Fifty-one years ago this week the Black Panther Party was formed in Oakland California by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The Panthers have experienced a new appreciation in recent years, with numerous articles, books, and documentaries praising their activism in the late sixties and early seventies.
The Black Panthers were a radical resistance movement that opposed police oppression and economic exploitation in Black communities. Where the civil rights era’s leaders came primarily from church pulpits, the leaders of the Black Panthers came from the streets.
Often misunderstood, and miscast as thugs with guns by their detractors, the Black Panther Party was an important political movement in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s.
After years of making slow, incremental gains during the civil rights movement, Black activists like Stokely Carmichael began calling for “Black Power.” Charismatic Panthers like Eldredge Cleaver helped to funnel the energy of the Black Power movement into the Black Panther Party. After the Panthers marched on the California state assembly in 1966, with guns loaded Black Panther chapters sprung up all over the country.
The Black Panthers were more than just young Black men with guns. They were men and women of action, who monitored the police in Black neighborhoods and ensured that they didn’t harass the community (to the degree that they could).
They called for a revolution of the capitalist system. Their 10-Point Program was very appealing to activists who were disillusioned with working within the system.
One such young activist was Larry Little. Little was a high school basketball standout, who was transformed into a political animal after reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Little over a short period of time established himself as the leader of Winston’s Black Panther Party chapter.
Larry Little and his fellow Panthers gave themselves heart and soul to the party. They stepped in one more than one occasion when Black people were evicted from their homes by slumlords. They operated a free breakfast program, food and clothing giveaways, and a free ambulance service.
The Joseph Waddell People’s Free Ambulance Service was the only service of its kind in the country operated by the Black Panthers. It was in reaction to a number of Black residents of East Winston dying while waiting for white ambulance services to arrive. It operated for 2 years, before it shut down, due in part to the hostility of local authorities in Forsyth County.
It’s an example of the dedication that the Winston-Salem Black Panther Party chapter exhibited. They went to Surry Community College and got training. With a large grant, they purchased an ambulance and served East Winston. In fact, while the national Black Panther Party in Oakland was falling apart, the Winston-Salem chapter was hitting its stride.
But the concerted efforts of the FBI and local law enforcement ultimately destroyed the national Black Panther Party in Oakland and local chapters across the county, such as the Winston-Salem Black Panther Party chapter. Cointellpro was a sophisticated FBI program that worked to divide the Black Panthers and alienate them from their supporters in the Black Community.
The Winston-Salem Black Panther Party survived on shoestring budget. Due to police harassment, they were evicted from numerous houses and apartments. They were framed by the WSPD for a theft they didn’t commit. Their headquarters was even shot-up by the WSPD.
All of this eventually wore down the WSBPP. They couldn’t be in the streets organizing and fighting for change when the police were dragging them into court on a regular basis?
When the Winston-Salem Black Panther Party disbanded in the early Seventies they went on to fight for justice and equality in Winston. Larry Little, perhaps the greatest activist that the city has ever produced, won a seat on the city council. Later went back to school and got his law degree and became a professor at Winston-Salem State. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was the driving force behind the community’s efforts to free Darryl Hunt.
Later Nelson Malloy succeeded Larry Little on the city council. For years Winston’s North Ward was known as the Panther’s ward. Fellow Panther Hazel Mack went on to lead the city’s legal aid chapter. Members of the WSBPP served Winston-Salem for decades after their chapter officially disbanded.
Like the activists of Local 22 a generation before them, they were the conscious of the city. And like Local 22, the entire weight of the city’s resources were mobilized to suppress them.
Today there are two historical markers in Winston honoring Local 22 and one marker honoring the Black Panther Party. If Winston’s capitalist class would have worked with Local 22’s organizers in the 1940s then there is a very good chance that there wouldn’t have been a Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s.
If leaders in Winston had worked with Local 22 or the Winston-Salem Black Panther Party decades ago, no doubt Winston would be a more equal, less segregated city today. Today we look back and remember Larry Little and the other members of the Winston-Salem Black Panther Party who have worked for years to fight racism, inequality, and injustice in Winston.