performance at the Super Bowl.




The pop singer performed “Formation,” a song that paid tribute to the Black Panthers. Since then, she has come under heavy criticism from conservatives for portraying what they say was a violent, hateful group in a positive way. Some police organizations – recalling the Black Panthers’ armed confrontations with police that resulted in the death of officers – have pledged to boycott Beyonce’s performances.

The purpose of Black History Month is to highlight black achievements, but I think we can use the month to provide some needed historical context.

The first image that comes to mind when I think of the Black Panthers is that iconic photo of Huey Newton, sitting in a wicker chair with a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other. So, yes, the Black Panthers did present a menacing image.

But remember (or realize for the first time, if you didn’t already know), that the Black Panthers, formed in 1966 in response to police brutality against African Americans in Oakland, CA. In fact, the original name of the organization was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

The raison-detre of the Black Panthers was to help the black community. Early on, they started a variety of community social programs, such as a free breakfast for children program and community health clinics. If you google images of the Panthers, you will find plenty of photos of beret-clad militants doing nothing more menacing than passing out food to children.

But the reaction to the sight of armed black men, dressed in black, walking around the ‘hood with guns was about what you’d expect: the white power structure lost its collective mind. One of the first reactions occurred in 1967 when the California Legislature passed the Mulford Act. That act repealed a law allowing the public carrying of loaded firearms. In essence, the Legislature criminalized a legitimate group.

J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation Director who would become notorious for an “ends justifies the means” approach to law enforcement, quickly branded the Black Panthers a threat to national security and began a campaign of investigation, surveillance, and harassment against them. Hoover’s infamous COINTELPRO program, later investigations would show, attempted to neutralize and stigmatize the Black Panthers with a campaign that included provocation and spreading disinformation in an attempt to foster dissension and violence.

Hoover also used these tactics on Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., lest there be any doubt that his ruthlessness was reserved only for bad apples.

The party did become involved in several violent confrontations with police. But there were casualties on both sides. Even back then before all the FBI’s sleazy tactics were uncovered, there was a substantial sentiment that the Black Panthers were defending themselves against police harassment. Huey Newton’s prosecution for murdering a policeman resulted in three mistrials. A police raid in Chicago resulted in a $2 million settlement against the Chicago police by the family of Fred Hampton, a Black Panther Party official slain by police in the raid.

It is worth noting that Newton’s official title was “minister of defense,” an indication of the way the group saw itself. True, many people thought the group took the notion of self-defense too far with their advocacy of armed resistance to oppression of black Americans. Even some within the Black Panther Party felt that way – the group split along lines of how much of a role violence should play in the struggle.

In this split, the Black Panthers followed a dichotomy that has run throughout the civil rights movement – whether to pursue slow, patient progress or quick, confrontational progress. (Think of Rev. King vs. Malcolm X., and W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington.)

Indeed, the slowness of the patient wing of the movement in achieving an end to injustice and oppression for black Americans explains a lot about the rise of the Black Panthers. They were closer to the civil rights mainstream than many who do not know the historical context history would have us believe.

Paying tribute to the Black Panthers – to the good they did – is fine with me.

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Dan Holly
Dan Holly
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