The Black Panthers are well-known for their fight against racist oppression in America, but the importance of their work was not limited to the US. Their commitment to equality for black lives inspired black people around the world to stand up for their rights, including here in the UK.
With that in mind you’d expect that an influential documentary on the Black Panthers would have had some media attention. Strangely enough, though, it’s gone completely un-promoted, so let me make the case.
You might think the Black Panthers are outdated, or just an American answer to an American problem. But consider black victims of police brutality, the barriers faced by black academics and the lack of provision for high rates of mental illness in black communities in the UK today. We are organising now, as we always have, but we need to engage with our history.
Suffering from the aftermath of slavery, black women and men had little to no chance of bettering their lives in the Caribbean Islands. Women were restricted to domestic work, with the majority being cleaners and maids, whilst men were rarely promoted to any field outside their historical slave jobs. These jobs did not pay well and hardly covered the basic needs of a family. With no money to spare, education was out of reach for most.
In the Caribbean Islands black people may have been ‘free’ on paper, but the psychological and physical conditions of slavery remained present. With little hope of change at home labourers started to look abroad for opportunities to improve their quality of life.
After the Second World War Britain’s labour force was significantly reduced. To tackle this the government started a major recruitment drive targeting Caribbean women and men, promising new recruits better jobs and more money. Ready to work hard and to reap the rewards that they were promised, many left their homes, families and friends to work in the UK.
Upon arrival, though, migrants were greeted by a society saturated with racism, not opportunity. And so black communities started to organise and resist.
Darcus Howe, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Olive Morris, influenced by the Black Panther Party, formed the British Black Panther movement. Although never officially a branch of the US Black Panthers, they adopted their attire (minus the guns) and practices. They fought for the same principles, including equal rights in housing, employment and education. They embraced and internalised their own African heritage and formed strong public identities by wearing Afros and African clothing. They taught black history to their members and campaigned for better schooling for black children.
Since Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, which saw the singer celebrate African American political resistance, the Black Panthers have been catapulted back into our minds in their 50th year since their founding in 1966. However, media coverage has, as is always the case for black political movements, lacked nuance. The Panthers’ ten-point programme included equality in housing, employment, education and civil rights and one of their most accomplished achievements was the ‘free breakfast for children programme’.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, a documentary written and directed by Stanley Nelson, was originally aired in the US on 16 February, trending on Twitter for more than five hours. Reviews have been outstanding so I was delighted to know that it will be shown on BBC4 on 21 February at 9pm. This is just the counterpoint we need to learn more about a political movement that has been so important for black Britons.
We need action now and there’s plenty to be learned from our forebears.
If you would like more information about the documentary visit TheBlackPanthers.com
Photos: Neil Kenlock: The Amazing Lost Legacy of the British Black Panthers
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Amber Fletcher is a writer and researcher interested in the different facets of Black history and current affairs. Her newly launched blog, thebookbowl.com offers her readers, on a monthly basis, reviews and summaries of some of the most influential books written by Black authors across the world. You can also find her on Twitter @thebookbowl
This article was edited by Henna Butt
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